COLUMN ONE : East Meets West--and Resents It : A reunited Germany is 16 months old, but for the people of the formerly Communist half, freedom has also brought humiliation, frustration and anger.
The mood was sullen.
About 200 souls had crammed into the stuffy lobby of the city’s main savings bank waiting for money, and those near the back reckoned the teller’s window was a full afternoon away.
“Last week, it was two hours; today, who knows?” said Maria Herzog, a young mother of five, as she shifted her youngest from one hip to the other.
Behind her, a middle-aged woman added bitterly: “I can afford the time now--my job is gone.”
The grumbling ended with a parting verbal shot that hung in the thick, stale air: “It was better before .”
The scene in the Potsdam bank was part of larger, darkening gloom that has descended over the eastern Germans--a people who survived nearly six decades of dictatorship only to find that democracy has led them into a sea of personal misery.
It is a misery filled with personal uncertainty about jobs and homes, in which cash-starved local governments and essential public services hardly function, in which the hopes that accompanied the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall 16 months ago have collapsed into humiliation, frustration and a deepening anger.
“The situation in east Germany is escalating dangerously,” warned Kajo Schommer, economics and labor minister in Saxony, one of the five new German states that compose the area that was East Germany.
While nations throughout Eastern Europe struggle with the social strains inherent in rebuilding their shattered economies, east Germany has an additional burden: west Germany.
Admittedly, the eastern Germans’ rich, affluent western cousins are pumping out billions of dollars to rebuild the region they inherited with last October’s unification. Indeed, Chancellor Helmut Kohl recently approved tax increases to finance unity-related costs that this year alone will reach $95.3 billion.
But for the eastern Germans, there is also a price.
For, in addition to money, the western Germans have brought a daunting commercial power that in a matter of months has effectively swept inexperienced eastern German competitors from their home markets.
They have brought an army of about 1 million western claimants, who are demanding the return of old family homes, factories and land abandoned in the post-World War II turmoil nearly half a century ago.
Their tactics frequently buttress those who argue that neither compassion nor subtlety are particular strengths of the German national character.
Novelist Rolf Schneider tells of one western German who rolled up to his suburban eastern Berlin ancestral property in a motor home, then rang the occupants’ doorbell every two hours requesting they empty the vehicle’s chemical toilet.
The western Germans have also brought with them an unfathomable bureaucracy, commercial scams of the oldest kind, a crime rate that is up by 300% and a sense of insecurity and disorientation that permeates life.
In Dresden’s Public School No. 106, deputy principal Bernd Hanka said he is unsure whether he will be one of the 30,000 to 40,000 schoolteachers in the region expected to lose their jobs over the next year--or, if he keeps his job, whether the city has enough money to pay his salary or keep the school operating.
But in a long discussion, smaller, trivial changes seemed equally demoralizing--like the Dresden apples.
“There were huge orchards here, and there were always good apples for 50 pfennigs a kilo (15 cents a pound),” he said. Because the apples were too small for European Community standards, however, they disappeared, replaced by an imported variety at 80 cents a pound.
“It was something we all grew up with,” he added. “Now they’re gone.”
In the five months since unification, the price of domestic electricity has tripled--and the rental charge for a meter raised by a factor of five. Postage has doubled, tram and train fares are up by half, day-care centers--free under the Communists--now charge up to a third of a woman’s average monthly wage per child, and rents have become a crap-shoot.
Gertrud Ricus can tell you that.
The 72-year-old widow, who has lived in the same third-floor walk-up in East Berlin for 32 years, was pleased when Western contractors began renovating the dilapidated apartment house several months ago. She was less excited with the note informing her the monthly rent had been raised from $40 to $950 per month.
“What am I supposed to do, stop eating?” asked the confused woman, whose sole monthly income is a pension check of about $400.
Gallows humorists note that even death is now tough for eastern Germans to afford. The $2,000 cost of a funeral is now roughly four times what it was a year ago.
Despite injections of money from the West, newly restructured local governments in the east hover on the brink of bankruptcy--squeezed between crippling costs and a dearth of tax revenues.
