Paris -- It seems strange that Germans are making such heavy weather of the economic problems of reunification. Those are the good problems, the constructive ones. The bad problems are elsewhere, and less easy to talk about.
That reunification would be expensive was obvious from the start. Chancellor Helmut Kohl made a bad economic decision when he exchanged Eastern for Western currencies at a one-to-one rate, although it was a profitable political decision, guaranteeing him success in the elections that followed reunification.
He had made the cost of reconstructing the East higher than it should be, however, and wiped out the one comparative economic advantage the former German Democratic Republic possessed, low labor costs. He is paying the political price now for telling German voters that reunification would cause them no pain. Der Spiegel's bi-monthly poll on political attitudes now shows that on a 1 to 5 scale, the government's approval rating is 1.3. The Christian Democrats are less popular than the %o opposition Social Democrats, but neither has more than 40 percent confidence.
The strikes of the past week have seen German workers demanding wage raises to meet the tax rises that are the price of reunification. A victory risks inflation and depressing the economy (and the other Western economies as well) since the Bundesbank will keep interest rates high. It is natural enough for German workers to dislike paying for reunification, but who did ,, they think would pay?
Nonetheless reconstruction is going forward. There is much construction activity in the East, remaking the public infrastructure. Service industries, particularly financial services, are developing rapidly, thanks to the well-educated East German labor pool. The social costs of unemployment in the East have been contained, although without the state's intervention the real rate of unemployment would probably be as high as one-third of the active work force.
It may take a generation before it is completely incorporated into the Western economy, but East Germany is on its way. The West Germans will get today's investment back, and more, as Germany becomes richer and stronger than ever. So why are they unhappy?
One is led to ask if their reaction of seeming ingratitude at unification, or even resentment that it took place, is not really a reaction against the political dimension of what has happened. Reunification revealed an East German moral catastrophe much worse than the tangible wreckage left behind by four decades of German socialism. And reconstruction on that plane is much harder than remaking the economy.
Reunification, for one thing, has released powerful xenophobic and racist sentiments in the East, bottled up for 40 years. Violently right-wing attitudes have been revealed, which to many East Germans seem legitimized by the fact that they are the antithesis of the hated left-wing doctrines and slogans imposed for four decades.
In recent months these attitudes have explosively combined with the anger already felt in western Germany over abuse of the Federal Republic's generous constitutional guarantees of political asylum to foreigners. The result is what the foreign press has treated as a rise in neo-Nazism. However, this is misleading. The results of the most recent regional elections show the far right still as no more significant a force in Germany than in most of the other Western democracies. It is a problem, but no larger a problem than elsewhere.
The real problem is that reunification has also revealed a near-total continuity between the East Germans' conduct under Nazism and under communism. This is not something people can easily face. Opening the East German secret police dossiers has revealed the East Germans' extensive betrayals of one another, their political obsequiousness and craven obedience to Communist authority, and their capacity for rationalizing such conduct.
The files show that in East Germany some 400,000 people -- at least -- were professionally or informally spying on the rest, and upon one another. That is 2.5 percent of the total population. And since both spies and the objects of this spying were concentrated in the politically aware and active classes of the population, those actually running the country, its economy, its schools and professions, the figure is more significant than it initially seems.
Nearly 6 million dossiers were found in the secret police archives, one for every second adult in the country. The situation was much worse than anywhere else in the Soviet bloc. The larger dramas have been widely reported: husbands who spied on wives, wives who spied on husbands, dissidents spying on other dissidents, pastors on other churchmen, eminent scientists, artists and scholars obediently reporting on their colleagues, doing it not only for private advantage but also because it was their "duty." People have spoken of a new "treason of the intellectuals."
Contingency plans existed to round up and place in camps up to 100,000 persons, identified as "reactionary church members," "representatives of marginal social groups," "applicants for exit visas," "negative-decadent youths," etc. The writer Amos Elon observes that English translation fails to convey the "chilling" depersonalized bureaucratic terminology of these descriptions in German. The list would have required little amendment to have served the Nazi SS for rounding up its internal enemies.
This continuity is the reason reunification has produced so stark a political shock upon the West German consciousness. There is a sense that reunification has unearthed something too terrible to contemplate. The West Germans believed that they had, themselves, come to terms with the German past, and indeed had put it past -- that all that was over, with the new Germany now part of a new Europe.
But here, now, spilling out of the archives, is evidence that it wasn't over at all. It was all still going on in East Germany right down to the final minutes before the Berlin Wall came down. This seems too awful to think about: but of course everyone has to think about it. That is the reason the West Germans today are behaving as if they are in shock.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.