Narratives of German unification

Dresden.    When German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visits Manila this week, he and President Ramos will likely tap the now exhausted vocabulary of  people power to establish a common ground for their dialogue.  Whatever EDSA meant to Filipinos in 1986, it roughly corresponds to the symbolism of the Berlin Wall’s collapse for the Germans in 1989.  Images of citizens directly taking action to change their political destiny dominate the landscape of the two nations’ recent memory.

There are other similarities.  Like Filipinos, the Germans also grumble a lot about their politicians.  We think ours are plainly corrupt and incompetent – they steal too much.  Germans think that theirs are plainly irresponsible – they tax too much and promise too much without thinking of the consequences.

Since unification, Germans have been paying a so-called “solidarity tax” – 7.5 percent above the regular income tax they pay – as a contribution to the rehabilitation of the infrastructure of East Germany. This was meant to be a temporary measure, introduced in a time of euphoria, but people believe it has now become permanent.

The modernization of the East’s infrastructure, which languished during the days of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), has turned out to be the easy part of integration.  Its telephone system is now as good if not better than the rest of Germany.  The buildings in the East may look shabbier and rundown, but there is a frenzy of reconstruction everywhere.

This panorama, however, conceals the enormous economic and social problems engendered by unification at the local and personal level.   There is widespread unemployment.  The bulk of work places now available in the so-called “new lands” is, ironically, in the nature of State-generated make-work.    State socialism had meant full employment, especially for women.  Today, the showcase industries – electronics, precision instruments, turbines, etc. —  of the former GDR are bankrupt.  The Federal government has pronounced them globally uncompetitive.  Most have been privatized, with tremendous subsidies from the government, but only a few have been restored to their full capacity.

In the fight for available jobs, the new employers favor the men.  The women who could combine motherhood with paid work in the past because of State-provided day-care centers must now stay home if they cannot find or hire somebody to look after the children.   There are now more jobs in the service and commercial sectors, but it is the younger people who are getting them.  In addition, there is an influx of foreigners who are widely perceived to be willing to work for half the pay a German would ask for.  There is a near panic situation about foreign workers in East Germany today.

In the old GDR, wages were low and luxuries were limited.  But food and housing were inexpensive.  Today, there are nice things to be bought in all the smart shops of cities like Potsdam, Leipzig and Dresden.  But few East Germans could afford them.  The shabby buildings in these cities, that have housed the locals in small but comfortable flats, are being dressed up.  But new tenants are moving in.

The new owners of many historic private buildings, mostly affluent West Germans, now charge higher rents, corresponding to their investments in property development.  The old tenants, now mostly without work and barely surviving on pensions, find themselves having to move out – into a new status as Germany’s homeless folk.

The treaty of German unification allows pre-GDR owners to file claims for the re-acquisition of  property seized during the Nazi and immediate post-war era.  The result of this has been literally a deluge of claims by all kinds of distant relatives over property that, to all intents and purposes, had been given up for lost in the last 50 years. Many thoughtful Germans think this law is a mistake.  More than anything else, it has spawned a deep insecurity and resentment in the hearts of many East Germans.

“We cannot blame people for thinking that this is not unification but more like  colonization,” Saxony’s Justice Minister Stefan Heitmann told me.  It has been a very complex process, he said — one that is taking place so fast and so suddenly.  The whole situation has produced among the locals an unresolved feeling of uncertainty and ambivalence.

On the way to Dresden airport, my taxi-driver, a drummer of a heavy metal music band in the old GDR,  lectured me on the fine points of this phenomenon.  “Freedom is okay, but unification – I’m not sure.” They killed our industries, he said, but they have not created new ones to give work to everybody.

The same sentiment was articulated by Karl-Heinz Gerstenberg, the spokesperson of Alliance 90, a coalition that sprang from the social movements of 1989 in Saxony.  “Immediate unification was not on our mind,” he said, “as much as a democratization process that would reflect the distinct experience of the East German people.”  What we wanted above all, he said, was an end to political tyranny and the centralized economy.  But it doesn’t mean we prefer the capitalism of West German big business.

The image of a reunified nation appealed to every German, even if no one thought it was possible in their own lifetime.  Chancellor Kohl seized the moment in 1989, and brilliantly outmaneuvered everyone by  championing the cause of immediate unification.  It was a bold and brilliant political move that has earned him the sobriquet of Eternal Chancellor.  But the experiment is proving to be very  expensive for ordinary Germans in many unexpected ways.


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