Commentary: Germany Tries
to Reinvent Itself

By Tom Brislin
University of Hawaii

Honolulu Advertiser, July 18,1999, Focus Section, B-1
The reunified Germany is still under construction. You can see the future in neat architectural models under cubes of Plexiglas throughout the former Eastern states. You can see the present in a seemingly chaotic covey of construction cranes mining billions in new developments from a swath that cuts through the core of Berlin, following the path of The Wall.

"I can take you to 10 different spots in Berlin and ask you to guess if you are in the former East or West," Deutschland Radio journalist Michael Groth says. "And nine times out of 10 you will be wrong." He is reacting to the American penchant, particularly in the media, to want to cling to the Cold War symbols of a stunted and spiritless East Berlin. He wonders at our continuing fascination with the Wall, while overlooking the progress made in the 10 years since its fall.

Our desire to keep Germany from outpacing its past is more severely reflected in the laments of a U.S. wire service reporter over his editors' insistence that he somehow work in references to Hitler and the Third Reich in his stories.

No one agonizes over its history more than Germany. The collective angst over the horrific behavior in the first part of the 20th century still resonates as it faces the millenium wanting to wrap itself in the fabric of a European Union. It wants partnerships, not dictatorships. It wants to be a European Germany to counter the historic lust for a German Europe. It is Europe's strongest economy (and the world's No. 3), and greatest benefactor. It will willingly underwrite much of the post-NATO costs of rebuilding Kosovo.

It is no small irony that while Germany is the coach and cheerleader for the new, borderless, Euro-driven European Union, it retains internal divisions between East and West, citizen and "outlanders." The Wall is down, but numerous walls remain - of economics, culture, class and race - defying reunification.

Groth and other journalists admit the human reunification between former East and West awaits a spiritual topping off that will lag long after the completion of the restored capital and new showplace of capitalism that is Berlin.

To many of the "ossies," or East Germans, reunification means the burden is on them to remake completely their lives. They've become the poor cousins to the well to do West. Worse, they've been relegated to the roles of decision-takers, not makers, in the forging of the new, post-nationalist future. Professor Lutz Erbring of Berlin Free University says, "They were absorbed into this new Germany by a movement of boundaries, not beliefs, and found themselves a new minority in their own land."

The "wessies," or West Germans, resent their burden of footing the reunification bill. Tax rates run upward of 50 percent on income. Goods and services see a pyramiding value added tax. Billions are poured each year into the rebuilding of the East and to the social support of the ossies, whose unemployment rate runs more than 14 percent. Groth recounts the cynical humor of wessies who ask, "How do you make a small fortune under the new socialist-green (coalition) government? You start out with a large one."

In Frankfurt am Oder, on the Polish border, Mayor Detlev Heino Ewert tells how this most East of former East German cities was thriving through the 80s as the site of a government-owned microchip industry. The factory fell along with the government in 1990, putting half of the city's adults on the streets and out of work. Reunification to Frankfurt/Oder has brought higher levels of crime, drug use, and bands of youth gangs who attack foreigners, of whom there is no shortage.

Much of Germany was rebuilt by "guest workers" from Turkey, Greece and central Europe, who decided to stay. Now, three generations later, they've known no home other than Germany, speak German as a first language, but are still denied citizenship and land ownership. Newer waves of immigrants and refugees have increased tensions. Endless arguments on "What does it mean to be German?" are conducted across tables in coffeehouses and the pages of national magazines. Ossies wonder the same thing. How "German" are we in these wessie debates?

"Both sides were unprepared for unification," says senior broadcaster Thomas Barecht, "and the East see themselves as the losers." The view from the West, he says, was that Easterners had just been in a 45-year holding pattern since the war, waiting patiently for the day they, too, could become good capitalists. But the communist structure, he says, was a stronger and deeper influence than even the Nazis. It's not something than can be shrugged off like an old overcoat.

The mass media was seen as a tool of reunification, to bind the nation under a single voice. After all, didn't the permeation of Western TV and radio signals bring about the fall of the Evil Empire? Professor Erbring and his media researchers aren't so sure. The media certainly made the newly free Easterners good consumers, but not necessarily the good capitalists the West had hoped for.

The "single voice" also took a hit with competition to the staid government channels by private broadcasters that took off in the mid-80s. Satellite and cable also bring in Dutch, French and Italian channels, along with the ever present CNN, BBC and MTV.

Senior Eastern journalists, trained by the Leipzig school in expression of the party line, were purged and replaced by Westerners, who were viewed as carpetbaggers. Many demanded foreign assignment pay to move to the East. Theirs became a resentful voice quickly tuned out. Easterners are still fiercely loyal to their regional papers and radio stations, says Oderzeitung reporter Dietrich Schroder, who while not openly critical of the West, never hesitate to emphasize the pockmarks on the new German complexion.

The telecommunication infrastructure of the East, ignored by the Communist government, has now been replaced by fiber optic and satellite systems that have surpassed the West. But it is like an ultramodern autobahn with only a few Trabants sputtering by. There is a powerful medium, but no one's listening to the message.

Barecht emphasizes the continuing media gap in the new capital: There are six papers in West Berlin and three in the East. Easterners don't read Western papers, and Westerners don't read those from the East. "There is a nostalgia in the East for a GDR that never existed," says Barecht, and a rejection of Western thought. Wessies supported sending German troops to Kosovo; ossies opposed it. The remnant of the communist political party was a surprise winner in the June elections for German representation in the European Parliament, with the greatest support from the East.

That symbol of political division, The Wall, has left a legacy of human divisions as rising steel-and-glass, rather than guard, towers mark its former path. In the continuing irony that is history, once this barrier to capitalism fell, it opened up the most prime real estate in Europe. Developers from the West, such as Daimler, are the masters of this post-modern universe that pierces through the old Checkpoint Charlie as it lays its claim from Potsdammer to Pariser Platz.

From these new towers of global economic strength will radiate the principal bankrolling of the post-nationalist Europe. But they still cast a shadow. Although it is not as politically ominous as the Wall it replaced, many worry that East Germans will continue to live in the shadow of the reinvented Berlin and new Germany, consigned to serve, but not sup, at this new bountiful table.

Tom Brislin, a professor and chair of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Journalism Department, studies international journalism and media behavior.

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