The northern city of Schwerin is so broke that it can’t afford more garbage collections needed to deal with the influx of Western-style packaging, while the mayors of 32 smaller northern communities recently declared there was no more money to heat public buildings.
At the start of a recent interview, Chemnitz Mayor Dieter Noll noted he had just signed for a loan of $60 million to pay the city’s running costs.
“There’s nothing in there to help repair the rotten roads or build a water purification plant worth the name,” he said. “There’s a complete lack of understanding in the west of how bad the situation is.”
Western German attempts to transplant the intricacies of highly refined legal and bureaucratic systems have also effectively paralyzed local governments and basic services at a time people need them most. Applications for crucial unemployment benefits in many parts of the east take bureaucrats weeks to process, leaving potential recipients for prolonged periods without any income.
An eastern Berlin woman who became jobless in early February had by mid-March still received no unemployment compensation. She was not unusual. In Potsdam, 300 police staged a token four-hour stoppage March 1 after snarled red tape had left them without pay for two weeks.
“It’s far harder than we thought to put a functioning (local) administration into place,” admitted Economics Minister Juergen Moellemann in answer to a question about such bureaucratic snafus. “We underestimated the problems.”
When government money does come, it is routed to personal accounts in a banking system that no longer honors old, East German checks, yet suffers a shortage of new, Western ones; where automatic tellers remain one more distant promise and their confused, overburdened human counterparts can only struggle on vainly.
“Many (tellers) still don’t understand the computer,” admitted the Potsdam Savings Bank’s assistant manager, Dieter Fachard, attempting to explaining the snail’s pace of activity.
Still slower is the eastern German legal system, virtually at a standstill in its attempt to clear a tangle of disputed property claims that affect a quarter of all eastern German real estate and block new investment crucial to the region’s economic revival.
Trouble in Chemnitz
The southern city of Chemnitz is typical.
A prestigious city center redevelopment plan of derelict land just across from the city hall is blocked by no less than seven separate western German claims to the property. But a political house-cleaning of former Communist officials has left the city with only 10% of the required judges, who, together with lawyers and public prosecutors, struggle to move the weight of litigation using a legal system they barely know.
Of the 12,000 property disputes filed in the city’s courts, only one has so far been decided.
“We feel powerless,” commented Mayor Noll. “Usually a community can put land at someone’s disposal. We can’t do that here.”
But for the citizens of eastern Germany, there is a greater indignity.
A people who 16 months ago rose up and freed themselves have effectively been delivered into unity as second-class citizens, with only marginal influence and treated so separately that many of them wonder about the very word unity .
Consider the following:
* The 78-year-old eastern Berlin grandmother, Gertrud Peisker, who recently had the misfortune of falling ill while visiting her grandchildren in the western part of the city, was refused treatment at a western Berlin hospital, then subjected to a 3 a.m. ambulance ride to an eastern Berlin emergency room where doctors immediately removed a burst appendix. “We were told there were no beds free, and, besides, she was from the east,” Peisker’s grandson said. A city health official described the case as “not unusual.”
* Two weeks ago, thousands of eastern addicts of the American television saga “Dallas” tuned in for their latest fix only to be told the program would no longer be shown in the east. A Berlin court, viewers were told, had just ruled that the rights to transmit the program--purchased by Germany’s main television channel--extended only to the western part of the country.
* Monday’s editions of the eastern Berlin daily Der Morgen (The Morning) carried an article about the Berlin judge, who, in remarkably similar cases on the same day, awarded a western German secretary $12,000 in damages for being fired after 24 years of service and $800 to an eastern German secretary sacked after 22 years employment. The paper also noted the plaintiffs’ differing reactions: the western German bitterly dismissed her $12,000 as paltry, the eastern German was triumphant that the company was forced to pay anything at all.
* At east Berlin’s Humboldt University, one historian calculated that a visiting western academic received $350 for a recent guest lecture, while an eastern counterpart earned $4 for a follow-on presentation.
