German Currency Switch Prompts Cheers, Concerns
THE townsfolk of Halle were treated to a brass band reception and free balloons as the West German Commerzbank moved into town. From midnight on July 1 they were able to swap worthless East German marks for the strong West German mark, as the two nations merged their economies.
While there were celebrations throughout the country, deep concerns remain about the sudden increase in the cost of living and the prospect of unemployment as East Germany's inefficient industries adjust to a free-market economic system.
``Of course, everything's new and historic, and naturally this will culminate in certain problems, such as fear of unemployment,'' says Dr. Walter Seipp, chairman of the Commerzbank. ``But we have to encourage people that they have the ability to overcome these problems.''
West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, on hand to open the first West German Commerzbank in East Germany, tells the 400,000-strong population of Halle not to live in the past.
Mr. Genscher is somewhat of a local hero in Halle. He was born here and fled to the West when the Nazis came to power. Crowds throng the tiny market streets to cheer him on and praise the Bonn government for helping them move so rapidly to a free-market economy.
Mr. Genscher brings a message of hope and prosperity, saying if West Germany could revamp its own economy after World War II, then the East Germans should be able to do the same. The industrial city of Halle, he says, could set an example for the rest of East Germany.
``The history of the GDR [German Democratic Republic] belongs to the past, and you mustn't blame yourselves for the state of the economy. The leaders of the former communists are responsible for that,'' he says to loud applause.
While he acknowledges that there will be insecurity and problems, Genscher also urges quick German unification, with all-German elections in December. ``The longer we wait for these, the more difficult it will be to sort out the problems connected with German unity.''
East German officials are worried that the change-over to a free market economy will result in massive unemployment, and some predict that as many as 2 million people could soon be out of work.
Under the terms of the state treaty bringing about monetary, economic, and social union, East Germans can change up to 4,000 marks at parity, and the rest at a 2-1 rate; however, those over 59 can exchange 6,000 at parity, and the rest of their savings at the less favorable rate.
Money-changers throughout the country hurriedly got rid of their worthless East German marks, while shops cleared their shelves to make way for the more attractive Western products. For several weeks, East German stores have been holding gigantic sales to prepare for ``D'' day. Store clerks worked overtime on Saturday to make new inventories and price tags.
Meanwhile, East Germans spoke about their new-found wealth and how they planned to spend it.
Mrs. Gotliende Tintemann, a biological chemist in Halle, a mother of four, has already made a down-payment for a new Mazda. ``Things will definitely go well, and I've always wanted to get rid of my old Wartburg,'' she says, referring to an outmoded East German car.
``Naturally, our future depends on how the individual tackles the new situation. Those who managed under the communists will also manage with the new Western marks,'' she says.
Engineer Andreas T"ummler reads through the array of leaflets outlining the facilities at the new Commerzbank in Halle. ``I plan to take a trip soon after I get the currency,'' he says. ``In the past, there were few places we could visit and little we could do with our East money.''
But Mrs. Ilse Meffert, a 75-year-old pensioner, complains her ``savings will be reduced.'' She had more than the limit, she says, and was sorry she would lose out. But Mrs. Meffert says she welcomes the prospect of German unification.
East Germany's Prime Minister, Lothar de Maizi`ere, went on television shortly before monetary union took effect to urge the nation not to misuse the opportunities on their doorstep.
``Looking back, is looking with anger,'' he said. ``Looking ahead is looking with confidence and hope.''
Thousands of East Berliners celebrated their new-found currency in the city's main square, Alexanderplatz, at midnight Saturday. Long lines formed outside the Deutsche Bank-Kreditbank, the first East German bank to open at midnight. One small group even raised their fists in triumph and sang the West German national anthem.