Eastern German Citizens' Group Highlights Country's Disparities

Hopes tied to reunification have turned to bitterness, as economic hardships, sense of humiliation deepen

A NEW wall separating east and west Germans - a wall of misunderstanding, resentment, and criticism - seems as divisive as the old border of concrete and barbed wire.

On a train speeding through the lush Rhine valley, a west German teacher enthuses about her recent two-week stay at a health resort close to the old border. As an aside, she remarks that the resort has laid off most of the east German staff it hired last year. The easterners just can't handle the hard work required, she says.

An east German museum director writes a bitter letter to a west German friend. The director has just been ousted from her job by a west German man many years her junior. Earlier, she had to endure meddling and interference from west German consultants who knew next to nothing about the small museum, she writes.

Anecdotes like these are what stand behind a newly established - and highly controversial - citizens' movement. The Committee for Fairness, founded July 11 by 69 prominent politicians, writers, artists, clergy, and professors from both parts of the country, is meant to be a lobby for east German interests.

"Every interest in Germany has a lobby. There is a farm lobby, an auto lobby, an arms lobby, a textile lobby. But we, the people, have no lobby," said east German writer Stefan Heym at a press conference in Berlin after the founding.

"Discrimination and humiliation of people - especially women - in the East, and spiritual, moral, and economic crises in the West, have destroyed the many hopes that were tied to German unification," the Committee wrote in their appeal.

The appeal stated that massive unemployment and reduced social services in east Germany, skyrocketing increases in rent and other costs, and the fear of losing houses and property to previous owners had, in effect, turned east Germans into "second-class citizens."

Nearly three-quarters of east German production workers have lost their jobs since 1990 or are working reduced hours. Meanwhile, more than 2 million claims have been filed for the return of lost property in the former German Democratic Republic - about half of them for private houses.

The Committee has caused a great stir in Germany, with many politicians saying it will only deepen the cleft between Germans, not close it. An opinion poll carried out by the Wickert Institute found most Germans oppose the Committee: 87.9 percent of west Germans and 79.6 percent of east Germans.

"East German problems will be solved either in an all-German way or not at all," warned Wolfgang Thierse, an east German who is deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party.

The political establishment in Bonn fears the movement could turn into a competing party. Pointing to the many ex-Communists in the movement (especially to cofounder Gregor Gysi, who leads the small faction of ex-Communists in the German Bundestag), they described the Committee as demagoguery.

The seeds of resentment in east Germany were partly sown by carpetbaggers of west Germany, explains Franz Kadell, a journalist from Bonn who moved to Halle to become news director of the east German daily, "Mitteldeutsche Zeitung."

"After the border opened, a lot of businessmen - people who weren't serious and who wanted to make a fast buck - took advantage of the Ossies [east Germans] and they haven't forgotten it," Mr. Kadell says.

Still, many west Germans are incredulous: How can the east Germans complain in the face of Bonn's largess? This year alone, public spending on the east has amounted to 180 billion deutsche marks ($122 billion), supporting, among other things, unemployment benefits, pensions, new highways, a state-of-the-art telephone system, and the restoration of important cultural monuments.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 attorneys, judges, administrators, and business people have left the comfort and order of their lives in the west to help out "over there," as east Germany is called.

"They aren't happy to be free. They just moan about looking for a new job," says a west German woman working on a temporary assignment in Leipzig. She particularly attacks the east German media, which she accuses of fanning the flames of self-pity.

Meanwhile, she says it has been nigh impossible to do her job, which involves land-use planning, because of the chaotic state of east German administration.

East Germans counter that a "Wessie" can't possibly understand their experience. Looking for a job is not just a matter of going out and finding work. Unemployment is their first, and greatest, encounter with insecurity. Everything from taxes to grocery shopping has to be relearned.

"People [in east Germany] have the impression they are being run solely by westerners," says Heiner Flassbeck, an economist at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

The deeper the discontent in east Germany, the greater the political and economic consequences for the country. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl received a blistering attack from one of his own party members, Berndt Seite, this month for not visiting east Germany more often.

Mr. Seite, governor of Meckelburg-Western Pomerania, the state which witnessed extensive strikes by east German shipyard workers this spring, said Chancellor Kohl only comes to east Germany for dedications and ceremonies, not to find out what the problems are.

Although it is difficult to quantify, economist Flassbeck says the discontent has an economic effect, too. Strikes, especially, take their toll. But more subtle implications include a general resistance to directives of the Treuhandanstalt, the agency set up to privatize the huge state-run concerns of the communists.

The woman working in Leipzig, meanwhile, is counting the days until she can leave. She speaks with disgust about the attitude of both the "egoistic" west Germans, out to grow rich businesses, and the "whining" east Germans, who don't appreciate what they've got.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK