Seven years later, Germany is still divided

April 02, 1997|By Robert Gerald Livingston

TRAVEL THROUGHOUT the eastern part of Germany, the states that until 1990 composed the communist German Democratic Republic, and you see cranes, bulldozers and backhoes everywhere. Autobahns have been widened and resurfaced, railroad track relaid; shopping malls built outside large towns and small; and Dresden's baroque places along the Elbe are being lovingly restored.

Behind such infrastructural improvements and a dramatic rise in eastern Germans' living standards (wages have been lifted to 80-90 percent of western levels) lies a government subsidization program unprecedented in European history. Every year since 1990 more than $100 billion has been pumped from the west into the eastern states. More money is going into eastern Germany each year (in constant dollars) than in United States sent to all of western Europe during three years of the Marshall Plan of the late 1940s.

Economically Germany has been unified. But two separate societies still exist in east and west, societies that remain estranged. In 45 years of separation after 1945 the two parts of the nation had grown to be quite disparate. In the early euphoria of unification they did not realize at first how disparate. In the last two years it has come to dawn on them, especially on the eastern Germans.

Unification was a takeover, friendly but total, by western Germany. Every important institution in the country -- big business, the banks, the churches, the trade unions and, most important, the courts, national administration and all but one of the political parties that are so decisive in the German political system -- continues to be dominated by westerners.

Throughout eastern Germany you find westerners in all key positions -- chairmen and chief financial officers of big firms, presidents and deans of universities, the decision-making state secretaries (deputy ministers) in the five state governments, and, most important, the personnel directors.

The old communist administration of East Germany was thoroughly purged. About a million civil servants were laid off. Three quarters of all factory jobs were eliminated after 1990. Bad enough today in Germany as a whole (over 12 percent), unemployment in the eastern states reaches 19 percent, according to official figures. If those in government make-work schemes or in early retirement were counted, 35 to 40 percent would be more accurate.

Psychologically, the years since unification have dealt blow after blow to east Germans' self-esteem. Once they had thought of theirs as the most successful of communist states. They also VTC took some pride that their liberation was owed not to the western Germans but to their own peaceful, candle-lit demonstrations on the streets of Leipzig and Berlin during the fall of 1989, a wave of protest that brought the communist regime to compromise, then reform and finally collapse.

East Germans are powerless to affect the big national decisions made in Bonn. No East Germans are among the country's political leaders or power-brokers. But election arithmetic does not compel politicians in Bonn to listen much to east German grievances: only one in five voters is to be found east of the Elbe.

With the big western-run political parties paying scant attention to the easterners' plight, the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), the retrofitted Communist Party, has emerged as champion of eastern Germany's interests, as an eastern David against the western Goliath. An exclusively regional party, the PDS won nearly 20 percent in eastern Germany at the last national elections, in 1994. Most observers think it will approach 30 percent there next year.

Apathy and withdrawal

The reaction of the typical east German, however, to west German dominance has been political apathy and withdrawal into the niches of private life. One reason to be gloomy about the political future is the absence in eastern Germany of mediating structures, those institutions that stand between an individual and government and provide the means for political education and activity.

Despite the mood of disillusionment about unity, nobody in the east wants the German Democratic Republic back. A better life and freedoms, particularly the freedom to travel, are obvious and valued gains since 1990. Islands of relative prosperity, such as the southern industrial state of Saxony or the ''belt of fat'' in the exurbs of Berlin, are also becoming evident.

But East Germany as a whole is not making it yet. With about 20 percent of united Germany's population, it produces only 10 percent of its GDP and only 5 percent of its exports. East German workers are only about half as productive as their west German counterparts. Every East German political leader insists that massive subsidization must continue for another decade or more. It will take at least as long for East German activists to learn how to play the game of democratic politics, for East German firms to attain international productivity levels, and for all East Germans to gain equality of opportunity in the united country that today is treating them as second-class citizens.

Unifying the country in these senses must rank at the very top of any German government's agenda.

Robert Gerald Livingston is Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington. He is working on a book on the politics of the German-American relationship.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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