BONN, AUG. 3 -- Eight months ago, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl shocked his allies and startled his countrymen by calling for a gradual reunification of the two Germanys. He figured the process would take about five years.

If the proposal Kohl and East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere announced today withstands legal and political tests, the postwar division of Germany will end less than a year after mass demonstrations and a panicky Communist regime combined to open the Berlin Wall.

Last Oct. 18, hard-line East German leader Erich Honecker quit.

Three weeks later, the Wall opened.

"What belongs together now will grow together," former West German chancellor Willy Brandt said then.

As demonstrators waving West German flags increasingly filled the squares of East German cities, Kohl made his move. On Nov. 28, he issued his 10-point plan for German unity, promising that it would be a slow and orderly process, going through the difficult and well-planned stages of a legal and political merger.

But then East Germany began to unravel. Successive reform Communist governments promised to dismantle the old Stalinist system, then reneged on their promises.

The country's economy suffered one blow after another, as hundreds of thousands of East Germans fled to the West and industries struggled to keep up production.

In February, Prime Minister Hans Modrow dropped his opposition to unification.

In March, Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, which had campaigned in the East as if Kohl himself were running for office, won a commanding victory.

Bombarded with Kohl's promises of a better, Western lifestyle, East Germans said no to any form of socialism and yes to the country they had watched on television for most of their lives.

Armed with a mandate for unification, Kohl and his new East German partner, Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere, stepped up the pace.

By spring, the chancellor envisioned German unity in late 1991.

But Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher urged Kohl to move even faster, saying, "History does not repeat its offers."

Kohl again revved the engine. In June, he called 1990 the "year of German unity."

The first step would be economic unification.

That came July 1, when the West German mark became the currency of both Germanys, effectively ending state control of East German life overnight.

Then, on July 16, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been the chief foreign opponent of quick German unity, agreed to allow the united Germany to belong to the NATO alliance -- a concession that even Kohl did not expect so soon. With Soviet approval in hand, Kohl announced that the first all-German elections since 1933 would be held Dec. 2. East Germany would become part of the new German state on that day.

Today, Kohl and de Maiziere, citing the clear international path and the worsening economic situation in East Germany, proposed to move up the date of unification yet again, this time to Oct. 14.

Before unification can be completed, the two Germanys must approve a treaty covering the many legal and political differences between the two countries.

That treaty is now under negotiation and is expected to be ratified next month.

The four victorious World War II allies -- Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States -- must also complete their talks on returning full sovereignty to the German state. The last scheduled meeting among the four powers and the two Germanys is also set for next month, in Moscow.

And the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is scheduled to ratify the four powers' pact at a meeting in Paris in November. But Bonn officials said today that that ratification is not a precondition to German unity.