Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Germany: Between Good and Evil

TOMORROW West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will address Harvard University's Class of 1990. What should the leader of Europe's most powerful, and soon-to-be largest, nation tell a group of 21-year-old Americans? He will certainly offer his geopolitical vision of Europe's future. It would also be an appropriate moment to ease world tensions about this newly emerging superpower. On this occasion, it might serve the chancellor well to recall the fate of a 20-year-old East German waiter named Chris Guffroy, who on Feb. 6, 1989, was shot to death by East German border guards. Mr. Guffroy was the last German to die trying to cross the border between the Germanys.

At the time, West Germans decried with justified but powerless rage Guffroy's death. A year later, on the anniversary of his death, the memory of Guffroy has vanished from public consciousness, swept away in the tide of recent upheavals, buried in deliberations on currency, union, and political reunification.

About these ads

But it might be well for Germans in general, and Mr. Kohl in particular, to pause and reflect on Chris Guffroy. West German (FRG) author Peter Schneider recently suggested the Berlin Wall was a ``powerful metaphor.'' A human life lost at the base of that wall in a failed vault for freedom is an equally powerful image.

The case of Chris Guffroy, like thousands of others who attempted successfully or unsuccessfully to cross the Wall, suggested to the world that the German people not only valued freedom but were willing to gamble their lives for it.

When the Wall came down last fall, the world, maybe for the first time this century, cheered the Germans. As those first scenes of Berliners dancing atop ``their Wall'' flashed on worldwide TV, the German people returned to the community of man, not just politically and economically - this they had already done - but in a deeper, bonding sense.

This sentiment was confirmed in opinion polls. About 78 percent of West Europeans polled favored a reunited Germany. Even in France, brutalized by Germany three times in less than a century, 80 percent stated they would welcome reunification.

But in recent months the enthusiasm has flagged. The world has again grown skeptical of the Germans. And for good reason. Kohl's hesitation to recognize the German-Polish border sent a troubling message to Europe.

Further, Europeans have watched with growing dismay as the deliberations on reunification have descended from the realm of moral declarations to that of the wallet and the ballot box. Since 1961, when East Berlin erected its ``wall of death,'' West Germans have spoken passionately and convincingly in defense of basic human rights. Their collective anguish over the fate of the 14 million Germans druben (``over there'') was palpable.

Recently, FRG sentiments have shifted. Concern for the welfare of East Germans has been replaced by worries about the continued strength of the FRG economy. In West Berlin, local residents, unsettled by the flood of visitors into their half of the city, now sport T-shirts proclaiming: I WANT MY WALL BACK!

About these ads

Also, Kohl's drive for reunification by December 1990, which assumed particular urgency following the CDU's strong showing in rhe recent East German (GDR) elections, seems a crass political maneuver to secure GDR participation in national elections.

A political miracle has given the Germans a historic chance to ``overcome'' their tainted past, to demonstrate to all that, as so many Germans insist, the Germans of 1990 are truly different from the Germans of 1933.

For decades, Bonn has underscored these moral claims with financial gestures. The FRG has compensated Holocaust victims with money; they have extended generous aid to developing nations; they are assisting in the reconstruction of Eastern Europe.

But are Germans investing in the future or simply paying off the past? Europeans don't want Germans to settle accounts with what was; they want guarantees for what will be. They want assurances that the German investment in Europe has a moral as well as a financial basis. Today, when economic strength is as powerful a foreign policy tool as military might, Germany's neighbors are starting to fear the financial juggernaut the way they once feared the Aryan "Ubermensch. Has the hard plate of panzers simply been replaced by the hard currency of the deutsch mark?

At this crucial juncture in history, the Germans have an opportunity to make these guarantees. The political leadership in Bonn could do this most dramatically by declaring explicitly and collectively the inviolability of the German-Polish border. Such an act would not only heal old wounds, it would add a moral dimension to current German financial investments in Poland and Eastern Europe. Such a declaration would be the clearest proof that 40 years of democratic rule in the FRG has eradicated the Teutonic instinct to dominate and conquer.

Let the memory of Chris Guffroy demonstrate how significant borders can be as symbols of unity and division. Let his example also suggest to the German people and the world that the German has been willing to pay with his life for freedom. Finally, let Chris Guffroy be recognized for what he was: the final victim in one of the most ironic tragedies of this century - German shooting German for 29 years.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.