Abiding divisions foment German squabbles

November 09, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- With the recession easing, employment increasing and inflation at bay, the economic wounds of German reunification are healing smoothly. Yet, five years after the Berlin Wall came down, east and west Germans seem as divided as ever, sneering at each other across a psychological gulf that isn't likely to narrow soon.

Today is the anniversary of the moment the wall was opened to hordes of East Germans, a moment that symbolized the collapse of the Communist regime and reunification of East and West Germany.

Yet, abiding divisions between them are evident in everything from squabbles over street names to choices in beer, cigarettes and detergent. It also showed at the ballot box, where easterners again have found it fashionable to be Communist.

In last month's national elections, the PDS, East Germany's reformulated Communist Party, captured a fifth of the vote among former East Germans. In some districts of east Berlin the party won nearly half the vote.

West Germans, meanwhile, have persisted in looking down their noses at their poorer eastern cousins, seeing them as lazy, unsophisticated and unable to succeed in a competitive society.

It's all been enough to make some easterners a bit defensive.

"This was not unification; it was just an enlargement of West Germany," said Juergern Kuttner, who airs eastern frustrations on his popular talk show for the FRITZ radio station in Potsdam. "Many easterners . . . had to react, to learn, to adapt to a new system. This is the status of a lab rabbit, and they're still objects for study: 'Now tell us, what did you think? And what do you think now?' "

The disaffection isn't just some vague feeling that plays out in anecdotes or regional jokes. When the Allensbach Institute asked recently if Germans felt they were again "one people," only 28 percent of easterners said yes. That was a drop of 17 percentage points from 1990, the year of reunification. West Germans are also feeling more estranged, with 47 percent answering yes compared to 54 percent in 1990.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

"In 1989, when the wall came down, the expectation was, as ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt put it: 'Now grows together that which belongs together,' " said Dr. Brigitte Rauschenbach, a professor of social psychology at Berlin's Free University. "But soon afterward there was this big disappointment. What we have now is not the feelings of enemies but rather the feelings of difference."

It sometimes seems as if eastern and western Germany were a pair of orphaned children separated at birth. One was raised by strict, blue-collar Russians, quick to punish and stingy with luxuries, yet lax about chores and homework. The other grew up with rich Americans, bred on Top 40 radio and brand name loyalty, with regular worship at the shrine of self-sufficiency.

Now both sets of parents have moved away, leaving the children to set up house. Little wonder there's friction, and it shows in countless ways. Four years ago, east Berliners seemed eager to erase every vestige of their old nation. In response, the reunited city began renaming streets with a frenzy, dropping 66 names deemed "undemocratic."

But as the job nears completion, resistance has sprung up among easterners who now see the old names as part of their heritage. Residents and merchants of Wilhelm Pieck Strasse raised a fuss when the city began putting up new signs for Tor Strasse. (Mr. Pieck was the first president of East Germany).

Karl Hennig, a city senate staffer who deals with the topic, and who is a west Berliner, was puzzled and irritated by the controversy. "The name had to be changed because an important street like this in the center of Berlin is a calling card for the city as a democratic capital," he said. "Pieck ruled under the mercy of Stalin. He was responsible for political persecution and all that."

But, Mr. Hennig admits, "Now, people want to keep a little bit of the GDR, that's why this change has gotten so dramatic. Another thing is that the PDS [Communist Party] is pretty strong in this part of town, and they have led the protest. They use this GDR nostalgia."

The nostalgia has spilled over into the shopping aisles.

When the wall first came down, East Germans deserted their state-produced labels and products in droves, trying every Western item they could get their hands on.

Then Western companies began buying out the state concerns of the East, snapping up rights to eastern labels while improving quality and applying the hard sell of Western marketing. In the meantime, said Sebastian Turner, manager of Scholz & Friends, the largest advertising company in eastern Germany, easterners discovered not only that Western brands weren't perfect, but "they also had all this frustration with the new system. So some east German products became champions."

Loyalty to local brews was already endemic to the German passion for beer, and eastern brewers cashed in with slogans such as Freiberger Beer's: "Typically Saxon."

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