The German Question and the German Soul

(The spiritual vacuum at the heart of Europe cannot be filled by the search for prosperity. A reunited Germany will supply the inspiration for the newly-freed nations of Eastern Europe, but the nature of that inspiration remains shadowy.)

by Leon J. Podles


It is refreshing to hear talk of the German Question; that is, whether Germany should reunite. It has been years, decades, since the international scene was concerned with questions: the Danzig Question, the Bosnian Question, and the Alsace-Lorraine Question.


The rapid decay of Communism in Eastern Europe has given students of history an acute case of deja vu. The Communists had put a lid on history, and now that the pot is boiling over, all the old themes of history are returning: the rebellion against autocracy of 1848, the nationalist fervor that preceded and followed the breakup of the Habsburg empire, even the sentimental and romantic monarchism of the 1930s. King Michael of Romania has signaled his availability should things turn out favorably in his former realm.


Behind all the minor quarreling in Eastern Europe, however, loom the shadow of Germany and the memories of two bloodbaths. What will happen if Germany unites immediately? What will happen if its reunification is frustrated and the Germans are given another grievance against the rest of the world? What will fill the spiritual vacuum that prosperity has created in the West and persecution has caused in the East?

These are questions that should cause sleepless nights to anyone who has followed the course of European history since 1900.


National Passions


History is resuming in Europe. It is not the end of history, but its resumption. In particular it is the resumption of suppressed nationalisms. Even before the current changes Hungary was making nasty noises in the direction of Romania, because Romania was attempting a forced assimilation of ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania. Hungarians had to set up refugee camps for those fleeing a fellow Communist nation. Bulgaria has been trying to assimilate its Turkish minority. Many have fled to Turkey. There are still Germans in the eastern territories taken over by Poland after World War II. They welcomed Helmut Kohl with placards: "You're our chancellor too." After the establishment of the East German state, the Communists tried to claim that history had made a clean break and their state had no connections with previous German history (and incidentally that they therefore did not have to pay reparations). As their failures in governing the country became evident, the Communists tried to emphasize the continuity of their state with the traditions of German nationalism from Luther onward. Even this was not enough, and mobs march in the streets of dozens of East German cities demanding immediate reunification.


The Soviet Union too has been torn by the national passions of its subject peoples. Nor is the enmity directed exclusively against the Russians. When Gorbachev visited the devastated regions of Armenia after the earthquake, even he was surprised and horrified when all the disaster victims wanted to talk about was Armenia's claim to Nagorno-Karabakh.


A strong liberal flavor permeates much of the protest, especially in countries with some memory of democratic traditions. It has been little remarked how much the Communists have continued the tradition of European autocracy. Even before the current revelations that the East German government lived like lords (the director of state security had 30 hunting lodges), it was clear that they behaved like the lords of the ancien regime. That is, the self-appointed government commanded and the people were expected to obey. Initiatives came from above, not from below.


The spirit of revolution in Europe, however, has been that of the initiative from below. Often it ends by imitating the autocracy it replaced, but the spirit of revolution has been largely liberal and aimed at the breakup of a system in which privileges and the rights of initiative were restricted to the ruling classes. In particular, economic liberalism has acted as a solvent for the traditional privileges of the ruling classes, whoever they may be.


Reagan started the deregulation of America,-and earned the undying hatred of the social-welfare establishment. Thatcher's program in Britain has been ah application of classical liberalism, an attack on vested interests, and a freeing up of markets. Free markets and the acceptance of widespread economic initiative untrammeled by
state regulation seem to be the key to widespread prosperity, and whole peoples are waking to this realization.


The Trials of Freedom


Man does not live by bread alone, however, and Western Europe has been thoroughly de-Christianized. Sincere and dedicated Christians probably constitute a higher percentage of the population in Eastern bloc countries than in the West, but persecution has weakened all the churches. Even the Polish Church now faces the trials of freedom. Many joined the Catholic Church as a sign of protest against a hated regime, but continued to cultivate personal vices. Now that the Church is no longer a rallying point for opposition, it will be made clear how many of its members are really Catholics rather than simply anti-Communists. The Polish Church for many historical reasons is far stronger than any other church, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, in the Eastern bloc. In Hungary only 2% of youth have any connection with Christianity. Persecution has worked all too well, as Gorbachev now realizes.


A spiritual vacuum exists in Europe, therefore, at a most crucial moment in its history. What will fill it? Perhaps prosperity or at least the pursuit of it will occupy the masses. But nationalism seems to be the driving force, even more than a desire for the wealth of the West. Nationalism of some sort seems to be the key to the European future.

Germany is the key to the nationalities question. A dozen or a hundred German states, such as existed prior to the original unification of Germany, were not a direct affront to national feeling. A political particulars coexisted comfortably with a feeling of cultural unity. A return to that condition would be the happiest, but least likely, outcome of the current crisis. The current situation of two states is, however, intolerable, especially as the division is imposed by a hated enemy. What can the onetime Allies do? Gorbachev has warned that the day after German reunification is announced, he will be deposed by a military coup and a Russian field marshal will rule in the Kremlin. If German reunification is delayed, the Germans will have a growing sense of grievance against the rest of the world. If it is delayed by the tactics the Communists used in China and Romania, and the Potsdamer Platz runs red with blood as did Tiananmen Square and the streets of Bucharest, the Germans will have a grievance that surpasses the

Treaty of Versailles. Neither prospect of immediate or delayed reunification is happy.


A Modern Legend


Nationalism could be defused in a "common European home" that is now the slogan of the Kremlin. But what would provide the spiritual basis for this modern version of Christendom? Can prosperity replace salvation? Can VCRs, sausage, and pornography provide meaning to life? Can Christianity be reborn? Will nationalism become the new religion? Or will the darkest fears of the fundamentalists take shape in reality, and some form of New Age syncretistic paganism become the de facto established religion of Europe?


That religion, if it comes, will come from Germany. Germany started the Reformation that dissolved medieval Christendom. Germany was the font of modern theological liberalism, of Marxism, of the welfare state, of racism. While the dynamism of the German economy occupies all eyes. East and West, the state of the German soul is unknown outside Germany, and perhaps within it. Christianity does not seem to have a future in Germany. Resignations from official Church membership have surpassed the rate in Nazi times. The German ecclesiastical bureaucracy spends its energy resisting Rome, and is unable to stem the massive defections. What exactly motivates Germans? What will rule their future?


There is a modern legend (which Walker Percy refers to at the end of (The Thanatos Syndrome), that we are in the position of Job. God gave the 20th century into the power of Satan to test us, and now the century is ending, and history is resuming where it left off in 1900. We will probably not repeat the precise errors of the 20th century, but there are numerous other ways to go wrong.

History is the result of millions of individual decisions. Each person bears a responsibility for the course of history. The Pope has called for a re-evangelization of Europe, but so far the call has fallen largely on deaf ears, because Catholics on the left are still enamored of socialist political solutions, and Catholics on the right are too often preoccupied with preserving the minutiae of a past Catholic way of life, rather than preaching the Gospel to the nations.


Perhaps fundamentalist Christians will move into prominence in Europe as they are doing in the United States, when they display more zeal and spirit than do most Catholics. It would be safer for the rest of the world if Europe went Baptist than if it remains in its current post-Christian doldrums. Nature abhors a vacuum. If there isn't a Holy Ghost revival (of some sort) in Europe, there are other spirits roaming the waste places who would be happy to be the Zeitgeist of Germany and of a common European home. Those spirits are not the friends of man.


Published by The Wanderer, February 22, 1990