Ossis get a belated look-in at `fall of the wall' party

AN EAST-WEST row that threatened to mar Tuesday's celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade ago has been defused.

The organisers - Germany's two main parties - graciously consented to cutting their respective festive speeches by five minutes each. The time saved by Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroder rushing through their scripts is to be donated to a genuine East German, someone who had actually contributed to the historic event.

The choice of Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor and former dissident who gets to play the token "Ossi", is not without controversy. Since 1992 Mr Gauck has led the government's Stasi-busting agency, which roots out agents of the former communist secret police from public life. Many East Germans complain that their entire nation has been unfairly tarred with the Stasi brush and suspect Mr Gauck's agency of conducting an institutionalised witch-hunt.

But his 10 minutes in the Reichstag on Tuesday go a long way to placating the 16 million eastern Germans outraged by the way the "Wessi"-dominated political establishment airbrushed them out of the festivities. "Was it not the people of East Germany who prised open the Berlin Wall?" asked a group of indignant former dissidents in an open letter.

The event, like much of what happened in the past 10 years, has clearly been mishandled. To eastern Germans, it was the most vivid demonstration yet of Wessi high-handedness. Wessis always seem to know best, even about a moment of history in which they were bystanders. Just to recap: it was East Germans who stormed the Wall on the night of 9 November 1989, though listening to the accounts of western politicians, one might think easterners had been only extras in a West German show.

But it is useless to dwell on matters that took place such a long time ago. The two Germanies are undoubtedly growing together. Much complaint has been made about the way the eastern education system, in some ways superior to West German schooling, was pronounced totally worthless. East German teachers were booted out of the classrooms into the dole queues. The good news is that, after 10 years, the culture ministers of all German Lander decided last week that East German teaching qualifications will henceforth be recognised nationwide.

In the upper echelons of learning, the situation is worse. According to a recent survey, 80 per cent of senior professors at eastern universities are Wessis, and their proportion is rising. Thousands of lawyers, doctors, artists, civil servants and other professionals also lost their jobs to Wessis, because they either were judged - by Wessis - to be unqualified, or had had links with the Stasi, which was almost unavoidable in the old GDR. Much of the industrial working class, meanwhile, was abolished when factories closed down soon after reunification.

To many East Germans, therefore, the past decade has been the most painful in their lives. They can be excused for not opening champagne on Tuesday, and for shunning the party at the Brandenburg Gate. For one thing, the anniversary is an ordinary working day, because "Unification Day" falls on 3 October, the day the West German parliament voted to incorporate the East German provinces into the existing Federal Republic.

On balance, most East Germans will reluctantly concede that the system they have now is better than what they had in communist times. Not even the 20 per cent who vote for the cuddly communists of the Party of Democratic Socialism want the Wall back. Most will settle for old-fashioned compassion and solidarity, and maybe a little more respect.