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Charles Krauthammer on International Fears of Unification (March 26, 1990)

The conservative American columnist Charles Krauthammer discusses the international anxiety about the restoration of a united Germany, especially in Poland and Israel. He downplays the military and economic criticisms, but emphasizes that a revival of nationalism would have disruptive consequences for European integration.

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The German Revival

Overnight and once again Germany has become a great power. Not for long will it continue to be intervened against. All that is left to negotiate at the coming “two plus four” talks on reunification is the mode of liquidating the Big Four’s half-century intervention in Germany. Beyond those negotiations lies the other half of the great power equation: In what ways and to what extent will Germany once again become an intervening power?

[ . . . ]

Anxiety about Germany is so pervasive and seems so self-explanatory that it often escapes analysis. What exactly is the nature of the German danger? The answer presents itself in three distinct parts: military, economic, and political. The first two have been widely advertised and widely exaggerated. The third, the subtle effect German reunification will have in the realm of geopolitical ideas and institutions, is apt to prove the most serious.


At the most concrete level, the fear of Germany has to do with borders. Much territory was stripped from Germany to punish it for starting World War II, and to diminish it as a hedge against World War III. With a reunified Germany dominating the continent, with Russia and America having gone home, who will stop Germany when it invokes a statute of limitations on World War II and demands restoration to its former, pre-Hitler self?

[ . . . ]

Europeans, with memories of the Wehrmacht crisscrossing the continent, fear for their borders. If that fear is paranoia, then we must count Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, most people in between, and much of Western Europe, too, as paranoid. Political philosopher Johnny Carson put it best. “The Berlin Wall is down,” he noted the day after the event. “That means that all Germans are now free to go wherever they want in Europe. Hey, wasn’t that the problem back in 1939?”

When the “two plus four” process is over and ratified by the thirty-five Helsinki countries* at the end of this year, Germany will no doubt be required as the price for reunification to pledge adherence in perpetuity to its current borders. Yet no one can be absolutely sure that Germany ten or twenty years from now will not dismiss this agreement as the relic of a weakness long passed, as it did the Versailles agreements in the 1930s.

At the root of this fear of German revanchism lies the German national character, or more precisely, the belief in a German national character. The fear is that left to themselves Germans will revert to Teutonic barbarism, that German romanticism – the peculiarly fevered romanticism of the worker bee – will again seek fateful expression in politics and history. Beside this fear, forty years of democracy, forty years of peaceful accommodation to neighbors – in short, forty years of history – count for little.

* The "Helsinki countries" are those states that signed the Helsinki Final Act on August 1, 1975. The talks in Helsinki were part of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was attended by almost all the European states as well as the U.S. and Canada. The Final Act discussed, among other issues, cooperation in humanitarian, economic, and scientific areas." – ed.

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