The German Border 10 Years After the
Wall Came Down
Rural Germany on either side of the old border between communist east and capitalist west looks pretty similar. Old differences linger -- but they are fading. [As of 1999, the German government had transferred more than DM 1,000 billion ($526 billion) to eastern Germany -- the largest transfer of public funds in human history.]
Ten years after the barbed wire dividing the two Germanies was taken away,
the inhabitants of Salzwedel, a farming
district in the once communist-run state of
feel as if another half-century has raced by. Their way of
life and entire world-view has been turned upside down.
Outwardly, they differ little from their western neighbours just across the border in Lower Saxony. Gone are the clapped-out, smelly East German-built Trabant cars. Gone the piles of coal along the streets for heating homes. Gone the three-metre-high (ten-feet) cement and steel fences, the five-metre-wide trenches, the menacing watch-towers and trigger-happy communist guards and their dogs.
The pot-holed dirt roads are tarmac now, the grassy pavements relaid, the crumbling old wood-and-brick houses spruced up, the decrepit churches restored. An old Hanseatic town of 20,000 inhabitants, Salzwedel sparkles with new restaurants, boutiques, banks, petrol stations and shopping centres. Its ancient half-timbered houses have been beautifully renovated. Lured by lower prices in the east, westerners (Wessis) are often amazed by -- and are perhaps a bit envious of -- the well-dressed people, the new cars, the general aura of prosperity, paid for, they suspect, out of their western taxes.
Being so close to the west, the 100,000 people in the surrounding district along what was the east side of the border between communism and capitalism have benefited more than most of their fellow Ossis since reunification. Many Wessis, tempted by cheaper labour, the chance to ignore red tape and fat government incentives to invest in the former east, have moved their businesses across the old line. Others, who fled from the advancing Russians after the second world war, have come back to reclaim property, bringing both western wealth and western ways. Wessi mothers now bring their children over to the once-free and still much cheaper crèches and kindergartens.
Despite the absence of heavy industry and the collapse of collective farms, whose workers on the land have dropped in number from 15,000 in 1989 to 3,000 today, unemployment in the area, though still twice the western rate, is lower than in most of the rest of Saxony-Anhalt or other eastern Länder (states). Many of those easterners who lost their jobs have been able to find new ones across the border in Lower Saxony; some commute more than 200km (125 miles) a day to Hamburg or Hanover.
So east and west mix and mingle. At first, there was suspicion, prejudice and resentment on both sides. Now, says Wilhelm von Gottberg, mayor of Schnega in the west, things are easier. For him, the two neighbours are pretty similar, though if you go farther east life is still "pretty grim". Next month, the railway between Schnega and Salzwedel, closed during the cold war, is to be reopened, directly linking the port of Bremerhaven, on the North Sea, to Berlin for the first time since 1945. "For us," beams Mr von Gottberg, who once worked for the West German border police, "the frontier does not exist any more."
But for his neighbours down the road, matters are not quite so simple. "The physical barriers may have been removed," Donald Molin, a burly, bearded pastor with ear-rings and 18 villages in the Salzwedel area to look after. "But there is still a barrier in people's minds, which is likely to remain for at least a generation." Aged 25 when the wall came down, he says that his own upbringing in the east has left its mark. "You cannot just wipe it all away. I'm not sure we are one nation yet. In the east we still have lower wages, lower pensions, more unemployment. There are still clashes between Wessis and Ossis."
Like many Ossis, Hans-Albert Schulz, a teacher, resents being told that everything was so ghastly before. "Certainly, my standard of living is higher now," he says. "More importantly, I can go where I want, say what I want, do what I want. But not everything in the GDR [East Germany] was bad. Maybe we couldn't buy many luxury goods, but food was cheap and no one went hungry. At least everyone had a job. And human relations were better. I needed my neighbours and they needed me. We all helped one another. Now, people are more isolated. We often don't even say hallo to each other any more."
But go-ahead Ossis have their say too. Peter Mumme was a labourer on a big collective farm near the border. After reunification, he got back the 14-room farmhouse and 60 hectares (150 acres) his family had owned before communism. He had no tractor, no modern equipment, no experience of the market economy. Now he has rented an extra 140 hectares, grows cereals and sugarbeet and rears pigs, turning over more than DM200,000 ($107,000) a year, half of it in subsidies from the EU. "It's more work, more worry, but more fun."
And the downside of unification? "There was less crime -- because everything was so controlled. The frontier barrier was in our farmyard. The border police and Stasi [security police] were everywhere. Anyone from another village wanting to visit us had to apply for a special permit at least four weeks in advance -- just to drop in for a cup of tea. When I think about it now, life was pretty awful. But it was the only life we knew. We just accepted it. We were taught that everyone over there, just a kilometre away on the other side of the border, was bad, an enemy. We were brought up to hate the other `capitalist' Germans." Now, in a small way, Mr Mumme is a capitalist himself.
Source: The Economist, 13 November 1999, pp. 52-53.