At noon on a brisk but sunny Saturday, East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz is humming. Amid the jarringly ugly 1960s office buildings that ring the vast square, bands of political activists are competing for the attention of bemused passers-by. In one corner, the small United Left group is soliciting signatures on a petition against quick unification of East and West Germany. At a table set up by the conservative German Social Union, two men are loudly debating, their outthrust chins almost touching, to the delight of a growing crowd of spectators. In the middle of the square, members of a recently formed tenants’ union broadcast from a sound truck warnings against West Germans who try to reclaim buildings in the East and raise rents. On the far side, a street vendor is selling avocados, grapes and strawberries—and even he has an implicitly political message. A sign on the front of his stall reads “We accept deutsche marks only.” As the people of East Germany prepare to vote on March 18 in the first fully free elections of Eastern Europe’s post-Communist era, they face a confusing barrage of propaganda from dozens of parties.

But in one critical sense, the words of the politicians are less important than the fruit-seller’s blunt message that the East Germans’ currency, the ostmark, is no longer any good. He will take only West German money, a stark reminder that the most important issue facing the people in the Alexanderplatz is a foregone conclusion. Their rickety country’s merger with rich West Germany is already well under way. When they go to the polls, they will decide not whether to unite with the West, but how swift that process should be and who should negotiate the terms on their behalf. Said Jurgen Mönch, a politically independent artist in East Berlin: “We are growing used to the idea that the new East German government will be empowered to do nothing more than negotiate our capitulation.”

Novelty: That awareness is one reason for the atmosphere of resignation surrounding the East German vote. The people of what is now the German Democratic Republic have not participated in a completely free election since November, 1932, three months before Adolf Hitler became chancellor, later installing his Nazi dictatorship. But the novelty of a democratic campaign has produced little joy. Instead, there is evident anger at the four wasted decades under state socialism, confusion over how unity will be achieved and, above all, deep anxiety at what it will mean for jobs and living standards.

Outside Germany, Eastern and Western Europeans have expressed anxiety over the future power of a greater German state of nearly 80 million people stretching from France to Poland. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl fuelled those concerns by seeming to force the pace of unification and by refusing for several weeks to give Poland an unconditional guarantee that a united Germany would respect the existing German-Polish border. In West Germany, there is both burgeoning self-assurance and unease at the cost of absorbing the East and its outdated economy. In Bonn, billboards proclaim “We are somebody!” Radio stations have begun playing more German music, and companies increasingly use the German flag and national colors in their advertising. At the same time, however, economists say that replacing East Germany’s weak, nonconvertible currency with the strong West German mark is bound to fuel inflation in the West.

Unity: There will be other costs as well. West Germany will have to ensure that East Germans receive adequate pensions and social benefits, and will face the major task of upgrading the East’s deteriorating roads and railways. The cost to the federal government of integrating the two economies, estimated at as much as $18 billion a year for the next 10 years, will increase Bonn’s already $ 15-billion budget deficit and lead to pressure for higher taxes. West German business, too, will have to invest billions to refurbish or replace outdated Eastern factories.

Last week, those problems led to calls to slow the pace of unification. The opposition Social Democratic Party in Bonn urged a carefully negotiated unity. East Germany’s outgoing prime minister, Hans Modrow, cautioned West Germany that his country wants “unification, not Anschluss’—the emotionally charged word for annexation that is associated with Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1938. Private voices were also raised. In East Berlin, Heinz Odermann, a researcher at East Germany’s Institute for International Studies, cautioned that the process is spinning out of control. “We’re talking our way into a crisis,” he said. “We just don’t see it yet.”

Worries: But in some of the smaller towns and villages of East Germany, there was clear evidence that voters’ worries were more personal. Conversations revolved around how Eastern marks would be exchanged for Western marks, and at what rate. If the conversion rate is low, close to the current black-market rate of five ostmarks for one deutsche mark, East Germans’ savings would be almost wiped out. In Klötze, a drab, redbrick town of 25,000 people about 15 km from the West German border, 23-year-old post office clerk Kerstin Schönecke paused between selling stamps and explained that the uncertainty may force her to delay her wedding. “We’ve been waiting and saving for two years,” she said. “But if the savings go, how will we be able to pay for the wedding? How can we buy furniture? We’d have to start all over again. It’s frightening.”

About 20 km from Klötze, in the tiny border village of Oebisfelde, Rosi Grigat, the assistant director of the local youth centre, agreed that local peoples’ worries revolve mainly around money. “We all have a lot of money in the bank,” she explained. “There was never anything to buy, so you just saved. If the government just gives us a few D-marks for it, it’s like we worked all these years for nothing.”

