For 19 years, Karl-Hermann Steinberg fought a futile battle as a token non-Communist member of the East German legislature, the Volkskammer.
"I criticized the government constantly, but it was meaningless," Steinberg said.
Then, when the Communist regime fell last fall, Steinberg, a 48-year-old chemist and deputy chairman of East Germany's Christian Democratic Union Party, joined the new government as a top official in the Ministry for Heavy Industry, working 80-hour weeks in search of ways to reduce East Germany's horrendous pollution.
On Sunday, in the first democratic elections in East Germany in half a century, Steinberg's party scored a stunning upset and grabbed more than 40% of the vote. The Christian Democrats will now lead a coalition government that will probably be the country's last before reunification.
And where was Steinberg--the No. 2 man in the party--on that historic day? In Orange County, preparing for a conference at UC Irvine's Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center on "Heterogeneous Catalysis," sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences--and taking a dip in the ocean at Newport Beach with a handful of other top East German chemists.
"That was the first thing we did after we got to our hotel," Steinberg said this week in an interview during a break from the conference proceedings. "It was fabulous. I heard you had an oil spill recently, but the water was clean and the air was warm. It was like the Ostsee (the Baltic Sea) in the middle of summer."
Steinberg said he campaigned hard for his party during the weeks preceding Sunday's vote and would have liked to have been there that day. But he had always dreamed of seeing the United States, and the conference--with expenses shared by the National Academy of Sciences and the East German government--was the answer to that dream.
"We've been making history for months," Steinberg said. "This conference was organized a year ago, and it was a chance of a lifetime to see California. I was sorry to miss the election, but it would have really hurt to pass this up.
"Besides," the scientist continued, "I've got my mind on the next election--the Bundestag election in all of Germany."
The West German Bundestag election is scheduled for December, and Steinberg expects the two Germanys to be united in time for all Germans to participate.
"I think you'll see a united Germany in September, and elections in December," said Steinberg, brimming with new-found confidence and making predictions that six months ago he never would have uttered in public. The Soviet Union, he said, will cease to exist in a few years, leaving strong Russian, Ukranian and other states in its place. "You can write that down."
Living in a society that is trying to compress half a century of progress into a few short months has its ups and downs, Steinberg observed.
Previously, only East German scientists with good Communist party ties would have been sent to conferences such as the one this week at the Beckman Center, said Steinberg, who holds a chair in chemical engineering at Leipzig University. "That's all over now, thank God," he said. "The best scientists are the ones who will go."
When he goes back to East Germany next week--after visiting Disneyland and stopping in Los Angeles, Berkeley and New York--Steinberg will continue in his role as deputy party chairman but will give up his ministerial post, returning to Leipzig to teach and research. As the two Germanys merge into one, Steinberg says, he will ponder a return to a more active political life.
"I took part in one Uebergangsregierung (a transitional government) and I did my best to see that the transition was peaceful," he said. "Why should I participate in a second one?"