- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

After studying their language, history and literature for a quarter of a century it seemed I had finally figured out the Germans or, at least glimpsed a horizon of understanding.

The conclusion: Germans had an identity problem. Divided, defeated and guilt-ridden, many were not quite certain what was German, or even sure what was Germany, or just what it should be. That was in 1973, when the nation was still split into two states, capitalist and communist. Sour disputes lingered on over the vast once-German territories lost to the Poles, Russians, Czechs and even to the French after the crushing conquest of Hitler's Germany. My generation (1931) grew up with a view formed among others by Thomas Mann, who depicted his visceral response to "the Germanic in pure form'' during his American exile, saying, "the choleric-crude, the scolding, spitting, raving, the horribly robust connected to tender coziness, and the massive, superstitious belief in demons, evil spirits and monsters stirs my instinctive repulsion.''

We memorized the verses of Heinrich Heine, another German political exile, including the verse from one of his "Night Thoughts'' in 1843: "When I consider Germany at night. Then sleep for me takes flight." I ceased losing sleep over Germany many years ago. Returning again and again, however, I found the Germans still had an identity problem. Only, the problem was changing shape.

Toward the end of the 1980s, I thought the 60 million West Germans, solidly integrated in Western Europe and in the trans-Atlantic community, had almost completed their identity quest. Although they contributed billions in tax money without complaint to the sustenance of the German Democratic Republic, they seemed less interested in the destiny of their 16 million fellow Germans than in the Vietnamese. They were content with themselves.

The identity problem burst upon them anew with the swift and gigantic Wende (turn) toward unification in 1989. The Ossis (Ostdeutsche) overwhelmingly welcomed joining the Federal Republic. Yet when the cheers died down on both sides of the fallen barriers, they discovered they were largely unwelcome by the Wessies (Westdeutsche).

The latest configuration, I learned along with some young and old American journalists spending a few days in Berlin in mid-January, has to do with the European Union as much as with Germany itself. Not with the euro, for which the 76 million Germans swiftly exchanged their hitherto worshipped Deutschmark with scarcely a whimper, but with that strange, almost faceless authority in Brussels that is dictating more and more aspects of daily lives in the biggest EU country.

"To a certain extent, Germany still has to define its Europeanness,'' Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told us in a soft voice. Was he proud to be German? "I have no problem," Mr. Schroeder replied, "I am comfortable using this expression, but I don't, because it could be misunderstood.'' (His fellow Social Democrat, Willy Brandt, had dared to introduce the combination "proud" and "German'' in the final days of his last campaign, as federal chancellor, nearly 30 years before, authorizing a poster from which he smiled serenely with the caption: "Germans, we can be proud of our country.'')

President Johannes Rau also dwelt on the topic of identity in the exquisite Belvedere Palace, saying: "We are a people who have a broken relationship to the symbols of our nation.'' Mr. Rau went on to observe on a sad note that, despite unification of nation and state that commenced when the Berlin Wall collapsed, "there are East Berliners who have never been in West Berlin and West Berliners who have never been in East Berlin.''

In other ways evident nearly a dozen years after the Wall, the separation between East and West Germans lives on. In the western half there is so little interest in eastern Germany's 40 years under communist rule that university courses on this subject are largely unavailable. Perhaps this reflects a suspicion Konrad Adenauer, the quintessential Rhinelander, manifested as early as the 1920s and again in the 1950s when, crossing the Elbe River on the way to "heathen" Berlin, he sarcastically remarked, "here begins Siberia.''

In East Berlin, I sensed it on a cold, gloomy Sunday morning when some 100,000 marched to proletarian songs to the double-grave in Friedrichsfelde Cemetery to commemorate with red carnations the assassinations 83 years before of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the venerated socialist leaders. During the four decades of the communist GDR, attendance was obligatory. Now the old guard, hugely outnumbered by young people, marched voluntarily to demonstrate their different German identity all but ignored in Western Germany.

David Binder was a New York Times correspondent in Germany in 1961-1962, 1967-1973, and 1989-1990.

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