WORLD

A MASS EXODUS

JOHN BIERMAN September 25 1989
WORLD

A MASS EXODUS

JOHN BIERMAN September 25 1989

A MASS EXODUS

WORLD

I love Germany. 1 love it so much that I am delighted there are two of them.

—François Mauriac, French author and critic

The fact that there are two Germanys, united by common history and language but divided for 44 years by barbed wire and ideology, was rarely more apparent than last week, when some 15,000 Germans from the Communist East crossed the Hungarian frontier to join their brethren in the capitalist West. In doing so, they provided vivid new evidence of the breakdown of the Communist system. But at the same time, they revived a dream that to many other Europeans, including Mauriac, is something of a nightmare: the dream of German reunification.

That is an unlikely prospect, at least in the near future. Under its old-guard rulers, East Germany is among the least likely of all the Eastern Bloc nations to move, like Poland and Hungary, away from Marxist orthodoxy, an essential first step toward reunion. As well, neither the Kremlin nor West Germany’s Eu-

THE FLIGHT OF EAST GERMANS TO THE WEST RAI THE PROSPECT OF GERMAN REUNIFICATION

ropean Community and NATO partners are yet ready to allow such a drastic realignment of the power balance. Fifty years after the start of the Second World War, their memories of a unified Germany’s explosive potential are still fresh. And, economically, a single German state would dominate Western Europe. Even inside West Germany itself, where reunification remains one of the goals of the 1949 constitution, the subject is only just now

being aired by mainstream politicians.

After avoiding the issue for years, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl acknowledged in the Bundestag (parliament) in Bonn last week that “the German question has stayed on the agenda of world politics.” And it will almost certainly be on the agenda for next year’s West German federal election. Said George Schopflin, lecturer on East European politics at the London School of Economics: “After this week, nobody can say that East Germans should be left to their fate. It’s clear that West Germany bears a responsibility for them and this realization could kindle a public clamor for reunification that will oblige the West German political establishment to finally address the issue.”

Many West Germans clearly thought that the stream of refugees heralded a major step toward reunification. In Vilshofen, a small Bavarian town where a tent camp had been set up, Mayor Rainer Kiewitz told Maclean’s chief European correspondent Andrew Phillips that last week’s events had stirred widespread hope

among ordinary citizens “that, in years to come, Germany can be one country with one people again.” He added, “That is just a hope now, but what is happening makes it seem more realistic.”

But most of the East Germans who streamed across the suddenly opened Hungarian-Austrian border last week were moved by more mundane considerations. Some said that they had fled to improve their living standards, others for the luxury of freedom of speech, and some for a combination of both. At a refugee centre in the Danube River border town of Passau, hotelier Christian Boraschke, 40, from Dresden, told Maclean’s:. “The money was all right, running a small hotel, but there was nothing to buy. You have to wait 15 years for a car. It’s ridiculous.” Added his wife, Ramona: “A good TV costs 7,000 marks [$4,200], a stereo is four or five thousand, and there are only two brands to choose from. It’s so hard to

get anything decent there, not even fruit and vegetables.” As well, there was a political dimension to their discontent. When Christian Boraschke took a course for restaurant managers three years ago, he was required to study Marxism-Leninism. He added: “There was more about communist ideology in the course than there was about cooking. How can you live in a society like that?”

Wolfgang, a 30-year-old from Potsdam who declined to give his surname to protect the relatives he left behind, said that he was an auto mechanic and that he had a job arranged for him by an uncle in Frankfurt. He added, “Why should the people in the East put up with second-class goods, second-class politics, second-class lives?” Pointing to his three-year-old son, sleeping in the back of his car, he declared: “We don’t want him to be second-class. We want him to have the best.”

To describe Wolfgang’s car—a Trabant, the most common make of East German automobile—as second-class would be a compliment. It is a tiny, tinny machine that spews out clouds of carbon monoxide and lead in violation of West Germany’s stringent antipollution regulations. To help the refugees, Bonn has temporarily exempted their cars from those controls. Set alongside West Germany’s Audi, BMW and Mercedes automobiles, the underpowered Trabants and Wartburgs make a perfect symbol of East Germany’s technological backwardness. Still, that country is the economic showplace of the Eastern Bloc. With the highest standards of living and the greatest range of consumer goods, it ranks among the world’s top 20 industrialized nations.

