A Year After German Unification, the 'Middle Way' is Forgotten

September 29, 1991|By JOSEPH R L. STERNE | JOSEPH R L. STERNE,Joseph Sterne is editor of The Sun's editorial pages. He was The Sun's Bonn correspondent from 1969 to 1972.

LEIPZIG — Leipzig. -- In old Leipzig, the "city of heroes," the site of mass demonstrations that led to the collapse of the East German regime two years ago, Auerbach's Keller is still in business. It is a place steeped in beer, wine, good food, tobacco smoke and legend.

At Auerbach's, Goethe set his tale of an aging Faust selling his soul to the devil for a return to youth and romantic love. Intellectuals and idealists who launched the East German revolution at nearby Nikolai Church knew with what devil they were wrestling -- a hated Communist regime and one of the most pervasive police states. Their goal was a benign form of socialism, a "middle way" between what East Germany had experienced for 45 years and materialistic West German capitalism.

As the first anniversary of Germany's political unification is observed Oct. 3, the advocates of a "middle way" have been swept aside. West German political parties moved in soon after the fortified frontier was punctured and gave voters the same choices offered their own electorate: either Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union or Social Democrats preaching only a little more statist intervention. There was no realistic alternative.

Pastor Christof Ziemer, superintendent of the Protestant church in nearby Dresden, complains that big, powerful West Germany co-opted the revolution and imposed its own system on the eastern German states.

"Individuals are hardly important at all," he says, contending that virtually nothing of value from the human side of socialism has been allowed to survive.

Germany's widely respected president, Richard von Weizsaecker, brusquely dismisses Pastor Ziemer's argument, saying, "I don't think there is a third way, nor do I think a majority of East Germans are for a third way."

There is every indication he is right. Eastern German stores are chock-full of the bountiful products once seen here only on West German television or in hard-currency stores. Rutted roads are becoming gleaming smooth ribbons of asphalt. Construction sites are multiplying as obsolete East German factories -- as many as 8,000 -- go on the auction block in the world's biggest fire sale. Hardly anyone who was not a part of the old regime wants to go back to the pinched living standards, the pervasive spying on one another, the travel constrictions and everyday cruelties that once blighted the sector under Soviet control.

Yet, this first anniversary of independence is being greeted with a sense of disappointment, impatience and even cynicism that government leaders make no attempt to deny. Instead, they ascribe it to traditional Germany angst, self-doubt and self-pity.

Mr. Kohl is known to deplore this "culture of pessimism" and, like politicians everywhere, is wont to blame it on the mass media. Deep down it conflicts with the optimism borne of what Germans see all around them every day -- a flourishing life style, increasing world influence, confidence in the way things German seem to work.

Some experts believe that the dislocation created by the abrupt takeover of a flawed and failing command economy by a flourishing free market system has already hit bottom and the economy is beginning to turn upwards.

Unemployment and inflation are leveling out, though at unacceptably high levels. The massive selling off of state-owned East German industry is moving into high gear despite problems caused by ownership disputes and terrible site pollution. A 7.8 percent surcharge on income taxes, a 1 percent boost in the value added tax and a 35 cents a gallon boost in gasoline taxes are financing a huge transfer of wealth to the east that is coming back in full order books for West German industry.

It is estimated that this internal stimulus has added half a percent to the gross national product and has helped stave off serious recession.

Fully one quarter of the $240 billion federal budget is being spent strictly for the economic revival of the five eastern states. Twenty percent of the $32 billion Bonn has spent in aid to the Soviet Union over the past two years is devoted to trade subsidies aimed at preserving a traditional market for East German goods. True, eastern salaries are only 60 percent of western salaries. But East German productivity is a lot lower than that.

"Wessies" (West Germans) may be disdainful of "Ossies" (East Germans) but their own politicians voted to move the national capital from Bonn eastward to Berlin. "Ossies" feel like second-class citizens. Their loud complaints reflect the luxury of being able to speak their own minds.

What is sometimes forgotten is that reunification came as a complete surprise on both sides of the fortifications that divided the German people after World War II.

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