60,000 Leipzigers take to streets to protest unemployment

March 26, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

LEIPZIG,GERMANY — LEIPZIG, Germany -- In the largest demonstration in eastern Germany since the fall of communism, at least 60,000 people marched yesterday for an end to unemployment and the uncertainty that is gripping their lives.

For many it was the first demonstration since the regular Monday night demonstrations in Leipzig in 1989 and 1990 for German unity and against the East German Communist government.

"I decided to go out on the streets again. I just couldn't sit inside and do nothing. My wife is unemployed -- she got her notice today, on Easter week. And I'm expecting mine after Easter," said Heinz Arnold, 43, a metalworker.

But it is not just the threat of unemployment that has forced this rebirth of the Monday night demonstration. Like many others from former East Germany, Mr. Arnold is confused by the almost complete change in every aspect of his life. From the soap and toilet paper he buys to the welfare line he must contemplate, virtually everything is new and complicated.

Most incomprehensible is how the government can allow people to become unemployed when the country needs to be rebuilt.

"Why are they spending billions on unemployment insurance when we want to rebuild our city? What we need is some concrete action rather than the politicians' blathering," said Manfred Seraphim, 70.

Many others complained that German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had not visited eastern Germany since winning the national elections last December. Mr. Kohl is on vacation at a weight-reduction clinic for the holidays. He has said that he will face the Leipzigers after Easter.

The Leipzig demonstrations have been growing over the past three weeks as people living in what was East Germany use their most emotive weapon to draw attention to their situation. Like almost nothing else, the Monday night demonstrations in Leipzig were the symbol of the people's power that helped topple East Germany's Communist government 18 months ago.

Their rebirth has forced Mr. Kohl and his government to address the worsened economic situation that they claimed couldn't happen. Against Mr. Kohl's promise in July on the day of German currency union that "none will be worse off, but many, many will be better off," the reality seems much different.

Nearly 35 percent of the work force, or 3 million people, are either unemployed or on short-term work, with predictions that the rate will reach 50 percent in industrial areas by summer or fall.

Although this development was foreseen by most German economic research institutes, Mr. Kohl's government prepared the people for the opposite, hinting that a dramatic improvement in their standard of living would occur with unity. Many people have now become fed up with hearing that light is at the end of the tunnel when in fact unemployment figures continue to increase dramatically each month.

Another source of anger has been the Trust Office, which was given the thankless job of managing and privatizing East Germany's 8,000 state-owned companies that employed nearly half the work force.

The office's most hated policy is called "Abwicklung," a new bureaucratic expression that roughly means liquidation. For most people it simply means that formerly state-subsidized or state-owned offices, theaters, day-care centers and scientific research centers are being closed and the employees made jobless.

With little improvement in sight, the protests have come into their own, but so too has an even greater danger for the region's long-term health: Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are migrating to former West Germany each month.

"This area is bleeding to death. In a way, I am happy to see people out on the streets [demonstrating] because it means they aren't heading west," said Christian Fuehrer, pastor of the Nikolai Church in Leipzig, which sheltered many opposition groups in 1989.

Mr. Fuehrer believes that the unemployed are a "tinderbox" of social problems the government has ignored -- at its own peril. Mass unemployment and resulting social instability are creating "aggression and disappointment that people have not learned how to handle. They never had to look for jobs in their lives before," he said.

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