Political scientists are now grumpy. Instead of waxing enthusiastic about the 40 days that shook the world—let us say from the crumbling of the Berlin Wall to Ceausescu’s execution—they resent the brutal intrusion of reality on their slumber. It used to be so comfortable to think in terms of superpower pseudo-polarity, and global democratization is likely now to suffer delay. Just four months ago I heard a noted sociologist explain that there was no alternative to capitalist democracy (no, it was not Francis Fukuyama); and now people have the disturbing impression that in East-Central Europe two powers (superpowers?) plus a dozen or so nations are reemerging, whose history is stamped with other than democratic and capitalist traditions. While hands are being wrung and teeth gnashed, history in East Europe renews its course on its accustomed two tracks. One is geopolitics, marked mainly by the fluctuating power relationship of Moscow and Berlin, with a vast and immemorially contested area between them. The other is ideology, pertaining to the kind of regimes that these nations, mostly in a deep-freeze since 1945, will choose—and so dictate their partners, alliances, place in Europe, and in the world.

A radio station that called to interview me noted that many people are “hysterically” (the interviewer’s term) opposed to these changes. That may be so in the New York area; about five hundred million people in Eastern Europe are deliriously, and of course cautiously, happy. This is, after all, what the Wheel of Fortune is about. Hysteria or happiness, the future is no longer in the hands of the smug and unimaginative political class, nor indeed in the hands of the planetary arbitrators in London, Paris, Washington—or Moscow. Nineteen fifty-six, 1968, 1979, 1989 could be ignored by these ex-decision makers in their diplomatic fortresses. They shed a few crocodile tears for show, but the important thing, the status quo, remained. This time, the cry against repression has grown from a whimper to a shout, and cannot be ignored. The sound emanates from a great power, Germany, or rather Prussia.

Prussia has had, of course, a bad press, ever since Frederick the Great and since the dismissal of the Frankfurt Parliament in 1849. But it is the province whose mission it has been to reassemble the German fragments—after Napoleon, then again with Bismarck. Thus when Prussians began to march toward the Wall, Moscow knew that the game was up. It is one thing to repress Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, and Riga; quite another to challenge Germany.

In fact, and contrary to the last-minute hopes that Gorbachev would veto reunification, the Soviet leader expected it all along—and welcomed it! Why am I committing to paper such blasphemous words? Unlike those Western commentators who focus their attention on Gorbachev’s psychology, sincerity, and his past in Andropov’s shadow, let’s look at the concrete situation in which he, or whoever would replace him, finds himself.

Gorbachev well knew that the Russians’ economic woes were not worse in the 1980’s than before, as he also knew that Russia has long been an underdeveloped country, slightly below the level of Nepal. Thus the important thing is not that the Politburo cannot feed the population, but that certain realities that up to now have been ignored—religion and nationhood—have been surfacing everywhere in the empire, dismantling Lenin’s fragile construction. Suddenly, in the 80’s, Moslems and Christians went on the offensive, both as religious faiths and national entities. Years before the Berlin Wall crumbled, Gorbachev knew it was over.

Under the circumstances, his task has been to save the Russian Empire and to associate it, in spite of the shouts from Tallinn to Bucharest of “Russki, out!,” with a nonoccupied East Europe. This, again, is not merely an economic issue; during more than four decades marked by blood and hatred, Russia became nevertheless used to contact with Europe, not only as an occupying power, but also as what one may describe as a cultural contact. Russia clearly derives benefits of all sorts from this association. Her offer of a partnership would be rejected by her previous victims, however, unless it were guaranteed by East Europe’s natural protector vis-à-vis Muscovy: a strong, hence unified, Germany.

With this guarantee and no other do these nations welcome the Moscow connection. A sure sign of this is Vaclav Havel’s recommendation to Congress that the U.S. help Russia overcome its deep difficulties. Jozsef Antall, Hungarian party leader, sounded a similar note: the area needs a consolidated Germany. The two requests stem from a sure grasp of geopolitics: the main condition of East European stability is German-Russian cooperation.

One hopes that the American reader understands the significance of all this. Walesa, Havel, and Antall want the Soviet troops out. At the same time all three are aware that the forever turbulent regional powers, Russia and Germany, must be locked into a policy of mutual benefit, if the national projects of the other East European countries are to succeed—incidentally, the first such projects since about 1500, when the Turkish night descended on the East European Renaissance, and successive reigns of Habsburgs and Muscovites snuffed out all velleities of independence. But finally now, from Zagreb to Kiev, from Riga to Sofia, there is a tremendous will on the part of all nations to shape their own destinies.

Can the West understand it, with its own independent political evolution and its protected culture? Hardly.

