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20 years on, Germans debate state of unity

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Stefan Nicola
Berlin (UPI) Oct 1, 2010
She might be the leader of Europe's richest economy but German Chancellor Angela Merkel still hoards food.

"Sometimes I can't stop myself from buying things just because I see them -- even when I don't really need them," Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany where people often had to stand in line to buy basic foodstuffs, told magazine SuperIllu last month. "This tendency to hoard is deeply ingrained in me, because in the past, in times of scarcity, you took what you could get."

Her remarks came ahead of Sunday's 20th anniversary of German unification, which ended the country's division of four decades.

Unification was formally completed Oct. 3, 1990, following a diplomatic tour de force involving leaders from East and West Germany, the United States, Russia, France and Britain and less than a year after East Germans toppled the Berlin Wall with months of peaceful protests.

When the Soviet Union collapsed shortly afterward, the Cold War, which had raged in the middle of Europe since the end of World War II, was over.

"In this extremely short time period, the entire world order, which was believed to be set in stone, was turned upside down. This was an unprecedented development and no one expected it before the fall of the wall," Dagmar Schulze Heuling, an expert on the unification process at Berlin's Free University, Friday told United Press International in a telephone interview.

Germany's post-unification story is one of tremendous successes. Germany has transformed into Europe's largest economy, the world's no. 2 exporter and plays a major role in world diplomacy. The country even seems to have come out of the global recession stronger than ever: Second quarter gross domestic product growth was 9 percent, the fastest in two decades.

Yet Germans see the state of their unity with more anxiety. Reflections often hover around the personal disappointments linked to the unification process, mainly the economic disparities between East and West. And disparities still remain, despite the fact that the government has spent more than $1.7 trillion to rebuild the run-down eastern part of the country.

In the five eastern German states -- Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania -- unemployment stands at 11 percent, nearly double of that in the west. Workers in eastern Germany are paid only 80 percent of western wages, and eastern Germans, representing around one-fifth of the population, make up less than 5 percent of the country's elites. Merkel might be the chancellor, but only West Germans sit in her Cabinet.

"We have to continue to work hard so that the equalization is finalized," Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who back in 1990 was Germany's foreign minister and together with Chancellor Helmut Kohl a key architect of the unification process, last week told the foreign press corps in Berlin.

Apart from the economic disappointments and despite concerted efforts to become one people, societal differences remain, especially with middle-aged Germans.

People from the former east -- colloquially called "Ossis" -- don't yet feel completely accepted by their counterparts in Hamburg or Munich, the "Wessis."

The Wessis are merely lecturing Ossis about the atrocities of the communist German Democratic Republic, which spied on and walled in its people and forget that many GDR citizens achieved things they can be proud of. Even eastern Germans who have succeeded economically sometimes still feel like immigrants in their own country.

"I have the highest respect for Germans from the GDR and their willingness to change. They had to adapt to a completely new life," said Genscher, 83, who hails from Saxony and fled to West Germany in the 1950s.

Yet western German observers also note that their counterparts from the East tend to forget the situation of some 20 years ago, when the GDR was a run-down economy with aging machines, an outdated infrastructure and inner-city areas that sometimes lacked even modern heating.

"If you glorify the GDR, then it's difficult to appreciate the many positive developments of the past 20 years," Schulze Heuling said. "If you consider the starting position, however, then unification has been a great success."

Most experts concede that after decades of war and division in the heart of Europe, it will take some more time for Germany's social fabric to be patched back together.

Yet there are signs that the country is on a good path. In a poll released this week by polling Institute Forsa, 48 percent of Germans asked said they see themselves as one people -- not a great figure but up 17 percentage points from 2003. And, according to a poll released Friday by national broadcaster ZDF, 84 percent of German respondents said unification was right.

After years of brain drain, jobs and people are returning to cities such as Leipzig, Dresden and Jena. Thanks to smart government incentives, eastern Germany has become a new home for emerging industries, namely the biotech and the renewable energy sector. The unemployment rate in eastern Germany has been falling for years and analysts expect that trend to continue.

The large majority of young eastern Germans, men and women with distant or no memories of the GDR, are succeeding in unified Germany.

"There are some veterans of the Cold War who still speak of the 'wall in the minds of the people' but I don't like that saying," said Genscher when asked to assess the state of German unity. "The young generation in eastern Germany is already much more future-oriented. Of course they're aware that their parents and grandparents had a divided past. But they know that their future is a common one."

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