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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 05:41 GMT 06:41 UK
Uncertain future for East Germany
By Ben Bradshaw
BBC News, Hof

This From Our Own Correspondent was first broadcast on 3 October, 1989.

As East German President Erich Honecker prepared to welcome his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to Berlin, trainloads of East Germans fled to the West as Hungary and Poland relaxed their border controls. The Iron Curtain was down.

East Germany refugees arriving at Hof railway station

It is quite difficult for an Englishman to understand the emotions that were unleashed on Hof's railway station in the early hours of Sunday morning.

We do not have a minefield and fences running down the middle of our country.

We do not have a wall cutting our former capital in half.

I think anyone would have been moved by the scenes that changed a cold, dank, autumnal Sunday in a north Bavarian town into a world event.

Going or staying is a dilemma that enters the minds of even the most steadfast East Germans
Train after train arrived to tumultuous applause. Those on board, men and women, weeping copious tears of joy and relief.

They had arrived at last.

Some of them had waited years, had repeated applications to leave turned down.

Others had jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute. They had heard what was about to happen and they had taken their chance.

Going or staying is a dilemma that enters the minds of even the most steadfast East Germans.

The difference is usually they do not have a choice.

Exodus

It was not just the arrivals at Hof who wore their emotions on their sleeves.

The local people turned out in their hundreds to welcome them.

Stout men and women in their Sunday best, twice or three times the average age of those getting off the trains, wept as they clapped. "These are our people, free at last," they said.

East Germany's citizens enjoyed, as they still do enjoy, the highest standard of living in the communist world
And still the exodus goes on.

The movement over the border between Hungary and Austria continues and what many people forget is that those leaving East Germany legally this year will number more than at any time since 1961 and the building of the Berlin Wall.

And here of course is the crunch. The Berlin Wall did its job so successfully that many commentators say East Germany only really began after its construction.

International recognition

Erich Honecker
Erich Honecker led East Germany from 1971 to 1989
It was after 1961 that the country managed to establish some form of stability.

Its doctors and engineers were not running off to the West.

It became the showpiece of the Eastern Bloc, 10th in the World Bank league of international economies.

Its citizens enjoyed, as they still do enjoy, the highest standard of living in the communist world.

Many of those leaving East Germany at the moment profess to be doing so for political reasons
Then came the longed-for international recognition in the early seventies, when Western countries, apart from West Germany, established embassies in East Berlin.

So, little East Germany with its population of just over 16 million, proud of its Prussian and Saxon ancestry, flourished in relative terms.

But a concerted effort by its government to cultivate some kind of East German national consciousness failed.

For most East Germans their condition remained an artificial one.

They did not compare their lives with those of the Poles, Czechoslovaks or Russians, but with those of their German cousins in the West. Cousins who drove a BMW and took three foreign holidays a year in countries of their choice.

Opening borders

Many of those leaving East Germany at the moment profess to be doing so for political reasons.

There is no reason to doubt them. But for others the incentive is more basic.

One 40-year-old arrival in Hof told me: "I've been working my guts out for 20 years and what have I got to show for it - a Lada."

East Germany has survived by keeping its people in.

It must not be assumed that all East Germans want to go West. Many do not
It has been able to do so because it was a part of a solid political and military bloc in a divided world, and in which its allies played ball.

But in rapidly changing central Europe they, Hungary and Poland at least, are no longer willing to do so.

By tearing down its border fence with Austria and saying East Germans could come and go as they please, Hungary in effect tore down the Berlin Wall.

Difficult reforms

It must not be assumed that all East Germans want to go West. Many do not.

Among them are the leaders of the numerous opposition groups to have sprung up in response to the country's current difficulties.

By and large these people want to maintain socialism in one form or another and the thought of being swallowed up by West Germany, with problems of unemployment, homelessness and drug abuse, fills them with horror.

But they will tell you that every day longer that their government resists reforms, more people who essentially think as they do will give up and say: "To hell with it, we would be better under rule from Bonn."

These are the people who could be East Germany's hope for the future, but there is no sign of the government entering a dialogue with them.

Those arriving at Hof say it is too late anyway. They even report people lining the route of the trains in East Germany waving and clapping and holding placards saying: "We're coming soon."

So spare a thought for Mr Honecker, as he and his ageing Politburo colleagues try to raise a smile later this week.

Hotbed of opposition

East Germany's 77-year-old leader suffered and was imprisoned under the Nazis.

How could it open its borders and introduce free market structures but maintain its separateness from West Germany?
He devoted the rest of his life to building the first state of workers and peasants on German soil, only to be abandoned by their children and told by those who stayed they have had enough. What can the little man from the Saarland do?

If he continues to resist reform, the mood of the people, dark enough as it is, will only get worse. But if he grasps the nettle and does what everyone, save his own ideological advisers, is telling him to do, what will become of East Germany?

How could it open its borders and introduce free market structures but maintain its separateness from West Germany?

As one senior East German politician recently put it: "If we give up socialism, we give up our reason to exist."

As the world asks itself how many more birthdays East Germany can look forward to, I cannot help wondering what Mr Honecker really feels about the man from Moscow who will be sharing the podium with him in a few days' time.

For all the bombast and rhetoric fired in the direction of the imperialist West during the current crisis, it is Mr Gorbachev, of course, who is really to blame for East Germany's predicament.

It is his glasnost and perestroika that have brought the trouble.

One wonders what he must be thinking, as the Soviet Union's most docile and reliable ally becomes suddenly a hotbed of opposition and unrest.

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