It may be that the seeds of new East/West conflicts are just now being planted, and that the planned “European unity” will be the first casualty. Some things ought to be evident: there was full independence in the area only between 1920 and 1940, 20 years out of five centuries, and even that was threatened by the need for Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, Vilnius, and Belgrade to live in Germany’s shadow against Russia, or as Soviet client-states vis-à-vis Germany. The Western powers, then as now, were interested only in investments, not in the political consolidation of places where they invested. Hence the first importance and the urgency today is for a Russo-German cooperation, a Mitlebensraum. (I said, today; in twenty or thirty years Berlin and Moscow may be at war again.)

Where would this settlement leave NATO, the American presence in Europe, and Europe’s 1992 political union? Perhaps in a kind of diplomatic no-man’s-land. Institutions, alliances, and military bases are likely to survive for a while, but since they will be in nobody’s particular interest, they may just wither away, and the European political union with them. The tacit purpose of that union has been to tie Germany indissolubly to West Europe, to spare France the embarrassment of declining from a second-rate to a thirdrate power, and to save England from a new threat from the continent. But with the falling dominoes Germany will henceforth not volunteer to have chains put on her eighty million people by a weak, strike-ridden, and inefficient France where the battle between Louis XVI and Robespierre is still raging. Nor will Germany remain “European” for the sake of England’s sense of security. Of course, what bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg have so far concocted, a maze of laws impossible to implement, is likely to remain “on the books.” But January 1, 1993, will come and go, the union will be postponed, and then forgotten—except that Germany and Japan will use the documents as justification for submerging Europe under their merchandise.

Are all these revolutionary changes? Mitterrand, pathetically attempting to keep Germany divided, or at least keep a united Germany chained to “Europe,” had the right words: “We are retreating to the 19th century!” That is, into suspicious nations, powerblocks inside Europe, hegemonies. With danger from the East receding, then vanishing, politics will again take the place of ideology. It is a secret only to idealistic Westerners that before 1940 the East European countries were exploited economically by England, France, Germany, and Belgium, for their oil, iron, bauxite, cattle, agricultural products, and electricity. Lower wages than those in the West now again attract investors hoping to cut costs, then re-export. A neocolonial situation may arise that local governments and revived labor unions will hardly cherish.

Another issue was voiced by Italy’s foreign minister, Gianni de Michelis. In a recent interview he refused to hide fears that a united Europe would have its gravitational center somewhere between Paris and Berlin, a northern axis. His own project is to call into existence a Barcelona-Marseilles-Trieste-Ljubljana-Budapest line, the southern axis, as a counterweight. An Italian, Austrian, Yugoslavian, and Hungarian block is already getting underway.

Recent visits and conversations shed further light on the future of East and Central Europe, a future that is fast becoming the present. One watches with amazement the ease with which people settle into new conditions, how their moral and intellectual orientation has not changed in four decades of misery. Suddenly, problems declared by Western experts to be insoluble seem to dissipate. For many years it was held, for example, that young people had surrendered to nihilism, were interested only in videos and drugs. It has also been said that German students want consumer goods, not reunification, etc., etc. The truth is vastly different. Conversations have convinced me that a large elite—professors, students, journalists, scholars, party leaders—exists, ready to take matters in hand. Students, seventeen and eighteen years old, were the first to drive trucks with food and clothing to Transylvania upon the news that Ceausescu had fallen, although the Securitate shot down a good number; retired people, poor among the poor, brought forth their provisions of canned food to offer it to hungry compatriots. With all this, there is a veritable renaissance of studies and scholarship. The rector of a college in Budapest showed me dissertations as richly documented as the best in Western universities.

It is, of course, not possible to convey all the signs of this blooming of a new life. It is nothing short of a miracle that, squeezed for 50 years between oriental despotism and Western decomposition. Eastern Europe has survived internally intact. I have seen decolonization in Africa and Asia accompanied neither by joy nor by an outburst of nation- and culture-building energy. What I find in “decolonized” Eastern Europe is very different. It is almost enough to restore one’s faith in Western man and Christian civilization.

Finally, the German question. A great power always poses problems, but mainly for those who believe that relations between nations ought to be love affairs. It is hard to love even a small country from the point of view of another, and it is impossible to love a great power. Rome, Spain, England—none were loved when they were at their zenith, nor is the U.S. today. Germany as a past and future great power is in a special class because it is a continental power, wedged among jealous states over which it exercises political and cultural hegemony. (It is better for a great power to be geographically distant from its clients.) Yet Germany is European through and through; its blood and sinews are continental, from Arminius to Barbarossa, from Goethe to Heidegger. In spite of

what the newspapers say, at no time in the last forty years did its neighbors detest it. They were merely then as they will be in the future—vigilant, the normal thing among neighbors. For the rest, it will be a symbiotic relationship, a shared culture. Look at the cities: Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Riga, Dresden—they speak of one tradition, style, religion, and taste, blending the aristocratic and the bourgeois, the ensemble celebrated by churches, palaces, bridges, and public gardens. The new society, settling on the ruins of the old, will be harmonious with it.