Germany celebrates 10 years of unity

Sullen or proud, Germans fete a decade as one nation
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A massive party is underway in Germany to celebrate the tenth anniversary of reunification there.

A massive party is underway in Germany to celebrate the tenth anniversary of reunification there.

It comes at a time when the nation is more confident than at any time since World War II, but still tussling with an east-west economic and social divide that has outlived the Berlin Wall.

For Germans, the Oct. 3, 1990 union of capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany after 45 years apart was a day of joy mixed with foreboding about the material costs of unity. For the rest of the world, the merger confirmed the redrawing of postwar Europe's map.

Foreign dignitaries including French President Jacques Chirac and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were invited to Dresden on Tuesday to join German leaders in the main national unity ceremony, an occasion to reflect on all-German achievements - but not gloat publicly.

"Germany is a strong democracy in the centre of Europe, surrounded by friends and partners and globally respected," President Johannes Rau, Germany's ceremonial head of state, said recently. "We have no reason for self-satisfaction, but we can allow ourselves a bit of pride."

Few eastern cities can match Dresden on that count. Devastated by U.S. and British bombers in February 1945, the city once known as "Florence on the Elbe River" for its magnificent architecture is now a growing high-tech center, and its landmarks are undergoing a lavish facelift. The official festivities will be held at the famed Semper Opera.

Yet Helmut Kohl, the "father of Germany unity," snubbed the party. Because of controversy over his involvement in a party financing scandal that broke last fall, the 70-year-old former chancellor was not invited to speak. So he decided to stay away entirely.

Kohl has insisted in an interview on German television that he was not sorry he would miss the party. "No, not at all," he said.

Still, Kohl in recent days went on the offensive to claim credit for unification for his conservative Christian Democratic party and accuse the left-leaning Social Democrats, now in government, of betraying the cause of unity a decade ago.

It was Kohl's cultivation of friendships with leaders such as then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that convinced the wartime Allies to let Germany reunite, only 11 months after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989.

But his 1990 promise of "blooming landscapes" for East Germans turned sour as the noncompetitive communist economy collapsed, killing millions of jobs, shaking many easterners' faith in western values and leaving the area dependent on massive federal handouts.

Not a merger of equals, German union was really a western takeover. High joblessness and the disorienting loss of eastern identity are reasons often cited for the high incidence of extreme-right violence in the east.

Even now, eastern wages are about 15 percent lower than those in the west and regional unemployment is about twice the national average. On the eve of Unity Day, labor unions renewed calls for employers to finally close the wage gap.

Dresden, the Saxony state capital, proves that unification also has worked. Saxony is the economically most dynamic of the five former East Germany states, successfully attracting high-profile modern manufacturing and information technology firms over the last decade to replace outdated smokestack industries.

Polls show support for reunification growing in both east and west. But as festival tents and sausage stands went up Monday in central Dresden, some were resisting that growing consensus.

"There's been a collapse of values," declared a 43-year-old Dresden social worker who withheld her name, saying she didn't want her boss to know her opinion. "Now, everything is about money."