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E. Germans Seek Identity

Intellectuals say country will `lose its soul' under reunification

THE elections are over, so watch out - East Germany is about to be steamrolled by the West German lifestyle. This, at least, is a prevalent opinion among East German intellectuals. Whatever soul their country has, will be crushed by reunification, they say.

These people are also worried that certain tangible, distinctly East German aspects of life will disappear. Many of their concerns focus on social benefits, such as the child day-care system that allows 90 percent of all women to be in the work force.

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In short, reunification poses a questions about East German identity. How much can be preserved? What is worth saving?

Corinna Fricke, for instance, doesn't want to lose day care or her newfound career as an activist in the Independent Women's Association. She's afraid this could happen as a result of reunification.

In her nearly bare office on fifth floor (no elevator) of the ``House of Democracy,'' where several opposition groups in East Berlin have offices, Ms. Fricke points to her personal experience to explain what she means.

When she was still a journalism student, she had her first child. ``After a quarter of a year, I was able to go back to my studies. I could never have done this without our child-care system,'' she says, adding that ``It's very, very common for students here to become mothers.''

In West Germany, any kind of day care, let alone the highly subsidized system of East Germany, is scarce. Yes, the East German day-care centers are overcrowded and in bad repair, ``but the basic idea is one we need to hold onto and improve,'' says Fricke, now a mother of four - all in school or day care.

There's another right she says she doesn't want to lose: ``a woman's decision whether to have a child or not.''

Again, she admits to problems with the system. ``It is so easy to get an abortion, that there are cases of women who have had three or four abortions but never had any children,'' she says. On the other hand, she doesn't think abortion should be punishable with jail or a fine, the way some cases can be in West Germany.

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But are East Germans really more liberated than their Western cousins? The child-care system here was not conceived to give women a choice but to put them in the work force to help prop up the inefficient economy, says a West German diplomat in East Berlin. Women are still underrepresented in management positions and earn, on average, less than men.

The influence of the communist system on personal lifestyle is evident in East German culture as well.

A distinct group of artists, musicians, writers, and actors has formed here over the last 40 years. As in other Communist countries, they were the nation's conscience and the voice of a people unable to speak openly, says Udo Bartsch, director of culture for the center-right Christian Democratic Union in East Germany.

``If you really wanted to know what people were dreaming of, you had to read the novels,'' he says.

The artistic and intellectual community, in fact, led the ``peaceful revolution'' last October. The ``tragedy'' for the artists, Mr. Bartsch says, is that their utopian ideas ``are being rolled over'' by the West German model. The works of East German artists were a response to repression, so ``when the state falls away, this culture won't exist anymore,'' says Bartsch.

He believes the same thing will happen to the ``solidarity'' among East Germans, ``though I hope we can hold on to that for a while, still.''

This solidarity is overplayed, cautions Ulrike Poppe, an early opposition leader (along with her husband) and an activist in Democracy Now, a liberal group.

``I would be very, very careful about accepting that solidarity was everywhere,'' she says. ``Among the opposition, it was there. And people looked after the weak. But because of the Stasis [state security police] there was mistrust at work, of neighbors, even among best friends.''

The communists never allowed ``a culture of meeting people and interaction to be formed. We have so few restaurants and caf'es,'' she explains. ``In their frustration, many people were sentenced to loneliness.''

Seated on a park bench in warm, late-afternoon sun last week, Ms. Poppe nodded: Yes, there is an East German identity. But it's not something worth preserving.

``There was a certain mentality formed through our isolation,'' she says. It resulted in provincialism, prejudice against foreigners, seeing things as only black or white, lack of self-confidence - and with that a desire to ask ``Who is lower than I am?''

So the question is not what is worth saving of the East German identity, she sums up, but what East Germans can contribute to a new Germany.

``Despite everything, new ideas have grown here. We have a right to see them through.''

This is why she wants East and West Germany to work together on a new constitution, to build a Germany that is neither East nor West. ``There's not much left to take over from East Germany, but that doesn't mean everything should be decided for us.''

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