EAST GERMANY celebrated its 35th anniversary last weekend with the usual military display. As national drama, it lacked conviction. Events keep reminding the East German government that a substantial number of its people would rather live in West Germany, and some are ready to take real risks to get there. About 80 East Germans spent the anniversary weekend crowded into the West German embassy in Prague, pleading for asylum. Legal emigration from East Germany this year has been the greatest since the Berlin Wall cut off free access 23 years ago. Another half- million East Germans -- out of a population of 17 million -- have applied for exit permits. That's a pretty convincing index of discontent, and of West Germany's magnetic attraction.
The West Germans, with thei overtures, their expanding trade and their financial subsidies to East Germany, sometimes seem to be hinting at some larger change. That is currently setting off ripples of uneasiness in Western Europe as well as in the East. Unfair though it seems to many Germans, the division of Germany has become, to other Europeans, a symbol of political stability.
Last month Italy's foreign minister, Giulio Andreotti, said in a public speech in Rome that "pan- Germanism is something that must be overcome. There are two German states and two German states must remain." The West Germans reacted with real fury, but they know that Mr. Andreotti is not the only Western European who holds views like that. His remark was another unwelcome reminder of the intensity, not to say apprehension, with which the rest of Europe regards anything that suggests even a modest rise in German national feeling. In the West, the question remains the familiar one: how to expand, gradually, East Germans' narrow areas of personal freedom without threatening the present political structure of Europe and inviting another wave of Soviet repression.
East and West Germany were founded within a few months of each other, both of them in the aftermath of the Berlin blockade. West Germany is a genuine national presence and a democracy; since East Germany is neither, it remains a source of instability. As a remedy to restlessness, the East German government has been trying to persuade its people that they are a genuine country and the heirs of the true German national tradition -- unlike the deplorably Westernized Bonn republic. That's why there is the ceremonial goose-stepping in East Berlin, and the embrace of un-Marxist figures like Martin Luther and Frederick the Great. To judge from the audience's reaction, the performance seems not to be much of a success.