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East German scholars see bitterness, hope among countrymen

STANFORD -- Is the unification of West and East Germany a success story or a depressing failure? Does it constitute for the East Germans a real chance for a better future or a humiliating experience of worthlessness and anxiety?

Two East German scholars provided a Stanford audience with opposite views of the dramatic changes in their country, in a roundtable discussion on Friday, March 13, of "East Germany and the New Federal Republic."

Burkhard Koch, a former senior foreign policy and security adviser to the prime minister of the German Democratic Republic, and Heinrich Bortfeldt, formerly a political scientist at the Social Science Institute in East Berlin, discussed the complexity of the new German existence with Ronald Asmus of the International Policy Department at the RAND Corp. The discussion, sponsored by the Stanford Center for Russian and East European Studies, was moderated by Stanford history Prof. Norman Naimark.

"When the Berlin Wall fell there was a lot of euphoria in East Germany," said Bortfeldt, currently a Fulbright fellow at Stanford. "Many of our people believed the vision of German brothers and sisters reuniting, and many believed the promises of Chancellor Kohl. But all that has failed, and today the gap between East Germans and West Germans is deeper than ever."

This bitter feeling of disappointment is a result of two basic problems: the accelerating rates of unemployment and the total collapse of East Germany's self-identity, Bortfeldt said.

The official unemployment rate in the former East Germany is 17 percent for men and 21 percent for women, but this is only "half of the truth," he said.

A more realistic analysis, he said, would include 760,000 workers who were sent home for early retirement at the age of 55; 620,000 workers who are currently employed in different non- professional short-term jobs, state paid or other; and 900,000 people who are enrolled in re-education programs, he said. Including these groups would bring the unemployment rate to 38 percent of the East German population, Bortfeldt said.

On the psychological side, East Germans have experienced a complete change of identity. They feel helpless, worthless, uncompetitive and overstrained, he said, and many are passively waiting for the state to pull them out of it.

This often makes communication with the self-confident West Germans a humiliating experience, Bortfeldt said.

"The East is supposed to change everything, and the West is not ready to change anything, because everybody knows that the West was a success and the East was a failure. As a West German colleague once told me: 'we won and you lost, and now we're marching in.' "

Bortfeldt said the country's major challenge is to "build up a new society with a total lack of confidence. West Germans must learn to share, and East Germans must learn to be patient. It will get much worse before it gets better," he concluded.

Koch, currently a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, chose to concentrate on the full half of the glass. "Taking everything into consideration," he said, "the unification process is a success story: There's no wall; we have the freedom to travel; we have a hard currency; and we get a lot of support from West Germany.

"The roots of success, however, are also the roots of the problems," Koch said. "We have this feeling that the unification process is dominated by Murphy's law, that if anything can go wrong, it will; but I think this is a result of too much wishful thinking. We had two totally different societies, and the differences cannot be undone in two years."

Koch said letters from his family and friends at home left him with the impression that "the general feeling has changed for the better. Most of the people changed their jobs, and many have better paid jobs," he said.

People's major concern is for the future of their political life, Koch said. The revolution started from the streets, but the second stage, the unification, was somehow dominated from above, he said. People feel they "no longer own their own revolution."

East Germans can regain their self confidence by playing a role in redefining the new Federal Republic's national interests, Koch said.

"Under the carpet of communism the national German feelings continued to live, and as a West German colleague told me, 'You are much more German than we are.' I think there's something true in this. After the unification we are a normal and equal state, and East Germans will have an important role in defining its goals and nature."

Asmus of RAND said the crucial question is whether enough people in the former East Germany will make it in the new free market economy to make the society stable.

"I'm optimistic, but the Germans have to be more realistic in their expectations. The Poles have a 100-year plan, but the East Germans think that if they will not make it up to West German standards within five years, this will be a failure. This is a superhuman ambition," he said.

Many West Germans are going through a major change in their world view, Asmus said, from one "burdened by German history" to what he termed "a more normal view." This view includes a positive view of the United States (but not of American military presence in Germany), an interest in a broader definition of Europe and a willingness to assume a greater world role, mainly in issues related to humanitarian causes, he said.

The East Germans, he said, generally are more critical of the United States than are other East European societies, and they will play a critical role in further defining the German perception.


This story was written by Daniel Dorr, a student intern at the Stanford News Service.


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