WASHINGTON — Images on the evening news are startling. East Germans by the thousands stream into Austria with only perfunctory checks from amiable Hungarian border guards. Mostly young, many with children, they speedily cross the neutral country and are welcomed into West Germany as citizens come home. More wait in Hungary, preparing to take advantage of Budapest's opening of what was an impenetrable Iron Curtain. As the East German state hemorrhages, its seemingly leaderless government impotently fulminates, Moscow half-heartedly protests and observers wonder if the postwar European order is unraveling. What is going on?
Long the East Bloc's economic showcase, the German Democratic Republic has joined the list of communist countries in turmoil, including China, the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. East German leader Erich Honecker, now reportedly gravely ill, has proved unable to solve the worst crisis in his country since the 1961 building of the Berlin Wall.
For three decades, the Communists have striven to forge an East German identity and instill patriotism. Parades feature the flag and a martial anthem beginning with "Risen from ruins and turned to the future." Since the early 1970s, the country has broken out of its isolation and now maintains diplomatic relations around the world. Its athletes are at the pinnacle of international sports. In recent years, the government has stressed its German heritage, modifying its own ideological spin on history to identify with nationalist sentiments.
Problems, however, have been building. Despite infusions of loans and favorable trade terms extended by the Federal Republic of Germany, East Germany's economy is stagnant. While Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev extols \o7 glasnost\f7 and \o7 perestroika\f7 , Poland elects a non-Communist government and Hungary embarks on a multiparty system. Honecker and his rigid colleagues steadfastly reject political or economic reform--preferring instead to support the Chinese government's massacre in Tian An Men Square.
As early as 10 years ago, citizens' groups began forming, championing a variety of peace, ecological and human-rights causes. There may be 500 such groups in East Germany today, most existing under the umbrella of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In general, these protesters are a "loyal socialist opposition" seeking to improve an imperfect socialist system, not to jettison it. The bulk of the East German people, however, seems to prefer the more radical solution--for example, many voters in May's local elections crossed off the names of unopposed official candidates.
What drives so many East Germans to abandon a homeland that provides a standard of living superior to that of other communist nations and equal to at least the poorer members of the European Community? Why leave the security of a guaranteed job for a competitive society with higher unemployment? For some, it is the lure of greater material rewards that capitalism bestows on success. East Berlin goods may outshine those in Bucharest or Warsaw, but they are no match for those of Bremen or Munich.
Interviews with East German refugees reveal a deeper reason: the impossibility of fulfilling individual potential amid dreary communist orthodoxy. Ideology remains pervasive. Party rallies with compulsory attendance punctuate the calendar. At work and school, commitment to the communist system is noted in personnel records, and lack of enthusiasm often warrants a negative mark. Preference for university places is given to good pupils also deemed ideologically correct. Controls on artistic creativity have been loosened somewhat, but these gestures have not satisfied the critical public.
Alienated East Germans have an alternative. Poles and Hungarians, with lower living standards, may travel to the West, but most return because emigration usually entails a change in nationality--there is no "West Hungary" or "West Poland." But there is a West Germany.
Although more than 85% of East Germans receive TV programs from West Germany, first-hand knowledge was lacking until recently. Two years ago, as part of the warming between the two Germanys, and perhaps as a steam vent, East Germany began allowing thousands of working-age citizens to travel to the Federal Republic--as long as spouses and children stayed behind. They saw prosperity of a different magnitude could be combined with democracy and a comprehensive social safety net. Most returned--but they spread the word. Meanwhile, the East German government permitted increased emigration.