In fact, Otto Pöhl, president of the West German central bank, the Bundesbank, has said that monetary union is not likely until “a few months at least” after the East German elections. He has called the idea that the East and West German currencies should be valued equally “somewhat naïve, but politically powerful,” because of East Germans’ fears that their savings will be wiped out. And he has laid down three conditions to be fulfilled before allowing the West German mark to replace the Eastern currency. The East must undergo “a radical change of its entire economic system,” its monetary policy must be placed under the Bundesbank’s control, and an efficient banking system must be established there.

Shoddy: East Germans’ concerns about their living standards have risen sharply since their opening to the West last November. For years, they could see Western lifestyles on television but they were forbidden to cross the border. Since the frontiers were opened, they have been going back and forth daily, eyeing the upscale consumer goods in the stores across the border, then piling into their sputtering Trabant cars and returning to a world of shoddy products, potholed roads and crumbling houses. The result has been a kind of culture shock—and a deepening sense of inferiority.

Anger: Talking in the Oebisfelde youth centre, Dirk Schulz, a 25-year-old mechanic, told how a friend returned from a visit to the ultramodern Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, just across the border in West Germany. “He couldn’t believe it,” recalled Schulz. “It’s all robots and electronics. We have what they used to have in the 1950s. We just keep repairing our old machines over and over again until they’re useless. It makes you feel kind of second-rate.”

In Klötze, retired businessman Hermann Kummert voiced a different kind of worry. When his son, Jurgen, who now runs the family’s small woodworking company, went to West Germany to explore the market for his products, he encountered an unexpected problem. “You can buy everything in the West in one big shop,” said Hermann Kümmert. “And a lot of it is made in the Third World. You don’t have to order from a little place like ours, so we wonder whether we can compete.” Still, he added, “every generation has had to adapt. We’ll survive.”

In the border areas, anger at the old regime is particularly deep because of the severe restrictions placed on local people. In the past, a five-kilometre strip along the border was designated as a special “security zone” to which even East Germans needed permission to travel. Walter Wiswedel, a 73-year-old retired farmer, recalled how his four children had to apply four weeks in advance for a permit to visit him in his village of Jahrstedt, inside the security zone. And Wiswedel himself had to apply a month in advance for a permit to visit the grave of another daughter who is buried in a cemetery less than half a kilometre from the border, an area of even stricter security.

“We’ve been totally victimized here,” he said angrily. “Someone should put up pictures of the people who ran things here and say, ‘Don’t let their kind come back again.’ If I was 43 now instead of 73, I’d do it myself.”

Tragic: Already, the growing ties between East and West are transforming the border area, which local people sardonically refer to as the “dead zone.” For decades, since East German authorities sealed off the border in the 1950s, villages like Oebisfelde were literally at the end of the road. Historic half-timbered houses near the dividing line crumbled as the government refused to invest in the region. Now, cars and trucks roll steadily through the newly opened crossing points, and well-off West Germans inquire about buying derelict property. Since the beginning of the year, more than 30 people have applied to open small businesses in Oebisfelde, compared with just two in all of 1989. Said Mayor Steffen Wetterling: “You could say that we have rejoined the world.”

Other East Germans worry openly about jobs, rents and prices. Although most of them now dismiss the discredited socialist system as a tragic error, many still believe the old regime’s stereotype of West Germany as a dog-eat-dog capitalist society in which only the strong survive. Their concerns are heightened by the thousands of West Germans who have lodged claims on land or buildings that the Communist government seized decades ago. Some East Germans have suddenly found themselves with a prospective Western landlord who plans to sell their building or increase their rent. At the tenants’ union rally in Alexanderplatz, Wolfgang Müller related how the people in his Berlin apartment building have been told that a man from Munich is claiming the property. “Maybe we’ll have to pay more or get out,” Müller said.

Nazis: Some East Germans say that the angry response to the crumbling of the old Communist system will make the future more difficult. Hans-Joachim Maaz, a psychiatrist in the East German city of Halle, compared the reaction of his fellow citizens to the passing of the socialist order with the response of all Germans to nazism at the end of the Second World War. Writing recently in the West German magazine Der Spiegel, Maaz said that Germans in 1945 used the Nazis as scapegoats to explain away crimes that they themselves had participated in. Similarly, East Germans are now blaming “Stalinism” for the ills of their society without examining how they helped the system to survive for four decades. Wrote Maaz: “We are already looking for victims to blame.”

And, Maaz added, East Germany’s system of censorship, repressive schooling and political uniformity has bred a population that is not yet prepared for democracy. The average East German, he concluded, has suppressed feelings of anger and sadness and has learned to lie in public in order to avoid trouble. Now, Maaz wrote, “Their urgent wish is to have a ‘Führer’ or somebody who they can blame everything for. If they don’t have such a person, they feel very insecure.”

