WORLD

REBIRTH OF A NATION

FOUR DECADES OF NATIONAL DIVISION HAVE ENDED, BUT UNITY CELEBRATIONS ARE RESTRAINED

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 15 1990
WORLD

REBIRTH OF A NATION

FOUR DECADES OF NATIONAL DIVISION HAVE ENDED, BUT UNITY CELEBRATIONS ARE RESTRAINED

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 15 1990

REBIRTH OF A NATION

WORLD

FOUR DECADES OF NATIONAL DIVISION HAVE ENDED, BUT UNITY CELEBRATIONS ARE RESTRAINED

The latest joke making the rounds in Berlin last week was that East Germany had finally fulfilled the prophecy of its ideological founder, Karl

Marx: the state had withered away. But the way it happened had little to do with the vision of international communism advocated by Marx and his followers. At the stroke of midnight, as Tuesday, Oct. 2, turned into Wednesday, Oct. 3, the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist and merged with the Federal Republic of Germany into a single, unified country of 78.4 million people. Four decades of national division ended as the Liberty Bell at Berlin's Schöneberg city hall rang out and a black, red and gold German flag was symbolically raised outside the Reichstag, the old national parliament. The next morning, a Berlin newspaper, Die Morgen, summed up the new reality. “Good night, GDR and FRG,” it proclaimed. “Good morning, Germany!”

The new day, a national holiday celebrated under brilliant autumn sunshine, brought a reality that had seemed scarcely imaginable a year earlier. For almost all Germans, unification had been more a distant dream than a realistic goal. But the democratic movement that swept East Germany’s Communist regime away last fall changed all that. With last week’s formal merger of the two once fiercely opposed states, Germany recovered the full sovereignty that it lost with the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. The four conquering powers of the Second World War, Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union, relinquished their military rights in Germany. Reunited Berlin became the unified nation’s capital, although government administration continues to be carried out in Bonn. And 144 members of East Germany’s dissolved parliament sat with the 520 members of Bonn’s Bundestag in a historic joint session in the Reichstag—still scarred by bullets from the battle that raged around it in 1945.

Despite the momentous nature of the occasion, Germans celebrated in a markedly restrained fashion. In the east, festivities took place amid widespread fears of mounting unemployment and economic collapse, while many West Germans voiced concern that the rapidly rising costs of unity would soon push up

their taxes. Even in Berlin, the celebrations resembled more a giant street party than an exercise in national reaffirmation. On Tuesday evening, an estimated one million people streamed down East Berlin’s broad central avenue, the Unter den Linden, through the floodlit Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag. Many carried German flags, but there were

few nationalist chants, and even the singing of the national anthem at midnight was a somewhat halfhearted effort. Chancellor Helmut Kohl reflected the tone of restraint later by addressing fears that the new Germany might grow too powerful. In a unity day message, Kohl vowed, “There will be no unilateral nationalism and no ‘restless Reich.’ ”

Other leaders underlined the message that

the rebirth of a single German state should not reawaken fears of the country’s Nazi past. In Berlin, President Richard von Weizsäcker pointedly reminded his countrymen that their national division could be traced back to Adolf Hitler and the war he launched in 1939. And Weizsäcker departed from his prepared text to speak about the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, calling it “the most awful of crimes.” Still, the calls for unity and peace were marred by scattered outbreaks of violence and deep unease in the “former GDR,” as Germans now refer to the eastern half of their reunited country. In Berlin's sprawling central square, the Alexanderplatz, several thousand left-wing demonstrators set a car alight and fought with police during a rally against unification. Small groups of neo-Nazi activists fought with leftists and shouted rightwing slogans in several cities. And among many East Germans, the joy of unification was muted by concern over the immediate future.

Since July 1, when the East and

West German economies merged, nearly

500.000 East Germans have lost their jobs— and many economists predict that unemployment could reach 25 per cent or more by next spring. Last week alone, several hundred thousand former East German state employees joined the unemployment lines. And even companies that were once regarded as flagships of the old socialist order are going bankrupt with the sudden removal of the state subsidies that kept them alive. On unity day itself, the Pentacon camera firm in Dresden, which once sold Praktika cameras around the world, announced that it would soon close and lay off 5,600 workers.

The virtual collapse of the eastern economy has drastically raised Bonn’s bill for unification. The latest estimate is that it will cost about $75 billion for 1990 alone (or 4 per cent of GNP) to rebuild crumbling roads and telecommunications systems in the east, as well as to maintain social services and unemployment payments. Bonn must also pay another $24 billion to the Soviet Union to cover the costs of resettling its

360.000 troops in eastern Germany, which are to withdraw by 1994. At a unity celebration in Bonn last week, West Germans voiced fears that their taxes might go up to pay the bills. Said Henni Lessing, a 58-year-old housewife: “We don’t know what’s coming, whether taxes will go up or what, so I have mixed feelings about unity.”

The uncertain mood raised concerns that East and West Germans would still be estranged from one another long after last

week’s formal unification. In fact, after four decades of rigid separation, the two populations are far apart in everything from social attitudes to eating habits. Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading weekly magazine, carried out a lengthy survey of the differences in late September and titled it “United but strangers.” It found that East Germans (nicknamed “Ossies”) have an abiding sense of inferiority, are hostile to foreigners and resent “Wessies” (West Germans) for their besserwesserei (knowit-all) attitude.

The differences pervade everyday life. Ossies, the magazine found, drink twice as much hard liquor and eat twice as many potatoes as Wessies. And it painted a picture of what Wessies regard as typical East Germans: “There they are, waiting patiently in the morning. Pale faces, greasy hair, wearing old shapeless jeans and speaking in strange idioms. Some smell, others steal. But their women have more orgasms.” Awareness of the problems that may arise from the mutual suspicion prompted calls for understanding. At a meeting in Berlin last Wednesday, a West German Social Democratic Party leader, Egon Bahr, said: “We were thrown together last night, but the wedding took place before we got to know each other. This is only the beginning—and now we will see if we can really live together.” The mounting problems will test how quickly the Germans can overcome the psychological walls that still divide them.

ANDREW PHILLIPS

in Berlin