History could be made in more ways than one Sunday when the people of Germany hold their first free national elections in a united country since 1932.

If Germany has learned the appropriate lessons from the calamity of Nazism and the bankruptcy of communism, Sunday's voting could mark the opening of a new era of responsible democracy.Unhappily, there's room for wondering if what happens Sunday might not mark the start of a new era of disillusionment and cynicism.

For now, thanks to the advent of its new unity, Germany is awash in a tide of euphoria. It's a tide that seems bound to sweep Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democrats to victory over the Social Democrats and various lesser challengers.

All the polls point to a comfortable victory for Kohl. It's easy to believe the polls since German voters have rallied behind the Christian Democrats in earlier elections after the fall of the Berlin Wall - first when they replaced the east zone's communist government, next when they chose new local governments, and then when they picked state legislators.

What's more, it's easy to understand the appeal of Kohl and his center-right coalition after the Social Democrats made the strategic blunder of dragging their feet on the reunification of East and West Germany.

But Kohl seems to have made a big blunder too that is likely to hurt in the long run even though it wins votes now.

We're referring to his campaign promises. The public seems to have focused mostly on his vows that eastern Germans will enjoy Western-style living standards in a few years and that western Germans won't have their taxes raised to pay for unity.

Less attention seems to have been paid to the wiggle room that Kohl left himself by mentioning the possibility of tax hikes for reasons supposedly having nothing to do with reunification. Among those other possibilities are costs associated with the escalation of the crisis in the Persian Gulf - and the cost of protecting the environment.

The plain fact is that unification is going to be the most costly undertaking in Germany's postwar history. The economy of the East zone has been thoroughly ruined by communism. In the process, the environment in the east has been ravaged.

Under such circumstances, it's hard to see how the newly reunified Germany can avoid stiff tax increases. And it's hard to see how Germans can avoid relearning some old and possibly disillusioning lessons about democracy, including one about the firmness of political promises.