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Once Divided, Young Germans Reflect on Meaning of Unity

Seven years after the reunification of East and West Germany, differences remain.

The changes in this former East German town in the last seven years have ranged from the overwhelming (the collapse of local industry) to the mundane: Top-of-the-hour radio news bulletins now are followed by traffic reports.

There didn't use to be enough cars, or roads, for that matter, to justify traffic reports, and public transit was cheap enough that people got around by bus and train.

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Other changes are less visible but perhaps just as important. Ever since the treaty reunifying Germany was signed seven years ago Germans have pondered whether they really are one people - or still Ossis and Wessis, shorthand for easterners and westerners.

The judgment from a group of teenage Zeitzers encountered in a local cafe is simply, "We are Germans."

Not that there aren't some gaps to close. "I don't go around with a sign on my forehead saying Ossi," says Anna. She acknowledges, though, that when she travels in the west, she has encountered some who "seem surprised to find out that we speak German and not Russian."

"But the people are like they are here," says her friend Oliver, of Westerners.

"No real problems" is the consensus around the table.

Changing attitudes

Their observations seem to bear out anecdotally the findings of the Allensbach Institute for Opinion Research. It is common in Germany to speak of "the wall in people's heads," but in two surveys of easterners and westerners, the institute has found that more than 70 percent of each group said they "got along well" with those from "the other side."

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As east Germans who identify themselves as "Germans" rather than Ossis, however, the young Zeitzers are in a minority, albeit a large one.

An Allensbach survey taken in March found 39 percent of east Germans aged 16 through 29 identify themselves simply as "German," whereas 56 percent saw themselves as "east Germans." For the next age group surveyed (30 through 44), the split was 19 percent to 76 percent.

Attitudes on reunification itself show an interesting east/west split. The number of west Germans who regard unity as "an occasion for happiness" fell since 1990 to only 37 percent earlier this year, compared with 40 percent who see unity as an "occasion for concern." For east Germans, "happiness" beat out "concern" 55 to 25 percent - despite high proportions (nearly half) of them who in other Allensbach surveys have called the period of communist rule a "good time."

Hazy memory of past

For Anna, Oliver, and the others, still children when the Berlin Wall came down, the old German Democratic Republic is a hazy memory.

"I was too young, I didn't really get what was going on," says Daniel, another teenager. "I remember my parents cheered when they got the news."

Celebration of unity

For these young people, Unity Day observances like those held last Friday have no particular emotional resonance. "A day like any other," they say.

Some of their acquaintances hold "Ossi parties" on Unity Day, where "they sing old GDR songs and stuff." But this seems to be in the realm of the put-on rather than serious Ostalgie, as nostalgia for the good old days under communism is known.

Every year, a different city is chosen as the focus of Unity Day celebrations. This year former US President Bush, during whose administration and with whose support reunification took place, was the guest of honor at celebrations in Stuttgart. Chancellor Helmut Kohl stressed the importance of continuing support for the reconstruction of east Germany. But back in Bonn, his coalition government agreed to cut the "solidarity surcharge" on income taxes, which has been used to finance reconstruction in the east, as of Jan. 1.

Informal survey finds

"People really have no idea what it was like" in those days, says Anna. Her self-conscious giggle at this point acknowledges that she must count herself in this group.

They are mindful, though, that some things were easier before "the turning point": "Everything used to be cheap," says Daniel.

Michael chimes in, "And everyone had a job."

None of the parents of this group is unemployed, but they know the current unemployment rate in Zeitz is 27 percent.

The young people all know where the local Stasi (secret police) station used to be - "Zeppelinerstrasse, across from the kindergarten." But they have mixed views on whether officials of the old regime should be prosecuted. "I say let bygones be bygones," says Daniel. "That's history."

Anna disagrees: "That's not correct. If I hit someone today, are you going to say tomorrow, 'That was yesterday, that's history?' "

Other findings from the informal survey:

* Some 30 to 40 percent of their friends attend church, most are Protestants.

*Russian is still studied in school, along with French and Latin, but English is the predominant foreign language.

* They are aware of other young people who are attracted to right-wing politics, but out of ignorance rather than conviction. "They have pictures of Hitler, they stand before him and sing songs, but they don't even know what it's about. It's just childishness," says Oliver.

New freedom

Like many former East Germans, Oliver articulates what the fall of the Berlin Wall has meant in his life in terms of freedom to travel: to Italy, Austria, France, Spain, and Greece.

He has also been able to explore the western sector of the capital of his own country.

"The Kudamm [short for Kurfrstendamm on] a summer evening is splendid," he says with conviction, referring to the main west Berlin shopping street. "And the Brandenburg Gate is not bad," he adds. The gate was on the eastern side of the wall, but so close to it that the East German authorities kept it off limits.

What is important about the gate, he is asked - is it important as a national symbol?

"We didn't used to be able to go through it," he answers simply, "and now we can."

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