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Walter Momper : The Up and Coming Force for 'Just Plain Germans'

October 21, 1990|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin is senior fellow at the Center for the New West in Denver and international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business and Management. Momper was interviewed in Los Angeles

In contrast to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl--whose key backers include the renowned, industrious burgermeisters and thrifty bankers of Europe's economic superpower--West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper speaks more for constituencies--including socialists, ecologists and displaced East German workers--noticeably absent in most discussions about Germany's post-unification future.

Momper, the rumpled, heavyset 45-year-old son of handwerkers --both of his parents were cooks in post-war Bremen--considers himself one with the "just plain Germans" who make up the historic base of his Social Democratic Party (SPD). His insight into these voters was most evident in his enthusiastic support for Kohl's drive for rapid reunification with the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The current SPD standard-bearer for chancellor, Oskar Lafontaine, was skeptical of quick unity, an attitude that may well doom his chances, as well as those of his party, to make a good showing in the Dec. 2 all-German elections.

If Lafontaine is soundly trounced, as many expect, Momper may be in an ideal position to pick up the pieces. Currently running for election as mayor of the newly united Berlin, he already rules the city in coalition with the ascendant Greens. He is also gaining a following among former East Germans in Berlin.

Indeed, Berlin mayors have a tradition of rising in the political ranks in post-war Germany. Among Momper's predecessors are former Chancellor Willy Brandt and West German President Richard von Weizsacker. When the true costs of unification--such as higher taxes and mass unemployment in the former GDR--become more evident, Momper, future mayor of the largest metropolis in central Europe, could easily emerge as the key spokesman for "just plain Germans" on both sides of the old border.

QUESTION: Given the events of the last few years in Eastern Europe, have you felt any necessity to change your position as a socialist?

ANSWER: No. I don't think the (events) had anything to do with socialism in the sense that I understand it, nor with Democratic Socialism. What came from the breakdown in all those countries--but especially in the GDR (German Democratic Republic)--was nothing but the pure dictatorship of bureaucracy and of a single party. Not actually of the party--but a few people in the party. That had very little to do with socialism.

Q: Do you think the former Communists who now call themselves the Party of Democratic Socialism have a future in Berlin?

A: I don't think the Communists will have any role. Camouflage does not mean that the party has really changed. It's obvious that communism has ended, that there was a big breakdown for communism, for the dictatorship of one class over the other, for the bureaucratic system of running the state and central planning and so on.

Q: But you do not see in the end of the East Berlin regime any sign of the end of socialism or the triumph of capitalism?

A: Not as I understand socialism. They may have occupied the name, but what it was in practice was quite different. Democratic socialism is democracy in the sense of the rule of the people and of a social way of dealing with an economy, with a lot of public intervention in it. . . .

Q: Do you think that people are misinterpreting Berlin's re-emergence as the capital of Germany as the symbol of a return to a nationalist Germany? You think that's been overblown and that people are putting the wrong symbolism on Berlin?

A: Yes. I think that Berlin never--except for a short time during the First World War--was a centralist capital of Germany. Yet people say Berlin is the symbol for centralism and Nazi time and all the rest. But what is true is that Berlin was the symbol of resistance against National Socialism, that the Berlin (Nazis) never got a majority, that Berlin was a very liberal and open city in the 19th Century. It was an amalgamation point between the two wars, between East and West; (it) was the symbol of the decision for democracy--and the West--in 1948 and 1949. So I cannot see why Berlin is the symbol for centralism or nationalism and so on.

Q: You have to deal with some very serious problems in Berlin now, particularly with East German unemployment, which could be up to 40% to 50%. What sort of steps will be taken to prevent the creation of an underclass of East Germans?

A: The problem is not so much that there might be an underclass of East Germans as that we must push the economic development of the whole East German area. And that means that the unproductive industries and the non-competitive industries must be renewed.

How can they be renewed? By private enterprise--mainly by investment coming in. And the question is how quickly it does and how quickly the old industries go down. That is the main question. So there will be a change; a lot of people will lose their jobs and the question will be how quickly they get a new job in future-oriented industry and modern services.

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