Recession bites but few feel the pinch: For most Germans life goes on as normal, reports Steve Crawshaw from Cologne

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The Independent Online
'PROSPERITY, farewell' said one magazine front-cover headline, accompanied by an illustration showing a plate with a large, dry bone, a slice of lemon, and a solitary piece of tomato. The message could not be clearer: in Germany, the good times are over.

Relatively speaking, at least. Not a day goes by without another analysis of the country's plight. More soul-searching followed a sharp monthly rise in unemployment announced on Friday - from 6.6 to 7.4 per cent in the western half of the country. But visit a place such as Cologne - population 900,000, Germany's third biggest city, not especially rich nor especially poor - and the 'crisis' seems mild, at least compared with what Britain has endured.

The winter sales have just ended and the streets have been particularly busy. But sales here are occasional affairs: Cologne does not have the desperate sales-for- every-season that have become a feature of the British high street.

Few retailers admit to feeling any strain. Boutiques and department stores say they are doing good business. The manager of one of the main jewellery shops says that spending has not decreased: the only difference is that people are buying 'in a more targeted way - they know what they want, they think about it'.

Dieter Neumann, a BMW dealer in the city, said that business was down on last year. 'But the last two years have been a huge boom, because of the Anschluss (annexation) of the new federal regions, in the east. So we can't compare with that. We can say that it's at least as good as in earlier years. Clients are cautious, but it would be much too dramatic to talk of a crisis.'

Outside the old cathedral there was a beggar (a Romanian woman with her baby); inside the nearby railway station, the largest junction in Germany, several men, young and old, were sleeping rough. Depressing, certainly - except when compared to the streets of London at any time in the past few years .

Turks have long been Germany's poor. There are few of them in the bustling shops on Hohe Strasse, the main shopping street. Travel out to a satellite suburb such as Cologne-Chorweiler, however, and you will find the Turks among tower blocks that are indistinguishable from their sisters across Europe. Chorweiler is one of the most neglected areas of Cologne. But compared to Hulme, in Manchester, or parts of Hackney, in east London, there are none of the boarded-up shops that are a standard feature of Britain's inner-city landscape, and the range of stores and cafes would not look out of place on a Surrey high street.

But of a group of five Turks, sitting chatting on a bench outside the shopping centre, four are unemployed and have almost given up hope. All nod in agreement when Ali, who used to work in a dairy, says: 'There's less and less work. And it's always the Turks who lose their jobs.'

To combat the economic problems that have arisen since reunification with the east, the government has proposed a 'solidarity pact', which seeks the support of the parliamentary opposition and the unions for spending cuts, in order to help build up the east. Those proposals have run into enormous difficulties - not least because Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in 1990, told fairytales about how unity would be painless for all. People resent those broken promises, as much as they resent the payments themselves.

Now, many in the west feel that the feared spending cuts represent a step into the economic abyss: affluent Germany has not needed to cut back before. But, although most Bonn politicians do not wish to admit it, the greatest pain will continue to be felt in the east, not in the still-comfortable west.

As recent opinion polls have made clear, west Germans have had enough of digging into their pockets - as they see it - for their poorer brothers. In the words of one Cologner: 'Why should we pay for what they (the east) failed with? If you ask me, we should have made the wall a few bricks higher.'

Despite the real hostility in the west, the burning issue is not, perhaps, the western lament of 'farewell, prosperity' but rather the question that could be asked in eastern Germany: 'Prosperity, will we ever see you?'

(Photograph omitted)