New German parliament opens in historic Reichstag

October 05, 1990|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

BERLIN -- United Germany held yesterday its first parliamentary session at the Reichstag since the 1933 fire that once destroyed democracy here, with political party leaders pledging to overcome Germany's brief, troubled history as a united country.

Though yesterday's speeches held no shortage of infighting over the details of unification, party leaders appeared impressed with the enormous challenge of the work ahead of them and called for solidarity in tackling the job.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl said his government would be "marked by an awareness of German history in all its aspects."

"We must never forget, suppress or play down the crimes committed in this century by Germans, the suffering inflicted on peoples and nations," he said.

"By jointly shouldering this burden, we shall prove ourselves worthy of our common freedom. We owe it to the victims to keep alive the memory of the darkest chapter of our history. Above all, we owe this to the victims of the Holocaust, the unparalleled genocide of European Jews."

Five politicians from the former East German government's transitional run at democracy were sworn in yesterday.

Former Prime Minister Lothar deMaiziere, Parliamentary Speaker Sabine Bergmann-Pohl, State Secretary Guenther Krause, Liberal Party leader Rainer Ortleb and German Social Union Chairman Hans-Joachim Walther became ministers without portfolio in the new German government.

Attending yesterday's session were 519 West German Bundestag members and 144 from the former East German parliament, the Volkskammer. After paying tribute to German unity, they lost little time in getting down to work.

Unemployment figures released yesterday highlighted the most glaring problem facing Germany: the sharp discrepancy in living standards between East and West.

September figures showed unemployment dropping in West Germany as a result of the increased demands on production by East German consumers, while the number of jobless rose by one-quarter in East Germany as more and more formerly state-run enterprises collapsed.

The sudden shift to capitalism has left about 450,000 East Germans out of work and 1.7 million others working reduced hours on reduced salaries. Officials estimate that about 80 percent of these short-time workers are effectively unemployed, actually working no hours at all and headed soon for official unemployment.

"The German wedding party is over," said Wolfgang Thierse, a Social Democrat from eastern Germany. "Now, the married couple has to earn a living, set up a home in a humane way, and take care of the children."

Oskar LaFontaine, the Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor in the December elections, said Germany had so far accomplished unity only as a "societal concept." True unity, he said, would come only when equal standards and opportunities prevailed in both parts of the country.

Gregor Gysi, who heads East Germany's revamped Communist Party, now called the Party of Democratic Socialism, warned Mr. Kohl against denigrating the history and state of affairs in East Germany "to glorify the Federal Republic of Germany."

He noted that the SED, the Communist party in East Germany, was originally an anti-Nazi party. Its members are now struggling to understand the perversion of their ideals by the former hard-line party and recapture hope, he said.

Nowhere are the hopes and torturous failures of the German people more completely reflected than in the Reichstag, a 19th-century sandstone building a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate.

It was from here that Philipp Scheidemann announced the birth of the first German republic, the Weimar Republic, from a balcony Nov. 9, 1918. It was on the same date last year that the Berlin Wall first cracked open for East Germans.

In February 1933, the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag and blamed the Communists. The Reichstag fire became the pretext for stamping out political opposition.

"The fate of the German people in the last 100 years cannot be separated from the fate of this house," Count Otto Lambsdorff, head of the Free Democrats, told legislators.

Yesterday, a 90-year-old Social Democrat named Joseph Felder, who served as a deputy in the last Reichstag, returned here. He recalled the optimistic mood at the last parliamentary session he attended here in December 1932. The Nazi Party had lost 30 or so seats in the November elections after a landslide in the July balloting.

He said he was filled with optimism now upon seeing Germany reunited. "I'm in high spirits, especially since the party I've been serving since 1920 has survived despite all the crises," Mr. Felder said.

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