Germans invade Poland for food work

ON THE bridge across the Oder, the human tide never ebbs. Commuters are swept in from the east by the morning rush, shoppers come and go during the day, and the workers return to their homes in the evening. Cars wait patiently with their engines turned off, as the guards and customs officers fuss over their contents.

This is the other Frankfurt; not the rich metropolis in the west that is about to become Europe's financial capital, but the frontier town where the Wild East begins. This Frankfurt is poor and seething with resentment, blaming the money-men in its namesake and the politicians in Bonn for eight years of misery. In short, it is the kind of place where Gerhard Schroder's Socialist Democrats are set to scoop the overwhelming majority of votes in the forthcoming elections.

For pedestrians crossing the bridge from "Fortress Europe" to Poland there are few formalities. They flash their identity papers by a small booth, and off they go into the land of the miracle economy. They file back at dusk like an army of ants, laden with carrier bags.

Trade flows freely across the frontier. Frankfurt's inhabitants pack up with food and cheap clothing at the market on the other side, where the stall-holders do not turn up their noses at Deutschmarks. The Poles can use their zlotys in Frankfurt, too, but they are not exactly queuing up for the privilege.

By all accounts, capitalism has been kinder to the residents of Slubice, Frankfurt's Polish sister town, than to the Germans. The houses look more derelict there, and incomes are lower, but because of lower costs, the living there is better. On the other side of the river the economy is powering ahead at more than 6 per cent a year, while in eastern Germany it is going nowhere. And the people of Slubice have one thing the Frankfurters lack: work - even if they have to commute to Frankfurt for it.

At the foot of the bridge, Gunther Mahler, a 62-year old newspaper boy, greets day-trippers with fresh copies of a Berlin tabloid. He gets no salary, only commission on the number of papers he sells. But at least he has a job of a kind.

"There is nothing here," he says. "After the "Wende" [the collapse of East Germany], all the factories closed because they had no orders. A Pole needs DM5-6 an hour to get by. In Germany, with these prices and rents, a German needs to earn DM20-25. So all the jobs went to Poland."

There is work on the building sites - like all over eastern Germany, the town has had an impressive facelift - but most goes to the Poles. There are too few up-market customers for the glittering shops in the ultra-modern mall. The new European University provides some employment, but not enough to keep the locals busy. Frankfurt, an industrial town of 80,000, no longer has an industry.

With so much time on their hands and so little hope, many of the local youths have shaved their heads and taken to wearing black uniforms. As in much of Brandenburg, neo-Nazi activity is soaring. According to a poll taken last week, one in ten in Brandenburg is prepared to vote for the extreme right in the coming elections.

The majority of the population do not believe, however, that everything is the fault of foreigners. But despite the obvious improvements, a vast proportion feel that the way German reunification was carried through was a disaster. The ailing local economy had no protection against skilful Western concerns. And now the town cannot even protect itself against the resurgent Poles.

The person who will take blame for all that is the "Chancellor of German Unity", Helmut Kohl. At the time of unification, the opposition Social Democrats carped about the speed and the costs, but nobody listened. Now people remember, and the East is turning red. Even in elections to the Brandenburg Land assembly four years ago, the Social Democrats scooped more than half the votes, and Chancellor Kohl's party finished neck and neck with the ex-Communist PDS.

This time round, Mr Kohl will not be so lucky. His party faces the utter humiliation of being beaten into a distant third place by remnants of the leaders of a country they helped abolish.

It was German reunification and the gratitude of the East Germans that helped to elect Mr Kohl in 1990 and 1994. Now, with society atomised and the economy in tatters, the East is set to deliver an altogether different verdict.