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EUROPE: FIVE YEARS LATER : Ludwigsfelde, Germany : . . Seeking for Middle Ground in the East : Capitalism has proven a roller coaster of hope and despair, bringing joblessness and crime along with new investment.

November 01, 1994|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LUDWIGSFELDE, Germany — This community of 23,000 was a Communist poster-town during the East German years: an adequate if dreary-looking settlement built up around a single huge truck factory, a place where most people enjoyed cradle-to-grave security in drab, prefabricated cement apartment blocks thrown up by the state.

Today, life is far more uncertain and also far more exciting. Over the past five years, Ludwigsfelde, less than an hour's drive south of Berlin, has ridden a roller coaster of hopes and disappointments.

Consider the way that the past five years have turned out for Klaus Perlet and Reinhold Schulz, both former truck mechanics in Ludwigsfelde.

Perlet, for his part, has the luxury of contemplating his transformation from socialist worker-bee to entrepreneur in the comfort and style of the skylighted head office of the metal-working firm he has owned since 1992.

"I have fun," says the heavyset Perlet, sitting amid a potted-plant decor and blueprints spread across his drafting table. "I love the feeling of making my own decisions, of finding the way for this little business. But I have two souls in my chest. One of them is the soul of a proprietor, who has to find a place in a very competitive market. The other is just the soul of a human being, trying to work with others. These two souls can't always be reconciled."

Meanwhile, across town, just off the parking lot that passes for Ludwigsfelde's town square, Schulz is taking advantage of the last lingering rays of autumn sunshine to drink a little beer outdoors and watch the world go by.

For Schulz, there is no point in soul-searching these days about free markets and the human condition; there is barely any point in getting out of bed in the morning.

The end of East German communism has spelled for him not opportunity, but a chain reaction that started with the loss of his good factory job and ended up with life in a flophouse.

"I lived better before than I do now," says Schulz, who was rescued from the street by a fellow jobless man, Werner Nowark, and brought home to the unheated, unlighted apartment the two now share. Schulz lost his old flat when the owner renovated the building and raised the rent; the so-called guest house where he was subsequently accommodated was torn down, and in the confusion that marked eastern Germany in the early 1990s, he never managed to find another place of his own.

"Sure, I couldn't ever get bananas in East Germany, and the coffee cost more," Schulz says. "A color TV set cost a fortune. But I had work. I could wake up in the morning and look forward to the day. I had something to be happy about. Now I wake up and I say to myself, 'What do I do with myself today?' "

They are extremes, perhaps, the two mechanics: one who commands a staff of nine and the other approaching a state of utter dereliction. Yet the picture of eastern Germany five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall includes many examples of extreme adaptation and failure, and a whole spectrum of people in between: rising go-getters who drive cars with radio phones plugged into the dashboard, embittered 50-year-olds who will never work again, frightened elderly on scanty state pensions and tough Rosie-the-Riveter types who now stay home unwillingly with small children.

A look around eastern Germany today turns up any number of Ludwigsfeldes, places where East German economic planners once decided to found single industries--electronics, perhaps, or steel-milling--and where the local economies collapsed when communism failed and steady Eastern Bloc markets dried up.

Ludwigsfelde is better off today than many of these central-planning outposts. Its new, post-Communist administrators have managed to court a handsome number of private investments--altogether, $510 million worth of new business through 1993--and to put a respectable percentage of the able-bodied adult population back to work. It has a dynamic mayor, Heinrich Scholl, a former circus executive and a free thinker who chafed under East German-style communism. He has worked with relish since the regime's collapse to fulfill capitalism's textbook promise.

But most people in Ludwigsfelde are conscious of the five years of ceaseless struggle endured just to bring their community this far, and of how much further they still have to go before life ever feels secure again.

The overall unemployment rate here is about 10%, significantly lower than in the rest of eastern Germany, but the figure is kept down artificially by make-work schemes. A depressing 65% of the jobless are skilled women.

Some people have simply given up on the town: Hundreds have moved away since 1989. An estimated 10% to 15% of the townspeople still support the former Communist Party, reorganized and renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism. Others take out their frustrations by engaging in violence against foreigners and vagrants.

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