SLUBICE, Poland -- Once upon a time the little garden gnomes of this border town could easily cross into Germany and live happily ever after as lawn ornaments. Sure, some were forever drinking beer. But they were cute in their way and kitschy enough to stand shoulder to shoulder amid the shrubs with gnomes made in Germany.
Then along came a legion of trolls to stand guard at the bridge over the Oder River, ending the easy passage for the gnomes of Slubice. The trolls are German customs officers, and when they don't like the looks of a Polish-made gnome, he's as good as gone, whether he's ceramic or plastic.
Unless he has a lawyer.
"If we find gnomes that look the same or very similar to ones designed by German manufacturers, then we take them, and they stay in the office until the case is cleared," says Josef Dieterle, vice chairman of the German customs office in the border town of Cottbus. "This is not comparable to, say, cigarette smuggling, but we have to get involved anyway. This is our duty as customs officers."
Gnomes used to populate only simple tales of good and evil, but the border dispute is a parable of post-Cold War economics in Europe, pitting new, low-wage capitalists of the East against the trade protectionism and patent laws of the West.
The stakes in this funny-sounding spat are altogether serious, say German manufacturers. The sales figures for German-made gnomes -- some 3-foot-high models cost $250 -- run into the millions of dollars a year.
Polish vendors offer similar gnomes -- too similar, Germans say -- at a fraction of the price. And the Poles say they're being picked on by, well, giants, even though the vendors only want to join the game of free enterprise.
"It is wrong what the German side is doing," says Irena Wawrzyniak, who offers 3-footers for about $18. "They should give us and the manufacturers lists of patented models, so that people like me and the customers who keep asking about this would be sure about what is being bought."
Ms. Wawrzyniak opened her gnome stand about a year ago, making her part of a tradition that goes back centuries.
Guenter Griebel, who runs his own gnome company as well as the German Garden Gnome Museum in the southern German town of Rot am See, theorizes that the trade in garden gnomes began in the 18th century, when the middle class yearned to decorate their gardens just like the aristocracy. Since fancy statuary was too expensive, the middle class settled for gnomes.
That trend would be echoed years later when American suburbanites stocked their lawns with flamingos, jockeys and deer. But Mr. Griebel attempts to elevate the status of the garden gnome, pointing out that the German writer Goethe mentioned one in his 1797 play "Hermann and Dorothea."
Industrial production began around 1880, Mr. Griebel says, but only in the 1920s did mass production techniques bring down prices enough for Everyman.
The gnomes are marching
By the 1950s gnomes seemed to be in every garden in West Germany; Communist East Germany deemed them culturally unworthy and hopelessly bourgeois, so production stopped in the east. Communist officials then saw gnomes as exports that could earn Western currency, so production resumed. And soon Germany was awash with gnomes -- and even the West Germans began to find them too bourgeois.
Mr. Griebel and his wife, Jutta, revived the business in the late 1980s, by introducing irreverent new designs: There is the gnome with his pants down, and the gnome lying face down with a knife in his bloody back -- parodying the loathing the gnomes inspired.
After the collapse of communism, a bizarre business culture sprang up across the German border in Poland and the Czech Republic, with new, small-time capitalists producing gnomes at low cost. Along some forested stretches of highway are clusters of gnomes interspersed with garishly made-up prostitutes who flag down passing vehicles. Often the gnomes are better dressed.
"It is a kind of Wild West there," Mr. Griebel says. "Not many controls. Whole areas now are living off gnome copy production, with work in garages and in homes."
By last summer, German retailers were bringing in the lower-price models from Poland and the Czech Republic by the thousands. Sales of German gnomes began to drop.
So Mr. Griebel took action, sending his lawyer to court and then to customs officials, who were soon armed with pictures of his patented designs, so they would know a rip-off when they saw it. Authorities have since seized thousands of gnomes.
Thousands more still make it across the border and into German stores, but Mr. Griebel has found he can stop some of these sales with a few threatening letters.
Some Polish manufacturers have fought back by changing their designs, but Mr. Griebel isn't satisfied. "Sometimes they put the head of one gnome on the body of another to create a 'new' one," he says.