After early euphoria, reality breeds anger


September 29, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Road construction all over, sausage stands on every corner and a slow but steady stream of new investors are transforming the surface of what only a year ago was the crumbling state of East Germany.

But as Germans prepare to celebrate the first anniversary of unification Thursday, there are signs that beneath the bustling activity of economic integration a deep emotional rift abides between east and west. It may even have become worse in Germany's first year of unity.

This first year of unification has been deeply disappointing to many eastern Germans, says Brandenburg state Premier Manfred Stolpe. "There is a contradiction. On the one hand material progress is being made, but on the other there is a broad feeling of insecurity and a sense of injustice," Mr. Stolpe said.

The anger of the Germans of the east, the feeling of being exploited and belittled by rich western Germans, Mr. Stolpe said, has given many inferiority complexes and made them aggressive.

The most recent example is this past year's increase in racist attacks against refugees from the Third World. While isolated attacks by radical-right youths have taken place in western Germany, eastern Germans have actually stood out on the street and applauded youths pelting refugees with stones and setting fire to their apartments.

"Like a person on a ladder who is being kicked by the person above, they're responding by kicking the person below," said Friedrich Schorlemmer, a pastor in Wittenberg who had been active in the anti-Communist opposition since the 1970s.

Mr. Schorlemmer said the people in his parish are bitter that unification has inflicted a sense of inferiority on them. While they applaud the destruction of the old Communist system, he said, they don't like being made to feel that their existence before unification was a waste of time.

A critical mistake may have been made last year when West German politicians carried out unification as though it were an ordinary West German political contest, Mr. Stolpe said. They made outrageous promises, telling East Germans that unification would bring instant prosperity. Such promises might have been taken with a grain of salt by an electorate more familiar with the hyperbole of democratic politics. East Germans took them at face value.

"This fragile trust in democracy was misused," Mr. Stolpe said.

When the politicians' promises of a painless transition to capitalism were not fulfilled, eastern Germans became passive and cynical about democracy, Mr. Schorlemmer said.

Many analysts and commentators see similarities between today's post-Communist eastern Germany and West Germany after the Nazi era. Trust in the new democratic system is still weak, as reflected in a poll by the Institute for Practically Oriented Social Research showing that 52 percent are dissatisfied with the current system.

People also are unwilling to participate. Even small exercises in democracy, such as parent-teacher associations, are hard to get started, Mr. Schorlemmer said.

"It's almost impossible to get people interested in participation. This makes it difficult to establish democratic structures," he said.

The institute's poll also showed that 42 percent are disappointed by unification, with a third saying they "often" or "very often" yearn for the pre-unification days of late 1989 and 1990 when East Germans were all employed and were applauded as the ones who breached the Berlin Wall.

One reflection of the general uncertainty in the east is the loss of skilled workers; the number of industrial scientists in the region has dropped from 70,000 to 20,000 over the past 15 months. Another reflection is the estimated one-half reduction in the birthrate.

Confidence may be restored, however, if the economy continues to show signs of improvement. Unemployment, currently 12.1 percent in the east compared with 5.6 percent in the west, probably will continue to increase, but most experts believe that the overall trend is positive as new businesses are founded and investment picks up.

Many western Germans, on the other hand, resent the fact that improvements seem to come at their expense. A series of tax increases has hit the average west German for an extra $75 a month, generating some grousing about eastern welfare junkies unable to work hard.

This anti-eastern feeling is reflected in a government-sponsored poll showing that while 92 percent of western Germans consider themselves hard-working, only 56 percent think the same of eastern Germans. Eastern Germans, by contrast, thought their western cousins were greedy and overbearing -- prejudices that help build the "wall in the head," as the psychological division between east and west is known.

Even the economy's rebound is filled with difficulties, because most of it is financed by unprecedented borrowing by the central government and by the poor eastern states.

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