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Monday, October 03, 2005

Economic despair breeds new divide in Germany - The Boston Globe

Economic despair breeds new divide in Germany - The Boston GlobeEconomic despair breeds new divide in Germany
In East, many blame democracy for crisis

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff | October 3, 2005

OBERSCHOENEWEIDE, Germany -- Waving red banners and chanting slogans about working-class solidarity, protesters last week marched through this industrial section where the working class has been all but obliterated by the fierce economic competition that came with democracy.

Only a decade and a half ago, Oberschoeneweide boasted 25,000 industrial jobs, many of them in massive Soviet-style factories that provided everything from free medical clinics to child day care. And now the few hundred decent-paying assembly jobs left in the once-tidy borough of the former East Berlin are about to disappear as Oberschoeneweide's last factory closes its doors.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the unification of the collapsed communist East and capitalist West into one democratic Germany. But few Germans see much cause for celebration. This remains a deeply divided nation -- only now the divide cuts along socioeconomic lines rather than ideological ones.

Both sides are feeling pain. Westerners have watched their once-booming economy stagnate, mainly because of the huge costs of subsidizing the East. In the former communist realm, meanwhile, millions of jobs have been lost, whole regions have been depopulated as inhabitants depart in a desperate search for work, and public opinion polls indicate that attitudes toward the West -- and toward democracy -- have dramatically soured. Extremist parties of the far right and left won a shocking share of votes in national elections last month, together garnering 34.7 percent of the vote in this district.

''The optimism of the early years has fled," said Joachim Ragnitz, head of structural economics at the Institute for Economic Research. ''Unification occurred at high speed. Equalization of living standards between East and West will take many, many more years."

If Westerners are anxious about the future, Easterners are terrified by the likely prospect that Germany will be forced to slash its vaunted social welfare programs and other safety nets to meet the economic pressures of globalization. The stability of the country's political system has even been called into question as the elections produced a stalemate, with no party winning enough seats to govern and the leaders of the two main parties each claiming victory.

''Freedom turns out to be a very frightening thing," said Ellen Lange, 41, an assistant in an Oberschoeneweide bargain goods store. Her last job paid a decent wage but disappeared when a local manufacturing plant succumbed to competition. It took two years for the mother of twins to land her present modest position selling cheap Asian-made cookware, baby clothes, and vacuum bottles.

''How do I benefit from democracy if I can barely survive?" she said.

A few blocks away, the 500 or so marchers had gathered to demonstrate against the closure of the last factory in Oberschoeneweide. The South Korean-owned maker of television parts abruptly announced last week that it will cease production, casting an additional 700 workers into the fraying social welfare system at a time when unemployment is already running at more than 20 percent in the East.

The announcement touched off local panic even as the national government seemed paralyzed by the bizarre outcome of the national vote -- elections in which the main issues had been joblessness and an economy drained by the extraordinary costs of welding two nations into one.

And so the protesters marched grimly through Oberschoeneweide. Past the vacant storefronts yawning over sidewalks littered with broken glass. Past soaring brick walls of factories whose roofs now sprout with weeds. Past residential streets where nearly every other house has been boarded and abandoned, as if by people fleeing a natural disaster.

''Nobody wants the GDR back," said Gerhard Schmidt, 84, a retired pediatrician from the district, using the acronym for the former communist regime, one of the most repressive in the former Soviet bloc. ''But people do want a return to the old predictability and order. This capitalism seems a sort of chaos."

''The Germany that we knew [after World War II] disappeared 15 years ago, and many people are finding it hard to adapt to the new realities," said Stephan Hilsberg, a member of parliament for the center-leftist Social Democrats, one of Germany's two main parties.

''As a country we really should be thinking these are great times -- the dictatorships of the last century are finished, we are surrounded by friendly countries for the first time in a thousand years," he said. ''But people don't focus on the improvements, only the shortcomings. And there is true danger to the country in that many people [in the East] simply no longer believe that democracy has the answers."

In many parts of the East, there is raw bitterness that the standard of living continues to lag sharply behind the West. There have been improvements, and East Germans arguably have fared better than citizens of any other nation in the former Soviet bloc. But it has become obvious that it will be decades, if not generations, before anything resembling full economic and social parity with the West are achieved.

''Unification is an unfinished project, and Germany is now realizing that it will be a much longer and far more painful project than was once imagined," said Jens Reich, a molecular biologist from the East who was a prominent political dissident during the communist era. ''The mood of people is not good. It might be compared to [Reconstruction] after the American Civil War. There you suffered terrible difficulties that lasted for so many decades. But does anyone question that it was necessary and good to maintain America as one nation?"

In the West, there is growing resentment at the huge subsidies poured into the East for make-work schemes, social welfare programs, and pensions. ''Every year," wrote Der Spiegel magazine in a recent article ''90 billion euros [about $108.5 billion] are taken from the productive West German economy and pumped into East Germany, where it evaporates without much effect."

Yet analysts emphasize it is preposterous to suggest East Germany would be better off had unification never occurred.

''For all the broken promises and unfulfilled dreams, it's crucial not to forget that life in the East is much better for most people than it ever was," said Heinrich Best, a sociologist at the University of Jena. ''Liberties and freedom do matter, even after they become routine."

Petra Krischok, news assistant with the Globe's Berlin bureau, contributed to this report.

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