German Unification Means Hamburg Is Up, Munich Down

March 29, 1992|By IAN JOHNSON | IAN JOHNSON,Ian Johnson writes frequently for The Baltimore Sun from Germany.

Hamburg, Germany. -- Long known for its massive harbor, prostitutes and disastrous economy, Hamburg has made a radical shift.

The enormous harbor and "joy girls" are still there, but Germany's second-biggest city has become the country's boom town.

Thanks to unification, the opening of Eastern Europe and an aggressive economic redevelopment program, this city of 1.6 million has gone from the German city with the highest percentage of people on welfare to Germany's most dynamic center. In the process, it has come to symbolize united Germany's orientation away from the rich Catholic south to the Protestant north.

Hamburg, which had been a wealthy port city for more than 800 years, was in the dumps for much of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The downfall of manufacturing and especially shipbuilding left 150,000 jobless. New investors flocked to the south, which experienced a boom much like that of the U.S. Sun Belt.

But in the mid-1980s, Hamburg's Social Democratic government embarked on a radical course of fiscal belt-tightening, tax cuts and pro-business incentives. As this policy was beginning to bear fruit, East Germany collapsed, and Hamburg regained its "back yard," the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

This combination plus the decision to move Germany's government to nearby Berlin have led to the economy's explosion. Since 1989, Hamburg's economy has grown faster than the national average. Last year, its growth rate topped 5.4 percent, compared with the national average of 4.5 percent.

Unemployment, which regularly hit 13 percent in the 1980s, has been reduced to just above 8 percent, a respectable rate especially considering that the city is a magnet for unemployed eastern Germans and East Europeans.

The city's traditional strength, its 6-square-mile free port where goods can be imported and processed duty free, continues to be its backbone, but the city has diversified into newer industries. More than 20,000 people work in aircraft construction or maintenance, and the city is Germany's second-biggest banking center.

No city has been hurt more by Hamburg's rise than has Munich. Once West Germany's "secret capital," the high-technology and weapon-manufacturing center of 1.2 million people used to lay claim to being the country's most vibrant and richest city. But decades of relentless gentrification have left a city center too expensive for all but the richest residents and most chic boutiques.

"They [Munich residents] can keep their Oktoberfest. This is where things are happening," said Hamburg local patriot Thosten Giessen.

The biggest loser is the Bavarian-based hard right Christian Social Union, sister party to the ruling Christian Democratic Union. The fact that Catholic Bavaria was the biggest and one of the richest of West German states allowed it to play a disproportionately large role in domestic politics.

Now, with the shift toward Berlin and Hamburg, the CSU has become just another small party and Munich just another rich city.

"No other western German city, except West Berlin, has received so many advantages from German unity," said the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

New projects are bound to solidify this. A proposed $3 billion magnet-rail system between Berlin and Hamburg would cut traveling time to 62 minutes. Already Hamburg has more than 80 consular offices in anticipation of it becoming Berlin's port. With the Scandinavian countries probably joining the European Community, Hamburg will become continental Europe's northern gateway.

Although the city's shops, lakes, parks and night life, including the infamous Reeperbahn red-light district, make Hamburg a popular place to live, its new prosperity can't hide its miserable weather. Like England, whose citizenry the Anglophile locals love to imitate, Hamburg is often gray, damp and chilly.

Not to worry, according to a Frankfurt magazine in a recent comparison of German cities. It cheerfully concluded:

"Hamburg's weather means that the local resident only has to worry about skin cancer for 110 hours a month."

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