On unity's eve, West Germans still gasp at Easterners' differences

September 25, 1990|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

BROME, West Germany -- On Oct. 3, the notables of Brome will join East Germans from neighboring villages to lay a stone, engraved with that date of German unity, by the Brome castle. In the shadow of the 800-year-old castle, the differences between East and West Germans that loom so large these days may seem a 41-year twist of history.

But most people here are still absorbing just how different East Germans are, how deep the legacy of the Communist state runs and how enormous -- and expensive -- will be the task of truly uniting these two countries.

Less than a year after the people of Brome rushed from their homes to greet East Germans streaming through the suddenly opened borders, treating them to $25-a-couple, all-you-can-drink nights at the Bromer Stuben, both sides are reeling from the breakneck pace of reunification.

The two distinct worlds that East and West Germany have become over the last 41 years are uniting before East and West Germans have had a chance to discover each other and catch up with the changes.

Brome's town hall still displays the wanted posters of such Red Army Faction terrorists as Inge Viett and Susanne Albrecht, although the two were nabbed in East Germany along with other RAF terrorists after the fall of the Communist regime that sheltered them.

The county newsletter notes that the 50,000th visitor to the municipal pool was Michael Mertens from Steimke, in the "still German Democratic Republic."

That is a kind of encouragement to Mayor Wolf Bannier, who is animated by plans to bring the people from East and West together. He wants to extend hiking paths into East Germany and bring loads of tourists to the once-deserted border zones.

"The fact that we were separated for 40 years, we don't even feel it anymore. The division which affected us so painfully, we've forgotten. We want to forget," Mr. Bannier said.

Many of 3,000 people who live here came from East Germany and still have relatives there and property to reclaim. Hans-Hermann Winter, who came from just over the border in 1960, said he would be getting his family farm in Wendischbrome back.

"It couldn't have been forecast, certainly. But in hindsight, it couldn't have happened any other way," Mr. Winter said. But he has no plans to leave his job as an electrical engineer at the Volkswagen plant in nearby Wolfsburg to return east. Instead, he will lease the land.

Karl-Heinz Kull, the community manager of Brome, also is enormously happy with the open border, which will restore Brome as the administrative center of several communities cut off after World War II. But he has seen the change jarring people on both sides of the border.

"I got to know a very young -- 18-year-old -- border guard. He'd only been on border duty six months," Mr. Kull recalled. As Mr. Kull recounted the meeting, the young guard, sitting on a crate by a construction site, told him he just did not understand the world any more.

"I was always told that there was a border and on the other side lived evil capitalists," Mr. Kull remembered the young man saying. "It is your task to protect this country and these people from these evil capitalists. And now, these very same evil people are sitting here and drinking our liquor and talking to us."

"That was one of my most moving experiences," Mr. Kull said quietly.

The changes wrought by the open border have become difficult also for people on the prosperous western side to absorb.

"Until now, we slumbered on the edge, and then suddenly, all at once, we have to cope with an enormous flow of traffic. And a small minority sees that in negative terms," Mr. Kull said. "There hasn't really been enough time to reorient, to replan."

He is far more generous than public opinion polls and street chatter would suggest. No sooner was the smooth new road to Mellin, about three miles northeast, poured than folks started complaining about its cost. Nobody much celebrated the return of the political geography to its proper contours: Under the old system, West Germans had to travel 80 miles through a northern border crossing to reach Mellin, and pay $15.

More often, people complain about East Germans buying up all the goods in the supermarkets and stores to beat the higher prices on their side. The prices of used cars -- when they can be found -- have shot up all along the border, as East Germans rid themselves of their Trabants -- cars that look at home more in a circus than on the sleek Autobahnen of West Germany.

"There are lots of problems," said Holger Rupprecht, a welder who left East Germany as a political prisoner in 1976, thanks to a $40,000 ransom paid by Bonn. Mr. Rupprecht has little patience for the people he once left behind.

"They stare at products in the stores and don't move," he complained. "They live by the SBS system: see, buy, stockpile."

The social distance between East and West Germans is widening, just as the political gulf is shrinking.

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