By SUSAN MANUS
Theo Sommer, one of Germany's foremost authorities on international relations and strategic issues, spoke at the Library on Oct. 20 on "Current Perspectives on German Reunification: A Political and Economic Assessment."
Mr. Sommer has worked for the influential weekly Die Zeit for nearly four decades. The event was made possible by the support of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and was the latest in a series of lectures celebrating the opening of the Library's new European Reading Room in the newly refurbished Jefferson Building. Before a standing-room-only audience in the building's Southeast Pavilion, Dr. Billington highlighted some of Mr. Sommer's many accomplishments in international affairs. He thanked Margrit B. Krewson, the Library's German/Dutch area specialist for organizing the event and then introduced German Ambassador Juergen Chrobog, who introduced Mr. Sommer, whom he described as "one of the most influential shapers of opinion in postwar Germany."
Mr. Sommer was educated in Germany, Sweden and the United States. He is a widely published scholar of international affairs, and his work has earned several international honors such as the Theodore Wolff Award and the Columbus Award. He is a member of the Trilateral Commission, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the German Advisory Committee of the German Marshall Fund.
Outlining Germany's current status, Mr. Sommer said, First, "as a result of reunification, Germany has gained weight but lost strength." Although it has acquired the territory, population and economic resources of the former East Germany, the 7-year-old reunified nation will nonetheless be absorbed for the next 20 to 25 years by the process of integration, he said. Second, "Germany is the only country on Earth which is simultaneously beset by the problems of the West and the problems of the East" as it struggles to transform a communist-style economy while trying to compete in the age of globalization. And finally, "Reunification has dramatically changed Germany's standing in the world. It has turned out to be much more expensive than anybody had foreseen. ... Before reunification, Germany was a low-debt country, now it is a high-debt country." Its federal budget deficit grew from DM 19.2 billion ($33.2 billion) in 1989 to 70 billion ($121 billion) in 1997.
Mr. Sommer believes that "the Germans did not make unity happen; it happened to them. It was not the upshot of an operative West German policy." Three major factors made reunification possible: "liberal reform in the Soviet Union and Gorbachev's reluctance to use force when the existing order was challenged; upheaval in Eastern Europe; and, most of all, the determined impatience of the East Germans."
During the seven years since unification, the former East Germany has made measurable economic progress, thanks to assistance from its western counterpart. Wages have risen, housing conditions are improving, consumer goods and services are readily available, and where there were only 20,000 private businesses in the old East Germany, there are now a half-million. Despite these positive signs, however, "One cannot truthfully maintain that the East is really catching up. ... This is not due to the inadequacy of our efforts; it is due to the enormity of the task."
Among eastern Germany's most troubling economic problems, he said, is the 18.3 percent unemployment rate. Mr. Sommer noted that the problem with the financial aid package for the east was that "only one-third of the massive financial transfers went into investment. The remainder served as a "social mollifier," cushioning the shock of unemployment and boosting pensions, wages and salaries to 85 percent of the West German level."
In addition to unemployment, there is still what Mr. Sommer called " a sentimental gap" between the two halves of Germany. "The west Germans, paying through their noses for reunification, feel overtaxed." At the same time, "the east Germans paint quite a different picture. They see themselves as victims. ... In their view, privatization amounted more or less to an unfriendly takeover of their economy by West German capitalists."
Mr. Sommer argued that, "seven years after reunification, the Germans are one nation but two societies," whose populations have different consumer tastes and different collective memories. "Nobody in the east really wishes the old [East Germany] back, but many cherish nostalgic feelings about it. ... a yearning for the slow moving, modest, simple world of [East Germany] ... its circumscribed but comfortable niches, impervious to such cold gusts of change as shake the country now.
"One can hardly detect any more where the Wall and the Iron Curtain brutally separated East from West. But the 'wall in our heads' will be with us for a long time to come."
In spite of the current struggles "already islands of prosperity are taking shape in the east. ... A new middle class is bound to arise in the process. This in turn will change not only the sociological complexion of the east but also bring about conditions in which the growing together of Germany will be markedly eased and accelerated." But just as there was no "homogenized West Germany, Mr. Sommer said he does not expect a completely "homogenized" united Germany to emerge.