THE Nov. 27 New Yorker contained a startling sentence in its lead essay, dealing with the opening of the Berlin Wall. After commenting on one's obligation to remember the past, it said: ``... suddenly something changes, and you remember another obligation: to die and take your memory with you and let the young make their own life.'' Startling, because so many feel that Americans in particular do not know enough history, and that one does need to understand the past to know what policy choices are best for the future. However, that quote has stuck with me during these few weeks when we have been hearing so much about the prospects for German reunification, as well as voices questioning whether it would be a good thing.
Individuals do change, and whole nations also change, although more gradually. It is a mistake to saddle a nation, just as an individual, with a reputation based only on the past.
German history had an entirely different development from that of France or Britain. Instead of a thousand years of experience under kings who gradually built a strong central government, the German territory was part of the Holy Roman Empire until the time of Napoleon. When Bismarck came to power in the 1860s, there was widsespread support from German business leaders to catch up with the West. The economic catching-up happened, but there was no parallel development of strong democratic institutions. These had developed, after all, only through many periods of turmoil in France and Britain. There was an abrasiveness about this German catching-up that made the Allies, after 1918, feel justified in the punitive peace they imposed at Versailles.
Democracy did not become firmly established during the interwar period. The Weimar Republic had to cope with spreading economic turmoil. However, those who pride themselves on knowing this past history may err in not recognizing the degree to which the West Germans have developed a genuine democracy over the past 40 years. People who govern themselves and have achieved a sizable degree of economic well-being are not easily misled by demagogues.