What goes down, must come up: When the Wall came down, Chancellor Kohl's promises of blooming landscapes in the east were mocked. Now, as Steve Crawshaw discovers, his vision is bearing fruit

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'Of course there are big problems. There are so many building sites, traffic jams and diversions everywhere. It's very exhausting.'

That is the first reaction of Eva Henning, a 66-year-old retired midwife, when you ask her about the difficulties of her home town, Erfurt, capital of the east German state of Thuringen. Put differently: Erfurt is undergoing a gigantic face-lift that has already transformed much of the historic city centre, and which looks set, in the years to come, to transform the rest.

Hundreds of half-timbered and ornately decorated merchants' houses are crowded into the old city centre, which, unlike many of Germany's old cities, hardly suffered from wartime bombing. Instead, houses were for the most part left to decay during the Communist era. Now wherever you go there is a jungle of architects' boards, scaffolding and protective sheeting - and, peeping out from amid the builders' chaos, houses whose immaculate restoration is complete.

Four years ago, Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised 'blooming landscapes' in the east. In one respect that was foolish (or cynical), since he suggested that the change would be painlessly achieved. The phrase has been endlessly mocked ever since. Most accounts of that time were overwhelmingly pessimistic. One account of a journey through former East Germany, published shortly after unification, described how east Germans were 'dazzled by the D-mark, dunned by carpetbaggers, deceived by their new leaders and devastated by a rampant free market'. The worst, the author suggested, was yet to come.

And yet in one respect, Chancellor Kohl was right. The landscapes of east Germany are beginning to bloom. More than pounds 40bn - yes, billion - has been poured in every year since unification. But this is no bottomless bucket. Businesses no longer rely on a west German drip-feed. There is a new local pride, too. In Erfurt, products are marketed as 'new from Thuringen' or 'original Thuringen quality'. That would have been unthinkable, except with unconscious Communist irony, in former times.

At the Anger Maier, a bustling new cafe in the heart of Erfurt, there is little romanticisation of the present. But there is even less nostalgia for the past.

Christiane Brennecke, 25, was just beginning her landscape-gardening studies in autumn 1989, when the mass anti-government protests began. They quickly led to the collapse of the old regime and, within a year, of the state of East Germany itself. Now working as a part-time waitress, she talks with a hint of wistfulness about the guaranteed job that vanished overnight. 'I already knew where I would be working when I finished my studies. Everything was clear.' But she insists that she has no regrets. 'What's being done here in Erfurt is amazing. People need to realise that whichever party you vote for, things still can't go quickly.'

Reinhard Feuer, a 38-year-old chef, is equally insistent that there is nothing to regret. 'Things have turned out very positively. There are always things that were better then, and things that are better now. The worst thing - not for me personally, but in general - is that people feel deceived by politics. But people should have realised that the promises were impossible.'

Both of them talk of the unscrupulous Westerners who arrived in the period immediately after unification, in October 1990. But that is described as past history. As Christiane says: 'The door-knob polishers (door-to-door salesmen, with contracts in hand) were active to start with. The Wessis (west Germans) saw us just as a market, and people bought things they didn't need, but people learnt quickly, too.'

Christiane regrets that her close network of friends who helped to make life tolerable and even enjoyable in the old East Germany has broken down under the pressures of the brave new world. 'Before, we depended on each other. Now we depend on ourselves.' But, she adds, 'People are generally better off - that's clear.'

Her boss, Hubertus Olbrich, believes that Erfurt will make 'enormous strides forward in the next five years'. Already there are encouraging signs. Thuringen's economy grew by 12 per cent last year. Services have improved dramatically. Bernhard Vogel, the regional prime minister, boasts: 'More roads, railway lines, telephone lines, and water, gas and sewage pipes have been laid in the past four years than in the previous 40.'

But unemployment still stands at 16 per cent. And the strong vote for the post-Communist PDS - which regularly gains 20 per cent in regional elections - is a reminder of the uncertainties and bitterness that unification has brought. Anna, 33, a town gardener, talks angrily of the 'Wessi mafia'. She plans to vote PDS in the federal elections in October, and insists: 'It's just as it was before. It's always the poor swine like us who lose out.' Another Erfurter says that the strength of the PDS is understandable. 'People are angry because they haven't got what they hoped for. It's not nostalgia for the GDR. It's just anger at broken promises.'

The losers' stories are real. Equally, however, the positive changes have been more dramatic than seemed possible just a few years ago.

Now, despite all the bad news, those bleak snapshots - accurate enough at the time - seem to come from a forgotten age. East Germans are no longer dazzled by the mark - on their foreign holidays, they take for granted the fact that their wallets are filled with the strongest currency in Europe; the carpetbaggers' tricks are but a bad memory; the devastation of the 'rampant free market' has given way to something almost sedate. This is not yet the West. But nor is it the Wild East.

Even in the most depressed parts of east Germany - the steel-making town of Eisenhuttenstadt, for example, or the rural backwaters of Mecklenburg - people are, in purely economic terms, better off than most of Eastern Europe, with which former East Germany could, until five years ago, reasonably be compared. Investment is rising, as are incomes - and so, too, despite everything, is the popular mood. One recent poll suggested 70 per cent of east Germans believe things are getting better; only one in five disagree.

Especially in an election year, observations about change in east Germany tend to be categorised along party political lines. If you betray optimism - as a Polish journalist who studied in the old East Germany wryly noted in the weekly Die Zeit - then you are liable to be accused of 'pure Kohlism'. And yet, there is as much economic progress in regions ruled by the Social Democrats as there is in the areas where the Christian Democrats are in charge. Though both sides deny it, the differences between the two main parties in the east are often smaller than the cross-border differences between east and west.

East Germany's greatest problems are psychological as much as economic. East Germans resent being patronised by their western compatriots, who often appear to believe that east Germans have only themselves to thank for their woes. Poles, Czechs and Hungarians have no rich uncle - but nor do they have the problems that the rich uncle brings.

East Europeans expect things to be difficult for years to come - and when things improve a little they feel proud of what they have achieved. In Germany, by contrast, many have absolutist expectations that cannot be fulfilled. On both sides of the old border, people judge east Germany's performance by comparison with west Germany - a contest that east Germany is doomed to lose for a long time.

Even now, it is not just Eastern Europe that east Germany seems ready to overtake. The Prime Minister of the east German state of Mecklenburg recently claimed that the standard of living in the region has reached that of the UK. That claim may be premature. Certainly, however, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet has arrived in the east. In Erfurt, many Britons are employed on the building sites. The unwary visitor asks an Erfurter why have they come to east Germany. The answer is accompanied by a simple shrug. 'I guess they're better paid.'

(Photograph omitted)