Prepared or not, East Germans have been getting a full measure of Western-style democracy in their first free campaign. More than 40 political parties and groups have registered to participate in the vote. They include the idealistic pro-democracy groups, such as New Forum, that sparked last fall’s successful revolt against Communist authority. But as the campaign has progressed, it has become clear that the main fight is between the Eastern branches of parties already ° well-established in West Germany. And with the results of the East German vote certain to influence politics throughout Germany in the run-up to West Germany’s federal elections in December, the Western parties have poured money and technical help into the East to help their sister parties.

In fact, the stars of the Eastern campaign have not been the leaders of the main East German parties, but Western politicians brought in to campaign for their allies. Kohl himself has attracted huge crowds for the Alliance for Germany, a conservative coalition that includes the chancellor’s own Christian Democratic Union. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), Kohl’s main opposition in Bonn, named former chancellor Willy Brandt as its honorary chairman in the East. Brandt toured the East like a hero, underlining the SDP’s message that it would do the most to protect East Germans’ social benefits after unification. In Erfurt, Brandt declared, “The train to unity is rolling, but what matters most is that no one gets caught under its wheels.”

All the main parties in the East, including the former Communist party, now called the Party of Democratic Socialism, advocate unification with the West. But they are divided over how to achieve it. The conservative Alliance favors swift unity and argues that a united Germany will not need a new constitution. Instead, under its plan, East Germany could simply apply, soon after the March 18 elections, to join the West under " Article 23 of the federal republic’s basic law. SDP politicians, in contrast, favor a longer unity process. They propose setting up a joint “Council for German Unity” to draft a new constitution based on that of West Germany, but with special provisions for the East. The new constitution would be tested in a referendum, followed by elections to a new, all-German parliament. That step-by-step approach, the Social Democrats maintain, would “allow an orderly growing-together of the Germanys.”

Challenges: The SDP has won wide support in East Germany for that platform. The Social Democrats have also benefited from the fact that their party was forcibly merged with the former Communist party after the Second World War, allowing them to portray themselves as being among the Communists’ earliest victims. In contrast, the East German wing of Kohl’s Christian Democrats collaborated with the Communists for 40 years. After last fall’s democratic upheaval, Kohl forced the Eastern Christian Democrats to change their leadership and co-operate with other conservatives in the Alliance for Germany, but the party remained tainted by its past. That gave the Social Democrats a strong early lead in the campaign.

Last week, however, a new opinion poll indicated that East Germany’s voters are moving to the right. The survey put SDP support at 34 per cent, compared with 30 per cent for the Alliance and a surprisingly strong 17 per cent for the former Communist party. Most analysts maintain that the likeliest outcome of the vote is a coalition government of Social Democrats, conservatives and others headed by the SDP’s leader, Ibrahim Böhme. Whatever the result, the governments of both East and West Germany will face major challenges as they move towards unity. Kohl will have to contend with a growing resentment among West Germans at the continuing influx of East Germans—more than 100,000 so far this year in addition to the 344,000 who arrived in 1989. The northern city of Bremen recently declared that it would no longer accept settlers from the East; the mayor said that the city had to give priority to caring for its own unemployed and homeless. Officials in dozens of other cities and towns have said that they, too, are saturated with newcomers.

Flashy: In towns near the border with the East, West Germans increasingly complain that the Easterners are polluting their streets with their smoky little cars, crowding them out of their favorite stores and even shoplifting. And opinion polls show that, although West Germans continue to support unification, they resent the prospect of paying higher taxes to finance it. One survey, published last week by Hamburg’s Die Zeit, said that 69 per cent favor unity but only 27 per cent are prepared to pay more taxes to finance it. Researchers from the Allensbach Institute, which conducted the poll, concluded that younger West Germans are not willing to sacrifice their own well-being for that of others as their parents did to rebuild their country after the war.

In East Germany, the new administration that emerges after the elections will have to grapple with even tougher challenges. With its economy continuing to weaken and its citizens departing for the West at the rate of nearly 2,000 a day, it will face the task of negotiating terms of unity with Kohl’s government. It will have to move fast enough to satisfy East Germans who are impatient for an improvement in their living standards, but cautiously enough to ensure that unification does not further undermine its citizens’ fragile security.

What almost no one on either side of the border questions, however, is the direction of events. Even those East Germans who remain skeptical about the wisdom of rapid unification concede that it appears to be unstoppable. The physical proof of that is evident any day at the dozens of busy border-crossing points between the two Germanys: thousands of weary Easterners returning home laden with cheap stereos and flashy new clothes from the West. Said Heinz Odermann of East Germany’s Institute for International Studies: “What we have here is the head-on collision of the East German people with the West German material paradise.” That collision seems sure to result in nothing less than the reemergence of Germany as an economic superpower in the heart of continental Europe.