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Documentary : Four Years After the Wall's Fall, Germans Are Troubled, Haunted : The euphoria of the east-west reunion has faded, a journalist finds. People are suspicious and shrink from a demanding future.

March 15, 1994|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — The Berlin Wall had fallen the night before, and the mined, barbed-wire, inner German frontier had been open less than a day when I arrived at the busy Helmstedt checkpoint to witness the euphoric reunions of Germans east and west.

The emotion of those initial hours in the cold November of 1989 stayed with me for months, as did many other symbolic things that happened that day: the Helmstedt police who put marigolds rather than tickets under the windshield wipers of eastern cars illegally parked in the town's main square, the nervous excitement of the young East German mother, toddler on her arm, lined up at the Town Hall to collect her 100 mark (about $65) "welcome present," and the Germans crowded onto autobahn overpasses waving at the sputtering little Trabant cars of the easterners as they passed below, moving west.

It was nearly a year later in Berlin--well after the glow had faded from the Great Reunion--that I saw another West German waving at a sputtering Trabant. This time there were no smiles. The Trabi, trapped in rush hour chaos, its confused driver obviously lost in the western part of the city he hardly knew, had simply come to a halt. Blocked on all sides, the impatient westerner began to rage, honking his horn, yelling and flapping his arms at the delay.

For a long time that scene became my metaphor to describe the chemistry between Germans east and west.

When I first arrived in Germany just over four years ago, I came to a nation expectant, hopeful, optimistic. The prospects for peace and prosperity in Europe seemed boundless, and no country stood to win more from all this than a freshly reunited Germany.

As West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his delegation winged its way home from the Soviet Caucusus in July, 1990, after winning Mikhael S. Gorbachev's approval for German unity, the mood was so high that one reporter in the press corps joked that we didn't need the plane to fly.

Germany has long since come back to earth. With a thud.

Today, I depart a very different country--a troubled, worried land, whose people wrestle with ghosts of a turbulent past, who seem fixated more by the problems than the potential of their new unity and who visibly shrink from a future that demands more from them.

The chancellor who steered the Germans to unity is today equally unpopular on both sides of the old divide. The status of politicians as a group has fallen so low that the country's premier jelly bean maker, Haribo, decided to discontinue a line of candy shaped to the likeness of national leaders because of falling sales.

The Germans are disgusted with their leaders, even sugar-coated.

For a people instinctively suspicious and wary of change, simply too much has happened.

The former Soviet Bloc has become dangerously unstable, and neo-fascists such as ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky (dubbed the "Russian Hitler" by the German tabloid press) seem to appear from nowhere and rattle nuclear sabers. Foreigners cascade into the country seeking political asylum and a better life, unemployment is soaring and economists warn that the nation's days of affluence have peaked. Meanwhile, the dream of European unity--long an anchor of German post-World War II identity--is fading as the 20th Century nears a close.

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The cumulative effect of all this has left Germany paralyzed by a bout of Kleinmut , a German word that means a failure of courage at the crucial moment.

One morning over breakfast during the first heady days after the Berlin Wall collapsed, historian Michael Stuermer tempered his own excitement with a twinge of doubt.

"My only worry," he mused, "is that we Germans won't realize what a tremendous opportunity this is."

Stuermer knows his country well.

In the east, the prevailing mood gradually turned from unrestrained hope to disillusionment as unemployment grew and westerners began treating easterners-- ossies in the western slang--as second-class citizens. At the same time, resentment grows in the west as living standards drop and government funds continue to flow eastward. The national weekly, Die Woche, recently headlined a cover story, "Can We Still Afford the East?"

Here in the east, in the shadow of the Polish border, Bonn is, quite literally, a world away. The distance is only accentuated by the dearth of easterners with any influence in the German capital.

In Kohl's 18-member Cabinet and the chairs of Bundestag's 36 committees, subcommittees and special commissions, easterners number a grand total of three.

For the foreseeable future, the east will survive on western subsidies that will allow them to buy western goods shipped to their doorstep. Not surprisingly, the young and talented continue to go west. The Federal Statistics Office last November reported an alarming 21% drop in the number of 15- to 25-year-olds in the east since 1988.

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