GERMANY TODAY. A Personal Report. By Walter Laqueur. Little, Brown. 213 pp. $16.95.
GERMANS are the worriers of the Western world. Standard products of a Weltschmerz industry located between the Rhine and Elbe have long been anxieties about the supposedly dreadful prospects for the political system, economy and society in the Federal Republic. And more recently a new line has been added: fears that Germans are uniquely destined to be victimized by nuclear, environmental and various other disasters.
As Walter Laqueur observes in his highly personal account of contemporary West Germany, a country's domestic developments generally interest foreigners only to the extent that they affect its foreign policy. Thus far, the Germans' many apprehensions have not altered their country's foeign orientation or performance. The Federal Republic remains a staunch member of the NATO alliance and of the European Community; its exports continue to do better than those of other countries, including Japan; and its Deutschmark is again strengthening on foreign exchange markets.
Germany Today rightly begins with a chapter on Angst, however, because the Germans' worries are worth our attention. In the last analysis, rivalry over their allegiance was the first and remains an essential manifestation of America's foreign policy preoccupation, the contest with the Soviet Union.
Watching attitudinal changes within an open society such as West Germany is easy. Weighting them properly is hard and distinguishing between dire predictions and real dangers harder still. Germans are above all a serious people, burdensomely so from time to time. So should we not take their own worries about their domestic developments seriously?
Walter Laqueur addresses these developments in a set of critical essays on selected aspects of the West German scene (there is virtually nothing on East Germany). They capture the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, of the last 20 years.
He has selected his topics well, dealing in an erudite and lively fashion with important subjects but ones for which journalists have too little time and political scientists too little interest.
With a subtle touch and the enrichment of anecdotes from his own Silesian boyhood, Laqueur surveys youthful protestors, disgruntled intellectuals, radical Protestant theologians and allegedly leftist television commentators. He gives us his opinions on the New German Cinema, which he demolishes as overrated abroad and ignored at home, except by a government which lavishly subsidizes it, and on German intellectuals whom he generally abhors as muddleheaded, paranoid, conformist and provincial. He laments the decline of German universities, once admired throughout the world, attributing it in great measure to reforms of the 1970s aimed at breaking down traditional authoritarian structures. Some of this is old-fashioned Central European coffee house polemics, but most of it is accurate and all of it is spirited. Best are his insights on German youth of the 1980s, where he draws parallels based on his fascinating earlier work on Young Germany, the romantic, cultish movement of the pre-Hitler era.
SYMPTOMS are what Laqueur surveys. Some that he detects are traditional among Germans: "the urge for order," the "tendency toward perfectionism," or the "quest for the unconditional" solution, for instance. Others have been marked West German attitudes since the war, such as a lack of real self-confidence or the pervasive feelings of insecurity. Still others have appeared recently, especially among intellectuals and the young -- frustration, stress, listlessness, and an inner emptiness and spiritual void.
Like droplets of mercury these symptoms elude even Laqueur's diagnostic grasp. He sees no fundamental pathology, however, and gives us many reassurances. Most of the young's anti-authoritarian and apocalyptic attitudes appear in other countries as well. Anti-Americanism is less evident than in Britain or France. Fewer than 1 percent of West Germans attach great importance to reunification with East Germany. In many ways -- indeed in most -- the Federal Republic is quite a normal country. Its economic problems differ little from those faced by other industrial countries in the West. Yet Laqueur cannot shake his foreboding -- that a new Pied Piper may emerge, with new songs and new tricks to delude the Germans once again.
What comes up short in Germany Today is acknowledgment of the profoundly conservative nature of the German political and social system, a theme far less stimulating, of course, than those with which Laqueur deals. Massive and mutually supportive influences of the governmnt, unions, employer associations, the big banks and the established political parties far outweigh those of the radical chic writers, foolish Protestant pastors and television anchormen, about whose long-term effects he is concerned.
All the -- by American standards rather mild -- criticism from TV commentators sympathetic with the Social Democrats or Greens has not diminished the underlying dominance of the conservative Christian Democratic party nor prevented its leader Helmut Kohl, whom TV critics consistently depict as hapless, from gaining and keeping power.
Not until the early 1970s did West Germany emerge from the self-centeredness of reconstruction and rehabilitation. When it did, its citizens came to realize that the world was not an orderly place and that their country, now drastically reduced in power, was subject to external influences over which it had little or no control. The vast majority of Germans accepted this discovery with realism. They cherish no nationalist illusions. But they worry. Walter Laqueur has done a fine job of explaining why, even though at places he worries too much himself.