Diary notes, 17 May 1992 – my Germans are saying “re-build the Wall!”
After three very hectic weeks of travel, the past week was a chance to dig out from under the mountain of personal mail at the Cologne apartment (which I did not visit for the whole period) and business mail at the office.
I had the good luck to be away during the two weeks of industrial strife in Germany when the public sector employees, including garbage removal and postal workers, were on strike. And perhaps the intensity of the local feelings about the costs of reunification escaped me. Because that is what the latest round of industrial action is all about.
I had been very admiring of Chancellor Kohl at the time when he forced the pace of reunification 24 months ago, because I had listened to my German co-workers who were uniformly unenthusiastic about unification with the East on grounds of the likely costs in higher taxes. These guys had seemed so pedestrian, so lacking in vision, whereas Kohl, who previously seemed so potato-like dull, now showed the great historic sense – to seize the moment of Soviet disintegration and the generally benevolent tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev, to do what two generations of W. Germans had said was a national goal and to reunite the divided nation.
Now I see the dangers of ‘leadership’: Kohl over the two years has made light of the costs. His formula of 1DM=1 Eastmark was politically expedient in alleviating objections in the east before the vote; however, it led to the economic destruction of what had been the strongest economy in Eastern Europe as E. German labor priced itself out of the market. The bills eventually came in: something like 100 billion DM per annum to prop up the terminally ill E. German economy, the creation of a gigantic welfare establishment which the West Germans have been paying for partly in the form of higher taxes but mostly through public borrowings that have driven up the interest rates to giddy levels, and partly through a steep rise in the inflation to over 4.5% It is the latter phenomena that gave birth to the labor demands for steep wage hikes even as the economy has softened. Kohl was not forthright with the people as he led them down a path that had little public approval and now there is hell to pay. As my boss says: “we don’t see why it was necessary to unify with the East; the wall should have stayed up; they are a different country and should have remained so.”
Is this a good or bad thing? How curious that while England’s Thatcher and France’s Mitterand have fretted over a hypothetical resurgence of German nationalism, the facts have shown the opposite: the average German doesn’t give a damn about the big policy issues and is concerned only about his levels of taxation. So the remarks of my German classmate from Harvard, that someone might take away his Ph.D. given that his thesis set out to prove the impossibility of reunification, those remarks are premature: the reunification has not really taken place in spirit; the GDR has been taken over but not absorbed.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
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