To Easterners on border, West was elusive vision

September 26, 1990|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

STEIMKE, East Germany -- From his farmhouse on a small hill, Reinhold Fricke could see clear over the deadly mines and fences along the border with West Germany to the 12th century Brome castle he remembered as a boy. The tall castle was less than 2 miles away, but it belonged to a far different, seemingly inaccessible world.

"I always felt like I was watching the symbol of freedom," Mr.

Fricke said.

Now, Mr. Fricke can cross freely over the dismantled border between East and West Germany. On Oct. 3, that border will disappear even on paper as Germany becomes one.

The legacy of "the first socialist state on German soil," as the now-silent Erich Honecker used to call East Germany when he ran it, burns like a deep wound in the people of East Germany. Eager for Western prosperity but accustomed to guaranteed employment and a government that regularly made personal decisions for them, East Germans doubt their abilities in comparison with their more successful and confident counterparts from the West.

"The East Germans really go through an existential crisis," said West German novelist Peter Schneider. "They don't know what a tax consultant is. They have to start life all over, in a sense."

Their infrastructure and industry are hopelessly outdated. Western firms, wary of the high costs of overhauling former state enterprises from scratch, will not even take them for free.

The road ahead is daunting for East and West Germans alike. But while West Germans have tax increases and inflation to fear, East Germans face unemployment levels expected to reach 50 percent, hitting about 4 million from a work force of 8.3 million. Their salaries run at roughly one-third those in West Germany, although prices for everything but housing and electricity are equal on both sides of the border. And those items, too, are expected to rise swiftly in the East.

The heady expectations that East Germans could reach Western levels of prosperity in three to five years have evolved into 10 to 15 years. A survey in the West German news magazine Der Spiegel said 78 percent of the East Germans polled expect to be second-class citizens in the new Germany. A full 67 percent blame the Communist system they served for the economic mess East Germany finds itself in.

Despite the obstacles and the growing hostility among West Germans, no one here appears to doubt the wisdom of rapid reunification. When the stone is laid by the Brome castle to mark the day of German unity, it will be the sign for them that the Communist regime is truly dead and buried.

It was a regime they never really dared challenge. The people along the sensitive border zone have lived cowed lives, feeling perhaps most heavily the burden of the police state.

The old regime, eager to empty these restricted border zones of their residents, destroyed houses as the people left them. In Steimke, the population has dropped from 500 in 1945 to 350 today.

Horst Weinecke, the mayor of Steimke, said his constituents mostly made their peace with the Communist government. In his own family, one brother fled to the West and the other was arrested trying to flee. Mr. Weinecke decided to stay behind and take care of his parents.

"After they laid all the mines, some people were coming back with missing arms and missing legs. Then we started thinking about how we could live with [the division]," Mr. Weinecke


The proof of how well they adapted, he said, is that while more than a half-million East Germans fled to the West over the last year, not a single one was from Steimke.

People in the three East German towns bordering Brome were isolated both from the prosperous freedom of the West and from their countrymen in the East. Friends and relatives, even their own children, could visit only by applying for permission from the authorities every four weeks.

"And if my nose didn't please the gentleman in charge, they were not allowed to visit. It was as simple as that," Mr. Fricke said.

The people here did not rush through the border that first night of Nov. 9 last year, when hundreds of thousands partied in the streets of Berlin. They were more cautious, not knowing what to make of the sudden upheaval.

"If you've been enduring this joke for 40 years, you assume there's still some life left in it," said Mr. Weinecke.

He was in Brome recently, discussing the county borders that would determine whether Steimke should become part of the state of Saxony-Anhalt or part of Lower Saxony. It still seemed rather unbelievable to him to be pulling up a chair with Brome community manager Karl-Heinz Kull.

Their conversation turned to Otto Grotewohl, a former leader of East Germany, and Ernst Thaelmann, a Communist who died in the concentration camp at Buchenwald. The two men agree that Otto Grotewohl's name will likely disappear from East German street signs but that Ernst Thaelmann had a genuine following among the working class. Part of unity will undoubtedly be this, negotiating a common view of history.

And it will be making friends. Peter Niestroef, a 20-year-old biker who dreams of "crossing the big pond" one day to visit the Harley-Davidson factory in the United States, joined up with West German bikers as soon as the border opened.

"I was really impressed with the sense of community there," said Mr. Niestroef. "Here, when bikers pass each other on the road, they honk their horns. There, they actually lift their arms and wave. It's much more friendly."

Once convinced the border would not snap shut on them, Mr. Fricke and 13 other men from Steimke made straight for the male choir in Brome, whose director is now from Betzendorf, East Germany.

"Immediately, 14 singers from Steimke went to Brome each Friday night," said Mr. Fricke, feeling like a hero for perhaps the first time in his 62 years. "That was the unity of Germany. Big

politics will bring up the rear Oct. 3."

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