EAST BERLIN -- When the inefficient enterprises that supply East German supermarkets with groceries began to crumble earlier this year, West German entrepreneurs moved in with bright new displays of fresh fruit, a dazzling variety of baked goods and all manner of meats.
Then, when the East German government started erasing decades-old subsidies on staples, West German discounters swept over the border to offer food, clothing and even used cars at cut-rate prices.
And today, when many of East Germany's 16 million people head to banks to trade their life savings for what they call "real money," managers from the West German central bank will hand back $17 billion worth of West German marks -- one of the world's most stable and trusted currencies.
If this is the painful shock therapy that the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe must suffer in the transition to a market economy, the rest of the region would like to find out where to sign up.
But, of course, they can't. Unlike their East German counterparts, the citizens of planned economies stretching from Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union are missing one thing -- rich cousins.
"Our mental orientation toward East Germany is so strong that other areas will suffer," said Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank, West Germany's largest.
Both the Polish and Czechoslovakian governments have said their salvation lies in good measure in the hands of German industry and the Bonn government -- despite Eastern Europe's historical fear of an aggressive, united Germany.
In the East Bloc, "they all want everything from us," said Dietrich von Kyaw, an economics expert at Bonn's Foreign Ministry. "The German situation will be handled by us, as Germans. Can we then, with our allies, go beyond this German thing and help the Poles and Czechs and so on? I don't know."
In 1988, West Germany bailed out Hungary, which faced a desperate cash shortage. Today, Hungary would have to stand in line well behind East Germany.
Walter and other West Germans argue that German unity will push Western Europe toward quicker economic and political unification, as other countries band together to prevent the new Germany -- the continent's largest country west of the Soviet Union -- from dominating the Europe of the 21st century.
But economists also say the budding democracies that broke out of the Soviet Bloc last fall share the same problems as East Germany but do not enjoy the same solutions.
Even Czechoslovakia, which boasts relatively advanced industries and well-stocked stores, is saddled with poisoned land and an overwhelming trade dependence on other East Bloc countries. Only East Germany can count on outside help to clean up 40 years of environmental crimes.
Economists expect East Germany to achieve a fair degree of Western-style success within two years. An analysis issued last week by the Industrial Bank of Japan predicts that East Germany will grow by nearly 10 percent a year, matching West German economic output by the end of the decade.
Analysts say it could take other East Bloc countries that long just to eliminate subsidies and make their currencies convertible.
Part of the reason for the difference is that East Germans have long had a clear view of the Western life they were missing. Nearly all East Germans could receive West German television.
"They have seen 'Dallas' many more times and watched it more carefully than I," Walter said. "They have seen capitalism and they know the basics."
In the spring, months before they would join the single German economy, East Germans who had shown little sign of independence or economic creativity through four decades of stultifying communist rule began to act like their Western neighbors.
Cab drivers in Leipzig hiked their rates unilaterally. Families in Berlin and Dresden began renting out private rooms -- at exorbitant prices -- to Westerners who could not be accommodated in the handful of government-owned hotels.
But the most important difference between the East German experience and the pitfalls awaiting other Eastern Europeans is the commitment Bonn has made to recreating East Germany in its own image.
"The only way to turn East Germany around is for us to take over," von Kyaw said. "We have to take the risk of being accused of overwhelming the Easterners."
Weeks after the Berlin Wall opened last November, the West German government promised to pay the price of the economic transformation of East Germany.
Despite strong opposition from the Bundesbank, the West German central bank, Chancellor Helmut Kohl decided to exchange the bulk of East Germans' nearly worthless East marks at a wildly artificial one-to-one rate.
And Bonn assumed responsibility for East Germany's pension payments, unemployment insurance and even the bulk of the massive environmental cleanup and industrial modernization necessary to pull the country into the second half of the 20th century.
West Germany has created a $70 billion German Unity Fund to finance the renovation of the neglected East German economy and the country's sagging infrastructure.
The bulk of that money is to be borrowed, leading many West German bankers to say the country faces a long-term deficit for the first time in its 45-year history.
Even with Bonn's backing, the overnight absorption of East Germany's centrally controlled socialist state into West Germany's mixed economy will shake up individuals and businesses, threatening to boost inflation and push millions of East Germans out of their previously guaranteed jobs.
As many as 40 percent of East German businesses are expected to go under, and it is here, in the soaring unemployment and collapsing social benefits system, that Eastern European countries may find the German experience instructive.
They also will face an onslaught of Western companies offering efficient production methods and superior products.
"East Germany is the number one challenge for the West," said Ulrich Ramm, vice president of Commerzbank in Frankfurt, which is opening 50 East German branches. "East Germany is also the gateway to the East. If this goes well, investment will follow in the other countries."
In the months following today's economic merger, East Germany's newly elected government will have no control over monetary policy, the banking system or even its budget; all that has been ceded to the West.
But East Germany will have to decide what to do about ownership of land and homes -- a key issue in making banks willing to extend credit anywhere in the East Bloc.
So far, there are no answers, and banks have been reluctant to invest in anything beyond a few branch offices. "We have no collateral," said a Commerzbank spokesman. "What are we supposed to base our decisions on?"
The rest of the bloc can also look toward East Germany for suggestions on altering the expectations of people who grew up with guaranteed jobs, education, housing and pensions.
The West Germans have taken on East German pension commitments but have taken a sink-or-swim attitude toward most other remnants of the socialist system.
As a result, East Germans have taken to the streets numerous times to protest the closing of kindergartens, property purchases by Westerners and the impending loss of places in retirement homes.
But the unrest has been spotty, and West German officials say they are confident that the lures of capitalism will make up for the loss of the communists' cradle-to-grave security.
Kohl's promises already have achieved one short-term goal, keeping the overwhelming majority of East Germans home, saving West Germany from the torrent of immigration it suffered from last fall through this spring.
But refugees unhappy with their lives in Romania and the Soviet Union have begun streaming into East Germany, thirsting for a piece of the economic change underway.
Germany cannot ignore the East Bloc, a Bonn chancellery official said. But, he added, even wealthy West Germany cannot give to everyone all at once. Eastern Europe will have to wait.
The only country that seems able to steer West German attention away from East Germany right now is the Soviet Union, which must approve the political merger of the Germanys.
Moscow's ties to Germany are tight; Bonn is the Soviets' largest Western trade partner and East Berlin is its biggest East Bloc customer. Eager to win the Soviet blessing for unification, West Germany has already extended a $3 billion credit to Moscow.
"The only place German money will go outside of East Germany in the next few years is Moscow," a top Bonn official said. "The Russians have realized we will pay almost any price to reunite our country."