But it lags far behind West Germany in almost every field. That was evident in the efficiency with which the Bonn government handled the sudden refugee influx. The au-

thorities and the Red Cross set up six reception camps in the vicinity of Passau, but the refugees were passed on to their ultimate destinations so smoothly that, by last Friday, with the flood reduced to a comparative trickle of 700 to 800 a day, four of the camps had closed.

Bureaucratic efficiency was accompanied by an impressive display of goodwill. Hundreds of local people turned out to meet the first convoys of buses bringing 1,000 refugees to the Passau city centre early last week. Local residents pressed candy and flowers on the newcomers and gave balloons to their children. Local stores donated food, clothing and toys, and restaurants gave the refugees free meals. Those who arrived in their fuming Trabants and Wartburgs were offered free auto insurance. And grocer Fritz Horn set up a stand to hand out free pretzels and bananas. Said Horn: “They had not seen bananas for 10 years, and

pretzels are a great luxury for them.”

The refugees were also inundated with offers of employment. Passau's daily newspaper published two special issues containing details of 8,000 job vacancies. And the federal authorities gave each refugee $30 as spending money on arrival. After signing up for such social benefits as unemployment insurance, health care and pensions to which, like West German citizenship itself, they were automatically entitled, the refugees received another $120 each as start-up money.

Friedrich-Wilhelm Moog, administrator of a refugee camp near Passau, welcomed the arrival of the skilled and eager workforce. A Bonn government survey showed that more than 80 per cent of the refugees were under 40 and that, among the workers, a similar proportion were highly skilled. Declared Moog: “We need them badly. They all have a good education and a good attitude toward work. They’re very motivated people.”

In fact, West Germany, despite its booming economy, has more than two million unemployed. And when the euphoria subsides, some West Germans may find that their compatriots from the East are too highly motivated. A recent survey showed that, although West Germans expect to put in a 38-hour week, those from the East are willing to work 60 to 70 hours and to accept lower wages. Said Volker Ronge, a sociology professor at Wuppertal University: “That tends to fuel resentment and set them apart.” And at a strictly practical level, a potential employer hoping to hire a truck driver from among the refugees at Passau said that, if he found one, he would fire the man currently working for him because “he won’t work on Friday afternoons.”

The arrival of 15,000 refugees in one week

Still, the problems Bonn faced were insignificant compared with the anger and embarrass-

ment of the aged, orthodox Communist leadership in East Berlin. Already reduced to indecision by the prolonged illness of 77-yearold leader Erich Honecker, they vented their frustration by accusing Budapest of violating a 20year-old agreement not to provide a conduit to the West. East German news media even accused the reformist Budapest government of accepting bribes from Bonn, to which Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn responded that the insinuation was “so low as to be beneath comment.” Meanwhile, Moscow set itself apart from the m argument. Hungary had taken “an 8 unexpected and very unusual y step,” said Foreign Ministry 35 spokesman Gennady Gerasimov.

He added: “Naturally this is of some concern to

us. [But] it does not affect us directly.”

was a headline-catching demonstration of East German discontent, but the defections were not a new phenomenon. East Germans have been voting with their feet since 1948. Twelve million of them fled to the West in the 13 years

up to 1961, when the Communist regime built the Berlin Wall to stop the hemorrhage.

Now, with the Hungarian government showing no inclination to close its door to the West, 100,000 East Germans are expected to make the crossing this year. Added to those, Bonn expects to receive 350,000 ethnic Germans from other Eastern European countries in the same period. But even though its economy is surging, West Germany may not be able to handle such a large influx. Last week, the German-Canadian Congress appealed to Ottawa to allow 5,000 of the East Germans to move to Canada as refugees. But Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall

pointed out that because East Germans are automatically entitled to West German citizenship, they could not qualify as refugees.

That low-key response was clearly a reflection of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of nonintervention in the affairs of Eastern Bloc neighbors, a policy that recently has allowed Poland to establish its first non-Commmunist-led government since the end of the Second World War. It was also, perhaps, another sign of the decline of the Soviet empire.

JOHN BIERMAN

ANDREW PHILLIPS

PETER LEWIS

CAREY GOLDBERG