East Germans Face World in Flux
ERFURT, GERMANY — THE east Germans' high-pitched indignation over rapidly rising unemployment is settling down to a quieter resignation. While a month ago, 70,000 angry protesters demonstrated in Leipzig and demanded that Chancellor Helmut Kohl resign, this week only 3,000 took to the streets.
There is still widespread discontent in east Germany, however, and politicians warn that it could erupt into social unrest at any time. According to an April poll taken by Infas, a leading public opinion researcher in Bonn, 83 percent of east Germans say there is dissatisfaction in the former German Democratic Republic.
This baffles many west Germans, who point out that even with unemployment benefits, east Germans are still better off today than they were a year ago.
Indeed, there are tangible signs of an improved standard of living in the eastern states which were not even visible six months ago. The 100 billion marks ($60 billion) that Bonn is pouring into the region is starting to make a difference.
Road resurfacing teams are tackling the rippled and pot-holed autobahns. Good quality restaurants have joined the humble road-side wurst stands. Every Western product imaginable is for sale and often at much lower prices than under the old communist regime. And one can finally get a telephone call through to west Germany on the first try - at least from major cities.
But while the east Germans drive their new cars and bite into cream-topped tortes at their new sidewalk cafes, they also grumble and worry. A few even talk about "the good old days" before the 1989 revolution.
Joblessness is key worry
The grumbling stems from the rapid increase in unemployment and the uncertainty this creates. Investment is taking root here, but not fast enough to offset massive layoffs as uncompetitive businesses fold. About 30 percent of the work force is either out of work or working shorter shifts. According to a report this week from the German government's council of economic advisers, almost half the work force will be jobless or working reduced hours by the end of the year, though the advisers predict a turnaround to begin next year.
Uncertainty is something brand new and an enormous shock for the east Germans, even when it's tied to the prospect of a better life. They find themselves suddenly in a market-driven economy that demands personal initiative, but they are equipped with a mind-set molded by 40 years of communism, under which the state made all the decisions and the individual none.
"We never had to think for ourselves," one often hears from the east Germans.
Take the case of Edeltraut Wittich, who says she felt paralyzed with fear after she became unemployed last summer. She didn't have the faintest idea how to get a job. "I thought of all the books I'd had in school and tried to remember if any of them said anything about filling out applications, because I didn't know how to do even this." She actually did find a reference, put together a resume, and four weeks later landed a job in the press office for the city of Erfurt.
Most east Germans do recognize that their standard of living has improved in the last year. "Generally, I now spend less money on shopping and I can get whatever I want," says Thomas Mende, a young father trying to keep a wiggly toddler under control.
When asked, east Germans also admit that they are confident about the future, though they mean the long-term future. It's today's insecurity which unsettles people, says Mr. Mende.
The east Germans feel at sea without their familiar landmarks. Almost all aspects of life were channeled through organizations that are either collapsing or no longer exist.
For instance, the workplace, however inefficient and ideology-laden, guaranteed not just a job but also day care, vacations, and summer camp for youths (with long waiting lists).
The totally new situation has led a few east Germans to wonder if life under Erich Honecker, the former communist leader, was really all that bad, says a woman who lives in nearby Gera and has opened a sauna that's doing a booming business.
"We've forgotten the pain of those times. It's easy to forget the bad things" when everything is in flux, she says.
Gloom also spreads easily in east Germany. A region that used to run on rumor and hearsay is ready to believe the worst.
"Most people let themselves be influenced by the unrest," says Sabine Zernikow, an unemployed mother in Erfurt who is nonetheless confident that she will eventually find work.
Jurgen Linse, director of an Erfurt elevator company which is now 90 percent owned by a Swiss manufacturer, expresses amazement at the complaints he hears from his workers. Rather than being grateful that they have secure jobs, he explains, they worry about the prospect of rising prices, especially rent.
Rents were supposed to skyrocket in January as the highly subsidized housing sector moved into the free market. But the increase has been postponed until the end of the summer, though Bonn is indicating it will temper the hikes by providing tenants directly with subsidies.
"The only way to handle the complaining is to state the facts," says Mr. Linse. "I ask them, 'How many of you have new cars?' "
And when the rent question arises, he takes a similar tack.
"Has your rent increased yet?" he asks, and then advises, "Don't worry until it does."