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Clay Risen -- In Germany, East and West are still divided

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By Clay Risen
Sunday, November 1, 2009

BERLIN -- Peter and Angela Hofmann aren't a typical German couple. For one thing, they met online, a rarity in this techno-wary country.

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For another, the couple, both 55, moved this year from Berlin to rural Brandenburg state near the Polish border to open a pension, or bed and breakfast -- a risky move in a down economy.

But most striking of all is where they come from: Peter, who was born near Dresden, is what Germans call an Ossi, a child of communist East Germany, while Angela is from West Berlin, making her a Wessi.

It's been two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet the split between east and west is stronger than ever. The stereotypes on both sides are as crude as they are entrenched: Wessis are materialistic and immoral; Ossis are lazy reactionaries. An Ossi-Wessi marriage isn't quite the same as a Southerner wed to a Yankee circa 1885, but it's close.

"There aren't a lot of people like us," Angela told my wife and me in September, with a rueful smile. We were sitting around the couple's kitchen table, looking out over the forest-lined Oder-Havel Canal.

They call their pension, appropriately enough, Engel und Teufel -- Angel and Devil. Two people, two sides of a common heritage broken by war and ideology. Angela grew up learning English; Peter learned Russian.

After the wall came down, Peter, an engineer, couldn't compete with West German know-how and saw his career hit the skids. Angela, an English teacher, was inundated with students young and old, all eager to learn the lingua franca of the capitalist west.

For the first decade after the fall of communism, Germans from east and west happily assumed that, in time, they would fall back into the routines of a unified people -- forgetting that before the split in 1945, Germany had existed as a single country for only 74 years. Now that optimism is gone, replaced by a fear that communism somehow rewrote the DNA of easterners and drove a permanent wedge between the two sides.

"We're really two different peoples," Angela Hofmann said. Her husband, whom she's trying to teach English, nodded.

Today, the eastern German economy is doing pretty well. After spending the 1990s watching its inefficient industrial base shutter, the east -- especially its urban areas such as Berlin and Dresden -- is seeing a renaissance of high-tech, high-value investment, as international companies swoop in to take advantage of cheap skilled labor. Its economy is still far behind the west's, but it is catching up fast.

Yet there is a paradox in such rapid growth. As Berlin and Dresden pull ahead, people in the rest of the region -- including unskilled workers, the elderly and rural communities -- grow frustrated, left behind by a unification process that was supposed to lift all boats. A recent study by the Social Studies Research Institute of Berlin-Brandenburg found that only 25 percent of easterners feel like full citizens in the united Germany.

Even the Hofmanns, who are luckier than most, share some resentment. "They won't pave the road to our pension," Angela said; all the money goes to the big cities.


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