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United economy, separate values: an invisible German wall endures

Four decades of opposing social and political agendas formed a great gap between citizens of east and west that, despite the initial euphoria over unification, the nation has yet to close

THE things that stick out most in eastern German cities these days aren't the old smokestacks spewing soot, but the construction cranes crafting a new look.

Hordes of hard hats are laboring to make over an economic and architectural abomination resulting from communism and 40 years of one-party rule in eastern Germany.

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Since unification in 1990, the German government has spent billions of dollars to raise the archaic east to Western levels of prosperity.

The enormous outlay of energy and investment is producing change. To start with, the drab ``prefabness'' of Dresden and other eastern cities is giving way to a more visually appealing outdoors. And still better, economic statistics show the eastern economy is picking up after a devastating depression.

But there is one crucial area in the reunification process that cranes cannot remake and statistics will not weld together: the popular mood.

Though Germans speak the same language, easterners and westerners are having trouble understanding one another.

Many politicians and others admit progress in forging a united German outlook has been paltry. A few even suggest attitudes are now drifting apart, instead of coming together. Mutual understanding has yet to extend to the diametrically opposed value systems formed over the last 40 years of Germany's division.

Failure to make significant strides in reducing the mentality gap could make an already tough task more difficult as Germany prepares for the 21st century. The ``inner union'' question will determine how well Germany adapts to the post-cold-war era, some social scientists say. The faster Germans put union behind them, the sooner they can deal with other pressing domestic issues.

And because Germany is a leading force for European integration, a nagging mentality gap has the potential to affect the Continent.

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A prolonged German struggle to find a mental common ground could set back efforts to bring the formerly communist East-bloc nations into Western security and economic structures. The economic inequity between East and West is perhaps the greatest threat to stability in Europe today.

``We have to be careful in Germany right now that we don't miss the really important issues,'' says Ulrich Kasparick, a sociologist based in Magdeburg, capital of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt.

``We are much too busy with ourselves and therefore lose touch with what is going on around us.''

Most experts say it will take at least a generation to form a united German identity. But western German political and business leaders can do more to facilitate the process, they suggest.

Unification ``has been considered only to be a question of technique and administration. Cultural differences have been completely excluded from consideration,'' says Mr. Kasparick, who heads the Magdeburg branch of the Friedrich Ebert Institute, a think tank affiliated with the main opposition Social Democratic Party.

``The process of economic integration is perhaps the smallest part of reunification,'' says Steffen Heitmann, justice minister in the eastern state of Saxony. ``Over 40 years we became much more different than we imagined.''

The cultural differences are rooted in Germany's postwar occupation.

West Germany largely adopted principles of the Western powers that stressed entrepreneurship and pluralism. Meanwhile, the Soviet occupation zone - the future East Germany - had the collective and authoritarian ways of communism forced upon it. Easterners also enjoyed a more extensive social-welfare system than did West Germans.

Westerners have largely failed to grasp the attachment that most easterners developed for the autopilot lifestyle of a bygone era. Under Communism, easterners say, the people who succeeded the most were those who did not show initiative, because it was the state's responsibility to plan for the people. A cradle-to-grave welfare system was built to handle everything: day care, housing, health care, employment. Those who showed initiative were often persecuted, even jailed on trumped-up charges of ``anti-state'' activity.

While many westerners perceive easterners as lazy freeloaders, easterners - especially the unemployed and elderly - see westerners as arrogant for thinking that everything associated with the former East Germany was bad and disposable. The result to date has been a high level of acrimony.

``Westerners expect easterners to be subordinate. They don't think easterners are capable of changing,'' said Gregor Gysi, a leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor of the East German Communist Party.

The lack of understanding for eastern traditions contributes to the disillusionment of many easterners. Many feel lied to, not only by the former Communist regime, but by western Germans as well.

Amid the euphoria of 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl told easterners that unification would be a relatively painless process, painting a picture of ``blooming landscapes.'' Most eastern Germans believed him and were shocked by the high unemployment and plunging living standards that followed.

``The last five years were like losing another war,'' said Wolfgang Zimmermann, a longtime East Berlin resident who sells insurance part-time.

A large source of east-west tension is the wage gap. Easterners complain that they must now pay western prices for consumer goods and housing, but add that they earn less than their western counterparts. Westerners respond, however, that eastern workers actually make more than their productivity levels warrant.

With Oct. 16 parliamentary elections approaching, politicians of all parties are promising to pay more attention to eastern issues. But many in the east now need to see concrete results before their deeply embedded sense of skepticism eases.

``I don't think they believe in anyone except themselves,'' says Peter Porsch, the PDS legislative leader in the eastern Saxony state.

Mr. Heitmann, a member of Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), insists a majority of easterners are content with their present conditions. But he added that easterners must have a greater voice in unification, otherwise they will remain wary of buying into the Bonn-conceived plan for the future. No one from the east currently holds an important government post in Bonn.

Heitmann should know how reluctant the western German political establishment has been to bring easterners into its ranks. Last year he was handpicked by Kohl to become the Christian Democrat presidential candidate. But the attempt to promote east-west harmony backfired badly. Heitmann withdrew from the race under pressure after making controversial remarks about Germany's historical legacy.

``I had the feeling after the withdrawal of my candidacy that in the end [western politicians] were happy to be among themselves again,'' Heitmann said.

These days eastern Germans are expressing a sense of frustration and alienation; one troubling sign is the dramatic downward shift in demographics. Since 1989, the birthrate in eastern Germany has plunged 60 percent, and experts do not see an end to the trend.

In commerce at least, there is a growing sense of pride in locally produced goods. After unification, shoddy eastern goods disappeared and store shelves filled with Western wares. At first, easterners considered it a dream come true. But the euphoria faded when they realized the western invasion caused local producers to lose markets, resulting in layoffs. Now, some supermarkets in the east have special sections for goods grown or made in eastern Germany.

``I want to help our farmers stand on their own feet,'' says East Berlin resident Achim Trubel, explaining why he buys only eastern German dairy products. And in politics, an alarming number of people are shunning the democratic process by staying away from the polls, while others are casting ballots for the former Communists.

PDS leaders insist their party has adopted democratic principles, but 90 percent of its 135,000 members are hard-core hold-overs from Big Brother times. ``The PDS is best able to defend the interests of easterners because it is the party most in touch with people's social needs,'' says Mr. Porsch, the PDS leader in Saxony.

In local and state elections across eastern Germany this year, the PDS has won from 15 to 20 percent of the vote. That success has rocked the very Bonn politicians whose lack of attention to the eastern mood gave the former Communists their political opportunity.

All major parties have denounced the PDS as antidemocratic, but Kohl's Christian Democrats have been especially virulent critics. Some say the ``commie bashing'' makes easterners more angry, and thus the PDS more popular.

``This [CDU] campaign will make the gap between east and west, which is still far from bridged, even wider,'' Reinhard Hoppner, Social Democrat prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt state, said in a recent television interview.

The former Communists stand a good chance of winning enough votes in October to gain seats in the Bonn Parliament, possibly creating a scenario in which a stable governing coalition would be difficult to form.

As Japan's example has shown, a shaky government hamstrings political, social, and economic reform. It could also make Germany less attractive for foreign investment. Bonn University political scientist Karlheinz Niclauss predicted trouble if the PDS becomes a regional power-broker.

``It'd be very difficult for the German political system to cope with,'' he said.

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