THE TWO German states are now one, brought together in a breathless process that began just a year ago with East German citizens demanding to share in the Soviet bloc's renewal and that culminated today in East Germany's unprecedented voluntary self-effacement and its absorption into West Germany. Free Germany is not only united, it is independent -- no longer subordinated to the wartime allies' rights. Thus has been achieved the end of the postwar division of Germany, and of Europe, and indeed the dilution of the very idea of East and West, of the structure of the world as it has been shaped since World War II.

Only a few months ago, all this was thought to be impossible, in the category of events whose very imagining identified one as of unsound political mind. "Moscow will never allow it." The West was comfortable enough nudging along the status quo. Yet it all happened, and at a dazzling pace. The means were peaceful, democratic, participatory and consensual. The impulse came from elements of society far beneath the ramparts of conventional command. Seeing not just the inevitability of it all but the greater mutual security that could result, the old Kremlin enforcers as well as West Germany's alliesjoined in. As the Germans arrive at their historic day, the foreigners are still scrambling to keep up.

Not that everything can now be taken for granted. Almost everyone, recalling the history, pauses at the prospect of seeing Germany's role as the economic powerhouse of Europe cemented. Communist East Germany never went through the imposed introspection and moral schooling of the Western occupation and its aftermath, and a question lingers about how far the democratic European spirit has penetrated its people and institutions. But almost everywhere it is accepted that West Germany, caught up these last four decades in the web of the West, has earned the great prize of unification. With its 4:1 population edge and its other endowments, it is in a position to move beyond the current gloom over the costs and tangles of incorporation and to guide a successful consummation.

The West was wise to bind West Germany twice -- by entangling it in both democratic ways and the institutions of Western cooperation and growth. As a result the new entity already has a start as an international player held to exacting standards. For a long time it will have to deal with others' memories of its past, as well as with its own. It must be ready to apply its economic dynamism and the political power arising from it to purposes shared with its neighbors, allies and former adversaries. Others, including the United States, can do their part by staying deeply engaged with the Germans and working with them to strengthen the free institutions of a country and continent both finally made whole.