REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK : Seeing ‘Deutschland Through a Looking Glass’


Forget about currency unions and military alliances and state treaties and border guarantees. Consider instead the electrocuted storks.

After the long flight from their wintering places in Africa, the big white birds arrived back in East Germany and stopped to rest.

Bad move.

The Communist Party daily sent a photographer out to record the grim scene and noted that, clearly, it is time to modernize those improperly grounded power lines.


In a tragicomic way, the stork incident shows that what really separates the two Germanys are the little things that never make it into the history books.

If West Germany is a high-performance model of affluence and efficiency, then East Germany is Teutonic topsy-turvy, sort of “Deutschland Through the Looking Glass.”

Start with transportation.

In the West, there is the famous autobahn, a scientifically perfect freeway on which you may drive at whatever speed you want in a scientifically perfect West German car. All they ask is that you keep it out of the Rhine River.

Should you venture off the autobahn and break any traffic law, hidden cameras will photograph you in the act--and your license plate as well--and the police will send you a ticket in the mail.

Across the border in East Germany, there are also roads, deceptively called highways. Sometimes they are cobblestone. Sometimes a lot of cobblestones are missing, which you might not notice at night, since there are no lights.

You also might not notice that there is a speed limit in East Germany--about 62 m.p.h.

This is more a comment on technology than character. Plastic cars with 2-cylinder engines don’t go all that fast. Not even plastic 2-cylinder police cars, which is why East German police officers have to stand in the middle of their highways and wave speeders down.

Communication is even dicier. When Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere took office as the first democratically elected leader of East Germany several weeks ago, his inaugural speech contained no grand plans to colonize Mars or even lure over the Disney folks. His promises were more basic.

“The days of waiting 16 years for a telephone are past,” he declared.

Of course, about 10% of the new legislators didn’t hear him say it, because they don’t have telephones and the “blitz telegrams” fired off to notify them of the parliamentary session arrived two days too late.

But then, there almost wasn’t a government to convene, since a broken copying machine delayed the historic signing of their coalition agreement.

A West German entrepreneur thought for awhile that he had the communications problem solved. He formed a partnership with two little East German girls and their homing pigeons.

The man had set up a real estate office in Magdeburg, but he soon learned that real estate dealers can’t do a lot of business without a telephone. So he would tie messages to the legs of pigeons and send them east. The girls would collect their birds and relay the message to the man’s secretary.

But there was a hitch: They were one-way pigeons.

So after the last winged messenger was dispatched, the man would have to drive to East Germany, collect the birds and return them to his office.

At least crossing the border is easy, without those notoriously vicious East German guard dogs. No longer needed to patrol the border, the dogs have been exposed as frauds, all bark and no bite. The humane society is finding them homes as family pets.

They may have to compete for attention with sequined cockroaches. A Hamburg woman bought one--complete with a little leash--on vacation in Mexico. She flew it back to West Germany, where, stricken with guilt, she turned it over to an animal shelter.

Which sort of brings us to the subject of Germans and trash. West Germans love sorting trash. There are specific days to throw away specific things in specific receptacles.

West Germans are so good at trash that they actually bought some nuclear waste from Washington state recently, just to prove that they could find a way to dispose of it efficiently--once they persuade the environmentalists to let them sail radioactive debris across the Atlantic, that is.

If the West Germans had trash they couldn’t think of anything else to do with, they paid East Germany to take it and burn it, creating a pollution problem West Germany will now marry into.

East German environmental controls are typified by the guppies used to monitor the country’s only biological water purification system. The water is considered pure if the guppies can survive in it for 24 hours.

“Our gift for improvisation” is one of the major contributions East Germany has to make in a united Germany, Prime Minister De Maiziere has said.

“We’re the world champions of improvisation,” agreed Juergen Nowak, editor of Eulenspiegel, an East German satirical magazine.