Will E. Germany Become a Sicily?

By , James F. Tent is professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

WHEN Italy unified in the mid-19th century, the prosperous North devoured the backward South and the latter's fragile industrial base disintegrated overnight. Sicilians in particular drifted elsewhere, despised because of their poverty, their inferior education and their provincial speech and customs. The same could easily happen in a reunified Germany. East Germans have no money - at least no capital worth mentioning. Their technological base is so hopelessly outclassed that Western firms reject outright offers of free plant and equipment because such enticements are outweighed by aged facilities and lackluster work forces. With unemployment surging, East Germans are on the move, drifting in Western cities. They are beginning to discover that their distinctive Saxon, Thuringian and other regional accents are stereotyping them as second-class citizens. ``Westies'' are accusing them of petty crime, of being lax and shiftless, unwilling to put in a decent day's work. Moreover, their education is not adequate. Most are computer illiterates.

The prosperous, high-tech West will have to pay most of the bills. The polluted, backward East will have to eat humble pie. And neither side likes it a lot.

Last March during the East German elections I noted that the major political parties would be wise to adopt a bipartisan spirit in creating a new, unified Germany since they would be setting the tone for their future state. Alas, partisanship has continued briskly in all camps anyway, and the results are now coming into focus. Bitterness and disillusionment are rife.

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Germans tend toward despair anyway, so fretting and backbiting are only to be expected. However, they should give some thought to how they can avoid creating their own version of a Sicily in Central Europe. Here are a few modest proposals that may help to bridge the gap until full integration of the two societies and economies is concluded - in a decade or two:

1. The Germans must turn Berlin into a genuine capital again. Currently East Berliners and West Berliners retain the mentality of people from two separate cities. The rapid-transit systems are linked again. Reknitting the Berliners' minds will take more time and effort. Berlin formerly was a city of corporate headquarters. The Western part of town has all the communications and transportation standards of the high-tech West and is ideally poised to function as a hub once again. It can be the first region of the East's reindustrialization.

2. Build on East German strengths. Far less crowded than West Germany, it has major tourist potential that has been ineptly tapped to date. The unspoiled Baltic coast, the snow capped Riesengebirge on the Czech frontier, the lovely canals, rivers, and lakes of the Spreewald all beckon. Historic cities like Dresden, Weimar, and Potsdam - to name only three - deserve a hefty infusion of capital to turn them again into the cultural meccas they once were and soon can be again.

3. Traditions count for something and East Germans' craft skills, although slightly ragged after 40 years of state-induced slovenliness, can count again. Jena was the home of Zeiss optics and continues to produce highly competitive lenses of all kinds. Leipzig once was and can be again the center of German publishing. Gotha remains a center of superb map-making. Its cartographers need only to upgrade the materials they use. Meissen, the birthplace of European porcelain, should produce quality dinnerware and glassware for all tastes and budgets as Rosenthal does in the West. Shortly before reunification hundreds of East German construction firms sharpened their skills in a highly successful restoration of an old town, the Nikolai Quarter in East Berlin. Let them do it again in other historic towns in the East.

4. Even nasty chemical, electrical and engineering centers can put fire in the furnaces once they've put scrubbers on the chimneys, so the heavy industrial towns of Saxony, Prussia, and Mecklenburg can become productive again without ruining the local environment. Open spaces and open skies in the East have intriguing possibilities. The East's large-scale monoculture would allow efficient production of grains in contrast to the heavily subsidized dwarf farms of the West.

Yes, this will be expensive. However, it will be cheaper than allowing a ``Sicily in Central Europe'' to emerge. Once a social malaise of that sort develops, it is incredibly difficult to reverse.

Surely the 65 million of the West can help the 16 million of the East with tolerance and generosity. Surely the 16 million can meet them half-way with patience, humility, and a return to patterns of hard work, thrift, and accomplishment.

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