What were we thinking?

To have ever expected a clear, definitive choice from Germany for its future in Sunday's elections was to disregard fundamental information that every country transmits when politicians are not around to explain away the facts. We rushed past the obvious.

The obvious is this: Germany is a country that fears the future, or at least the painful choices that the future will bring. Germans said as much Sunday by refusing to choose between the unprincipled leftist chancellor they know in wearisome detail and a seemingly incompetent rightist challenger who remains a mystery to them. The voters checked none of the above.

This is a political expression of the consistent demographic response to the future that Germans make in their personal lives. Germany's rate of population growth today stands at zero percent. Germany will lose 20 percent of its working population over the next 25 years. Fertility rates there stand below 1.5 percent -- that is, well below the population replacement rate of 2.1 percent.

The same phenomenon surfaces in the troubled economy, which is the pivot for Europe as a whole. Germans know that their socially admirable and financially ruinous welfare system has driven unemployment to record levels and scattered new investment to other countries. But they refuse to overhaul the system to take global competition into account. The essential economic message out of Sunday's muddled election results: Go away. Leave us alone.

A declined invitation to me to consider the obvious came in a conversation with a New York investment banker early this summer, as German polls were showing Christian Democrat candidate Angela Merkel leading Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder by 20 points.

My friend had just returned from a lengthy "shopping" trip in Germany to look at businesses, factories and other assets for purchase. You jest, I said, with the euro-dollar exchange rate heavily weighted toward the European currency and with German economic growth hovering around zero.

True, he replied. But German businesses and families have tax incentives to sell assets now, and other German businesses and families show little interest in buying them. If Germans are reinvesting, it is usually abroad. This lack of confidence at home in the German future is what makes business shopping there a good deal for foreigners, he added.

The anecdote shows why he is rich and I am, well, a journalist. But it also suggests a larger truth about a post-Cold War Germany, which has detached itself at Schroeder's urging from its traditional setting in world politics. Schroeder's Germany has, for much of his seven-year reign, sought to exist outside history. No electorate can make clear choices from that perspective.

Schroeder expressed this by calling on the world -- and on Germans -- to accept Germany as "a normal country" rather than one to be forever judged by its Nazi past or to be locked into its Cold War alliance with the United States. He formed a new and disorienting partnership with Russia that is so close and so personal that at least one New York bank is rumored to want to hire Schroeder when he leaves office to establish links to Russia's energy exporters.

Schroeder's Germany existed outside history in another disorienting sense that was contained in the self-portrait of the nation that the chancellor painted.

Far from being just another country, Schroeder's Germany was said to possess a subliminal national pacifism and a higher, purer sense of morality in world affairs than other nations. Schroeder's Social Democrats often made Germany seem the victim of international machination in politics and business. Their unique version of history helped produce the confusion on Sunday that begat the hung parliament that is to meet by Oct. 18 to deliver a government.

The real world history of Germany, in fact, contributed to Sunday's results. The political system is heavily weighted with checks and balances to discourage fringe parties and authoritarian leaders such as those who led the country into World War II. But it was designed to reflect the wishes of an electorate that knew what it wanted for the future, not one hoping to avoid it.

Sunday's muddle is not just a German headache. It reinforces a general weakening of parties and politicians across Europe that surfaced in the French and Dutch rejections of a European Union constitution this year.

Let's hope that Schroeder and Merkel respect the double rejection they have provoked by stepping aside to allow younger leaders to grapple with a future that will remain frightening as long as it is undefined. Germany cannot float on its own outside history.