In their rush toward unification over the past 11 months, East and West Germany struck down the barriers between them like so many tenpins. The most unforgettable and heart-quickening breakthrough was the first, the fall of the Berlin Wall last Nov. 9. Then came free elections in the East on March 18, economic union on July 1, and the Sept. 12 agreement of the four World War II Allies to end their remaining occupation rights in Berlin.
Any of those could be taken as the date on which unification became inevitable. But the date that will be celebrated in the future Germany comes this week, Oct. 3, when the Freedom Bell in West Berlin's Schoneberg city hall tolls and the flag of the Federal Republic of Germany is raised in front of the 96-year-old Reichstag building. At that moment, the German Democratic Republic, a relic of Stalin's postwar empire, ceases to exist.
The new Germany, a nation of 77.4 million people, faces an era of formidable reconstruction. It will take years of effort to repair the damage caused by division and, in the East, by four decades of communism. It will mean putting the East's downtrodden economy into working order and soothing worries on both sides of the old Iron Curtain: those of West Germans about paying for unity's immense costs and those of former Easterners about being second-class citizens in the united country.
Germans will face demands from their allies and neighbors that they prove themselves democratic and peace loving while fulfilling the international obligations that come with the status of a major power -- obligations that include a continuing push for European integration and, in the short run at least, a major contribution to the multilateral buildup in the Persian Gulf. Germany does not seek the "leading role in Europe," Chancellor Helmut Kohl vowed last week, but its people will "live up to our responsibility in Europe and the world."
To many people who were West Germans until this week, the main responsibility seems to lie in paying bills. East Germany is bankrupt. Most of its 8,000 decrepit enterprises are on the verge of failure, and unemployment is heading toward 2 million out of a work force of 8.9 million. Since economic and monetary union in July, the East's economy has been running mainly on subsidies from Bonn.
"The East," predicts Claus Schnabel of the German Economic Institute in Cologne, "will eventually become as technically advanced as the West and in some cases even more so, since it will be getting the very latest in equipment." But no one knows how long that will take or how much it will cost. Building or upgrading plant and equipment, constructing roads, establishing communications networks and cleaning up industrial pollution are expected to cost more than $455 billion. This year alone, East is costing West more than $60 billion. In the long run, says Finance Minister Theo Waigel, "no one can put a figure on what is coming at us." Estimates run as high as $775 billion over ten years. Retail sales and tax revenues from the East will put some money back into federal coffers, of course, but nothing close to the outlays.