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Wednesday, 9 June, 1999, 22:01 GMT 23:01 UK
The removal of shrapnel and fear
Houses damaged during World War II still line Leipzig's streets
By Hugh Sykes in Germany

The Euro election campaign in Germany has achieved an unexpected kind of unification.

On a roadside in Bonn, the outgoing capital, a party worker was putting up election posters for the PDS, the Democratic Socialists - the old East German Communists.

And in the old East, on the trees along a shady main road into Leipzig, there are posters for the Green Party, who are in the coalition government with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder but who have very few supporters in the East.

The irony of this reversal is that the PDS is the only serious election contender offering a haven for people who objected to the war in the Balkans - one of the posters reads: "Europa Schaffen Ohne Waffen" - "Create a Europe Without Weapons."

This is a bit rich from a party which grew out of a totalitarian government which only 10 years ago still held East Germany in the Warsaw Pact and under the control of the ubiquitous Stasi secret police.

Remnants of the Second World War

A freedom campaigner then, and a pacifist now, is a leading Leipzig evangelical Pastor, Ulrich Seidel. He told me he didn't want to get out of the Warsaw Pact only to find himself part of another military alliance that went to war in Yugoslavia.

pds logo
The PDS is calling for a Europe without weapons
When I first met Pastor Seidel five years ago, he walked me round his leafy neighbourhood in south Leipzig - well-kept gardens and substantial but neglected houses with large windows and high ceilings.

One of them seemed to me to be strangely pockmarked - great craters in the plaster between the windows, revealing the brickwork underneath.

Pastor Seidel stopped, and with a grin said: "You did this ... this was shrapnel from the Royal Airforce bombers."

After laughing, we agreed it was also slightly eerie - lovely old houses lost in a time warp, unrepaired from bomb damage fifty years before. The one we were looking at was now being used as an after-school club.

Repairing the damage

The neglect over those years has its advantages - the fine old houses that survived the Second World War haven't been torn down and replaced by ugly modern blocks.

About an hour and a half down the motorway from Leipzig, there is an old East German town that was barely bombed at all - and it is now a jewel of baroque and 19th Century beauty - Erfurt, the capital of Thuringen.

It is an ancient university town (Martin Luther was a student and a monk there), there are some 20 churches in the old town centre, and the cathedral has stained glass in its windows which is 600 years old.

All these wonderful buildings are being lovingly cleaned and restored, the cobbled streets have been preserved and business is booming. Slightly surreal business - there are restaurants and cafes with odd names like Miss Marple, after the Agatha Christie detective, and Hemingway, and the pizzeria and guest-house Don Camillo.

The proprietor, Aldo, from Turin, was delighted that I saw the joke of the name of his establishment - Don Camillo was a fictional, comic priest whose best friend was Communist mayor of a small town in Italy.

Casablanca revisited

The Don Camillo Pizzeria also had something of Casablanca about it - I arrived at 1130 at night, after hours in traffic jams on the Autobahn, and was immediately offered a beer by a man who looked like a Peter Lorre (but without the anxious eyes) and who introduced himself as Octavian Philip from Romania - now a German citizen.

He wished me "Bon Appetit" in French, Italian, German, Hungarian and English. The pizza - one of the best I have ever had - genuine Italian very thin crust - was cooked by Colin from Dudley.

Colin used to be in the British Army on the Rhine. He also served in the Falklands. But he's lived in Germany now for so long he finds it hard to speak English (although his origins become unmistakable when he actually says the word Dudley).

When I had finished eating, Octavian told me a chilling story of an encounter in England which still troubles him. He's a railway engineer, and about 10 years ago he was working on a contract at Reading station.

At the first planning meeting, the British manager looked across the table at him and said: "I'm glad to meet a German".

Octavian asked why. "The last one I met was in 1944, in Norway. And I shot him".

Back in Leipzig, meeting Pastor Ulrich Seidel again a few days ago, we walked past the same big house with the British bomb damage to its plasterwork. It has to close down now as an after-school club - the grandson of the owner, a West German from Munich, has reclaimed it for his family, and hopes to restore it to its condition before 1939.

The visible reminder of shrapnel, and of fear, will at last be removed.

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