Germans in west learn both sides must change for unification to succeed

May 12, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- After six months spent working with colleagues from the eastern part of the city, Klaus-Peter Tietz has come to a radical conclusion.

"They're not so bad workers after all. A lot of our prejudices about east Germans are simply wrong. We are the ones who have to rethink our assumptions," the 51-year-old municipal finance expert from former West Berlin said.

For many former West Germans, Mr. Tietz's conclusion is unpleasant but true. A half-year after West and East Germany united, citizens of what was West Germany are learning that unification means they, too, have to change their behavior.

The change is coming about in many ways. Germany's biggest political parties, which are all from former West Germany, are realizing that the tried and true formulas for prosperity in the west do not necessarily work in the east. And on an everyday level, western Germans are realizing that it will not do to simply demand that eastern Germans copy their behavior.

"Unification can only succeed if relearning and learning anew is not limited to the east. We have to move toward each other," German President Richard von Weizsaecker said.

This relearning is nowhere more obvious that in the Berlin city government, where Mr. Tietz works on the city's budget. He was sent to the former East Berlin city government last autumn to revamp its financial department. But instead of finding the incompetence he expected, he found a functioning city government.

Problems began, however, when he insisted on introducing western methods without consulting his new colleagues.

"I guess I was the typically arrogant Wessi [west German]," Mr. Tietz said at a recent city government workshop on improving Berlin's strained east-west relations.

His east Berlin co-workers agree.

"We felt that we were being treated like children. For the Wessis, unification just seemed to mean an expansion, not the creation of something new," said Ute Maetsch, 33, an economist who worked for Mr. Tietz in the east.

Such attitudes on the part of west Germans, however, are slowly fading. The east's economic problems and the failure of the western system to offer some sort of alternative to it other than mass unemployment have shocked many people in the west into the awareness that unified Germany isn't just West Germany with more territory.

"The gulf in Germany is the biggest domestic problem. It has become obvious because the two German societies are more different than people imagined," political writer Gunter Hofmann said.

These difference were not so obvious last year, Mr. Hofmann said, and any mention of them was almost unpatriotic. Now, admitting that the gap exists is the best chance for bridging it, he said.

The current squabble inside Chancellor Helmut Kohl's coalition government, however, is a sign that this realization is only very slowly sinking in. The attempt by the Christian Social Union, the southern-based sister party to Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, to transfer its formerly important role in West German politics to united Germany's very different political scene shows that old political structures are changing only very hesitantly, Mr. Hofmann said.

Although the old parties are slow to grasp it, the old north-south battle in West German politics has nowbeen superseded by a far more important east-west divide. Many issues, such as abortion and where the German capital should be located, now reflect east-west sympathies rather than traditional party politics.

Almost against their will, west Germans are being forced to direct their attention eastward, the Social Democratic east-west expert Egon Bahr said.

"Paris was always more important than Berlin. West Germans had long ago turned their backs to their eastern brothers and sisters, not in words but in thought. Slowly, this is changing," Mr. Bahr said.

Manfred Stolpe, premier of the new eastern German state of Brandenburg and a man pegged as most likely to replace Mr. von Weizsaecker as German president in two years time, said the country's greatest task now is to prevent the ditch between east and west from deepening. The current economic depression in the east and the accompanying feeling that western Germans are only grudgingly sharing their wealth could create permanent ill will, he said.

"If we aren't successful in overcoming the division between Germany east and Germany west, then we will miss the chance to enter phase two, the internal phase, of German unity," Mr. Stolpe said.

One of the biggest problems in overcoming this gap is for west Germans to learn how to share. Political scientist Roger de Weck said unity for many western Germans is just a disturbance.

"Unification means for them a denial: denial of even more prosperity and a denial of old ways of thinking," Mr. de Weck said.

An east German psychologist from Halle, Dr. Hans-Joachim Maaz, said at a recent conference that east Germans need counseling to help them cope with the radical change in society but that west Germans also must learn to change their attitudes.

"West Germans must stop thinking that their system has the answer to everything. In the end, it was the people here who made a successful revolution that overthrew a tyranny, not the west Germans," he said.

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