Western Germans operating in the east are also frequently dismissive of their less worldly eastern cousins, displaying a kind of arrogant swagger more reminiscent of Hollywood’s stereotype of a World War II German military officer than a representative of a 1990s democracy.
“People here have to ask a lot of questions because so much is new, and this produces a feeling of humiliation that very easily evokes an imperious attitude among westerners,” said Manfred Stolpe, the governor of Brandenburg, largest of the five new eastern German states.
This attitude, coupled with other factors such as the dearth of eastern Germans among the country’s political leadership and the sheer remoteness of the federal government in distant Bonn, provide an aura more of a region that has been occupied rather than unified.
“Bit by bit, people here feel themselves degraded as pawns of petty accountants in Bonn,” said Saxony’s economics minister Schommer.
Commented Uwe Eicholz, who runs a small but profitable vegetable wholesaling company in Potsdam: “We wanted this country to be the same as west Germany, but that hasn’t happened. We’re completely second-class people. They talk of democracy, but what do we decide? Nothing.”
Cumulatively, these developments have only intensified the sense of separate German identities first articulated several months ago with the expressions ossie (eastie) and wessie (westie).
After a wave of ossie jokes swept through the west, those in the east have crafted a new batch to ease the weight of their worsening plight. Among the newly popular: The difference between an ossie and a terrorist? The terrorist has sympathizers.
Despite the level of disillusionment, public protest has so far been sporadic and peaceful.
Auto workers in Eisenach, near the old inner-German frontier, blocked a main east-west autobahn earlier this month after hearing the news that the work force would be reduced to 200 from 7,000, and other large protests have been held in Rostock, Erfurt and Berlin after announcements of similar Draconian layoffs.
But with bitterness growing and with the 30% unemployment expected to rise further through the course of the year, some worry about the prospect of social upheaval or a new wave of emigration to the west that could permanently condemn the region to relative poverty.
Saxony state government officials claim that 8,000 to 10,000 people per month are now leaving for western Germany. “The majority are young people with a trade, and that’s a worry because they won’t come back,” said Saxony government spokesman Michael Kinze.
New waves of jobless are expected with school graduations in June, and again in September, when factories traditionally reopen from summer breaks.
Some fear that Germany’s notoriously volatile mood swings could be ripe for extremism, if not from the left, then from the right.
With Kohl’s popularity plummeting in the east, the leader of the right-wing extremist Republicans, former Waffen SS member Franz Schoenhuber, is reportedly preparing a new membership drive to improve his party’s dismal 1% showing in last December’s national elections.
Writing in the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, novelist Schneider recently noted that an unemployment rate of 50% would place the eastern German region in conditions far more crippling than those that gripped it at the height of the Great Depression in 1932.
“In general, people feel they’ve been deceived, betrayed and humiliated,” wrote Schneider. “Whoever presents the social conditions of 1932 shouldn’t be surprised if the political situation also takes the form of 1932.”
It was one month into the following year, 1933, that Adolf Hitler came to power.
While the Kohl government recently approved increased funding, those familiar with eastern Germany’s problems insist that money alone is not enough.
An immediate injection of skilled workers, they argue, is crucial if the region is to revive quickly.
Norbert Walther, chief economist at the country’s largest bank, Frankfurt’s Deutsche Bank, has called for a draft of western German civil servants to serve limited tours in the east to help establish the transplanted bureaucracy. He has also called for western German executives to encourage and reward young managers who volunteer for work in the east.
“We have to rethink our whole business culture,” he said.
Walther and others also urged the government to quickly clear the tangle of property disputes by compensating claimants rather than returning the property.
“If we don’t change these priorities, we will create a legal minefield and a blockade to investment that will stay with us for decades,” Walther said in an interview.
Summed up Stolpe: “What our people really need is a sign of hope that they can actually grasp onto in their daily life. Something that shows them that life goes forward and above all, that they’ve got a chance in this new common Germany, in this new common Europe.
“That’s the decisive point,” he added. “And they don’t have that yet.”