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East vs. west on German land

A European court ruled late last month that east Germans deserve compensation for property taken under reunification.

Erhard Sell was 7 when his family was uprooted from their home in Danzig - now Gdansk - in present-day Poland. After World War II, the Polish government abruptly told them that, as Germans, they were no longer welcome. Their land and their house became property of the Polish state.

Forty-five years later Mr. Sell lost his land again - to the newly reunified German state. He was told that he had violated a condition of ownership in East Germany by leasing the land in recent years, rather than farming it himself.

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This time, however, Sell was able to fight back. And this time he won.

In a decision that could cost cash-strapped Germany hundreds of millions of dollars, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has ruled that Sell - and almost 70,000 other eastern German landowners who lost their land as a result of a federal law passed in 1992 - were victims of an illegal land grab by the German government and are entitled to compensation.

The judgment is being interpreted by many in eastern Germany as a victory over their aggressive western cousins after years of being treated as inferiors.

Sell and the other plaintiffs had received small parcels of land from the East German government during a communist land reform between 1945 and 1949 that redistributed land from large landowners and former Nazis to German refugees from Poland and the Czech Republic. Descendants of these original owners have also filed a claim in the Strasbourg court, and many expect that they, too, will be entitled to compensation.

"The result of this judgment will be a huge number, and we really can't afford it," says Iris Uellendahl, press spokeswoman for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Eastern German state most affected.

The 240,000 acres in question are a reminder of the remaining rifts of reunification, more than a decade after East and West Germany became one.

"It [the court decision] is really a success for the east," says Sell. "We really felt like we were being treated as second-class citizens or even worse, and many had lost trust in the German justice system. We were supposed to have been coming to a great society based on law and order, but then came this joke of a law that took away our land."

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From the west German perspective, however, Sell and his fellow plaintiffs never really owned the plots, because the East German government dictated how the land would be used and prohibited selling it.

Despite the court decision last month, frustration lingers in the "new states" as the former East Germany is called. Sell's feeling of being treated as a second-class citizen is shared by more than 70 percent of easterners, according to a survey carried out by Emnid, an independent social research institute. In addition, many worry about an unemployment level that, at over 18 percent, continues to be well over double that in the west. Tens of thousands of young eastern Germans continue to leave for the west each year, with more than two million having made the move since 1998.

While the stagnant eastern German economy accounts for much of the pessimism, the negative mood, says Jörg Jacobs of the department of comparative sociology at the Europe University Viadrina in Frankfurt (an der Oder), also comes from a lasting impression that easterners had little say in the reunification process.

"The political system from the west was essentially just brought over," says Professor Jacobs. "It was just assumed that an economic boom would follow.... Until now, very few of the promises they [easterners] were given have been fulfilled, and I think they feel as though they have been left to their own devices."

German Finance Minister Hans Eichel has indicated that, if the ruling is put into effect, eastern German states will have to come up with the money for compensation. His position has ignited a highly public disagreement between the federal and state governments.

Even more problematic, however, is the case now pending in Strasbourg. Some fear that if the original pre-1945 owners are also found to be entitled to compensation or even a return of their land - much of which is leased to large agricultural concerns by the state - it could severely damage the region's robust farming industry.

"The legal instabilities could very easily harm what development we have seen," says Till Backhaus, agricultural minister of Mecklenburg Vorpommern. "What should I do? Send home the businessmen who have invested a billion euros in our farm industry since 1989?"

For Sell, at least, January's judgment is a welcome end to a cause that has consumed him for 12 years. He says that he and his family paid for their land - a 25-acre parcel near the Polish border - through decades of sweat. "As the time passed, we developed, of course, the feeling that we had paid off our land through the obligatory goods payments we handed over to the state, and we felt we owned our land completely."