The East German Disaster

Das Deutsche Wagnis

by Klaus von Dohnanyi
Droemer Knaur, 326 pp., DM 36

Helmut Kohl’s victory on December 2 was among the most decisive in the forty-one-year history of the newly enlarged Bundesrepublik, but there is a fragility about his triumph that the voting statistics do not reveal. Kohl campaigned as the architect of unification and, as the opinion polls suggested, this was the achievement that carried him to victory.1 But Kohl also ran as the candidate who could best deal with the one big task of unification still remaining: the rehabilitation of the East German economy. Since the two German economies united in July 1990 Kohl has been consistently upbeat about the economic prospects for eastern Germany. “We must,” he said in October, “do everything we can to transform the five new Länder (states) into blooming landscapes within three, four, five years,” and he has never expressed doubt that this could be done.2

It was a measure of Kohl’s strength that many voters were willing to accept these assurances despite the flood of bad economic news from eastern Germany. If one counts as unemployed the workers who are today put in government-subsidized “short work” programs (Kurzarbeit) but who are in fact not working, East German unemployment increased eleven-fold between June and November, and industrial production has been cut in half during the last year. West German businessmen are still reluctant to invest in the former GDR, and East Germans are still leaving for West Germany in large numbers. Now that he has been reelected on a platform of economic optimism, Kohl is under strong pressure to reverse these trends, or risk suffering the fate of a politician who arouses expectations among the voters which he cannot fulfill. The economic problems of the five new eastern Länder are therefore likely to be among Kohl’s chief preoccupations during the lifetime of his new government.

With 40 percent of its work force employed in industry, East Germany is one of the most industrialized regions in Europe. Despite East Germany’s small domestic market of 16 million, the leaders of the East German Communist regime were determined that the GDR’s economy should be comparable to West Germany’s in the diversity and sophistication of its industrial base. East Germany therefore has a considerable variety of manufacturing industries, including mechanical and electrical engineering, optics, electronics, automobiles, chemicals, textiles. Every large East German city is an industrial center. Shipbuilding is concentrated in Rostock, chemicals in Halle, textiles in Chemnitz (formerly Karl Marx Stadt), and engineering in Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, and East Berlin. The industrial heartland of East Germany between Halle, Chemnitz, and Dresden resembles the old Ruhr of the 1930s and such declining Midwestern industrial centers as Youngstown, Ohio, in the vastness and ugliness of its industrial landscape, although its pollution is far worse.

The Honecker regime used to boast that the GDR economy was strong even by Western standards, and some West German politicians accepted such claims, partly it seems out of a sense of national pride, partly in order to keep up friendly relations with…

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