On anniversary, Germans look to a broader unity

Ten hard years after reunificaiton, an eastern city pins hopes on EU expansion.

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Germans are marking the 10th anniversary of their country's reunification today with an official ceremony in the eastern city of Dresden and a large celebration in Berlin.

Former chancellor Helmut Kohl, disgraced by a slush fund scandal, declined to attend festivities after he wasn't invited to speak. A decade after the unprecedented fusion of the communist East and capitalist West, German politicians are arguing over who should take the credit.

But with the promises and pitfalls of Europe's tortuous integration made tangible here like nowhere else, to many Germans, the debate almost seems irrelevant. Nowhere is this more evident than in Eisenhttenstadt, an archetypical East German city that is staking its hopes on the next steps beyond German unification, to a more unified Europe.

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If it had been up to the citizens of Eisenhttenstadt, it's possible that the dramatic November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, which set the course for reunification less than a year later, would never have happened.

Known as Stalinstadt before it was renamed "Iron Works City," Eisenhttenstadt owes its very existence to the country's division after World War II.

With steel production concentrated in capitalist West Germany, the Communist leadership decreed the construction of six blast furnaces in a pine forest on the Polish border. It was conceived as the model socialist city.

"The model failed," says Mayor Rainer Werner. "Everything was in a desolate condition" at the time of unification. Today, the sprawling metallurgical plant still dominates the city, but three-fourths of the steel mill's 12,000 workers have been laid off since reunification.

As in much of eastern Germany, the costly task of renovating Eisenhttenstadt is only half complete. Nevertheless, the city has come a long way in the past decade. Thanks to more than half a billion dollars in subsidies, the privatized steel plant is turning a profit and is starting to expand once again. Workers here are the first to note that without drastic restructuring, the factory would have gone bust.

To document changing attitudes since reunification, Andreas Ludwig has set up the Documentation Center of Daily Culture in East Germany here, in a former palatial kindergarten with stained-glass windows.

While western Germans continued with their lives more or less normally, people in the East were faced with a completely new reality. "Eastern Germans feel like the losers," says Mr. Ludwig. "In the East it was a virtue to listen, in the West to be able to speak. So you can imagine what happened when the two met."

As billions in aid flowed to the ailing east, western generosity was mixed with a strong dose of condescension. The result, says Ludwig, is that in the east there is a greater preoccupation with the past, not unlike that with the Civil War in the American South.

Another source of perceived inequality is that wages haven't yet reached western levels. Former Eisenhttenstadt dissident Rolf Henrich, who played an influential role in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, counters that "as long as productivity isn't the same, you can't expect that you'll earn as much."

Mr. Henrich says that even the reunified Germany stifles personal initiative with overly generous welfare benefits. Yet with a certain degree of pride, he hints that young eastern Germans are more ambitious than their western counterparts - exactly because of the challenges they have had to overcome.

Regional differences have always shaped the consciousness of Germans, who historically lived in fractured kingdoms and principalities, not in a unified state. While eastern Germany's emerging generation may have little recollection of socialism and consider itself "German" without a prefix, the traditional faultline between the rich Southwest and poor Northeast is once again becoming clearer, says historian Ludwig.

Many are placing their hopes on the eventual eastward expansion of the European Union, when Germany's borders with Poland and the Czech Republic open for good. All of a sudden, cities like Eisenhttenstadt would be at the center - rather than the periphery - of a vast free-trade zone. Already, the steel plant is planning to double exports further east.

Richard von Weizscker, who was president of West Germany at the time of unification, says Germany can use its unique position to mediate between Eastern and Western Europe. "There will be no 'German' policies in Europe, but rather 'European' policies," he says. "It is Germany's vital interest that we are heard in the world as a European voice."

And despite shocks of the market economy over the past decade, few in Eisenhttenstadt would willingly return to the past.

"Nobody here wants to rebuild the [Berlin] Wall," says steel worker Frank Stubner. "The opportunities to live out my life are much better."

On the holiday marking the 10th anniversary of German unity, Mr. Stubner won't be forced to march past old men waving from a grandstand, as was common during the Communist era.

He'll be working his shift, just as he would on any other day.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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