EAST BERLIN -- It is late in the afternoon of the final business meeting of the East German parliament, and the hallway outside the prime minister's office is teeming with legislators and the ever-exasperated West Germans assigned to watch over this last gasp of sovereignty from the nation they are about to swallow.

The crowd in the hallway is a smoky, sweaty mess. "You think it's easy to shut down a country in six months?" one legislator asks. He rushes off without waiting for an answer.

Here in this sprawling monument to the communist passion for big ugliness, the Palace of the Republic, there is one island of silence. Behind an unmarked door, the country's first and last freely elected prime minister sits chain smoking, watching the parliamentary debate on an old TV with the sound turned off.

Lothar de Maiziere is an almost impossibly slight man, a pipsqueak with a distinct lisp, a bad muttering problem and a resolute resistance to the media madness that came with the job he lost last night at midnight, when his country vanished from the map.

Six months ago, on the March morning when all of Germany woke up to ask "Lothar who?" the first non-communist leader of East Germany appeared at a press conference to introduce himself.

"Smile, will you?" the cameramen shouted in four languages.

"How about a smile for America?" the guy from the Associated Press pleaded.

De Maiziere's answer was a stunner. "No," he said.

He wouldn't play ball with the tired hacks. "How did you feel when you woke up the winner?" they asked.

"Not good," de Maiziere said. "I'm tired. I got a sore leg from all the chaos last night."

Six months later, after being portrayed on a satirical West German TV show as a drooling simp, after standing up to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a series of David and Goliath battles that de Maiziere had no right to win but sometimes did, after watching helplessly as millions of his countrymen lost their jobs, Lothar de Maiziere has changed not one whit.

He has agreed to a valedictory interview, the captain of a sinking ship in its final moments afloat. He waves in the next questioner and the first words out of his mouth after "Good day" are "No photographs with me smoking." The next are "No pictures without my jacket on."

In his short stint in office, he has reminded West Germans that a good chunk of the country behind the Berlin Wall was Prussia, the region that came to dominate Germany through the leadership of men who preached and lived a humorless gospel of discipline, order and efficiency.

Is de Maiziere the "little Prussian" the West German press makes him out to be? Consider the psychological questionnaire he filled out for a Munich magazine. Favorite figure in history? "Marcus Aurelius." Favorite human characteristic? "Dependability." Favorite virtue? "Industry." Your motto? "Determination." Your dream of happiness? "At the moment, hard to say."

And: What reform do you admire most? "Prussian administrative reform."

Prussian administrative reform?

Sentiment surfaces rarely and only with great reluctance. With his country about to dissolve itself, de Maiziere admits to "the occasional lump in the throat. There were times when the legacy of the past seemed almost too heavy to bear."

Immediately: "We were not always on top of the task or able to keep up with the pace of events, but at least we have given historians a new period of transition in German politics to write about."

He is 50 years old, a viola player by choice, a lawyer only after a nerve disorder ended his musical career. He never belonged to the Communist Party. But ever since he was 16, he was a member of East Germany's Christian Democratic Union, one of the puppet parties the Communists kept around to maintain the illusion of pluralism. The Christian Democrats never raised a voice against the ruling regime, never joined the artists and writers and churchmen pushing against the Stalinist restraints of the Erich Honecker government.

To de Maiziere, joining the Christian Democrats "meant that one professed one's Christianity. And it meant that one was willing to sacrifice a career at the top." True enough, de Maiziere did not become a major player in his party until 1986. In a country with fewer than 500 lawyers, he devoted himself primarily to church work, defending conscientious objectors who refused to enter the National People's Army, rising to be vice president of the country's Evangelical Synod.

At the beginning of this year, when the Communist government had fallen into disarray and the other parties were looking for untainted candidates, fortune smiled on de Maiziere, a man with no known Communist ties, but hardly a dissident. Blessed with the same name as Chancellor Kohl's West German party, the East German Christian Democrats had a natural partner, a Bonn party looking to expand into the East and ready to pump big money into the East German election.

The Christian Democratic campaign barely mentioned its East German candidates. On TV commercials, on omnipresent posters, wherever East Germans turned, they saw Helmut Kohl promising them quick unification and a Western standard of living. Kohl's helicopter floated into one town square after another; the bulky, chummy chancellor waded into the crowds, exhilarated by any contact with his long-lost Eastern brethren. The East Germans voted for Volkswagen Golfs, Levi's jeans and the chancellor of German unity.

When they woke up the next morning, they realized they got the Western goods, but they also got a thin, bearded fellow who actually thought he was prime minister of a sovereign nation. De Maiziere was not only an unknown, but, his critics say, a very lucky politician. With Kohl dominating the campaign, de Maiziere and his fellow East German Christian Democrats were able to gloss over his party's compliance in the corrupt and inflexible rule of the communists.

After the March vote, the conventional wisdom about de Maiziere was that whoever this guy was, he wasn't going to amount to anything but Helmut Kohl's East Berlin tool.

Aides say Kohl thought much the same thing. He was wrong.

It is true that de Maiziere had little power. He was elected to put his country out of business by signing the massive treaties that the bureaucrats in Bonn kept piling on his desk. His government never stabilized; 13 of his 22 original ministers quit or were sacked. His parliament was a comical collection of Communists desperately holding on to their old status and dissidents trying to adjust to being in charge. They loved to scream at each other in all-night sessions that enraged their impatient mentors from Bonn.

But de Maiziere refused to be Kohl's water boy. His Prussian sense of order and dignity would not allow it. He was, as he frequently reminded reporters, "prime minister of the German Democratic Republic." In a society that values titles immensely, de Maiziere was not about to be seen as the man who delivered his country into the hands of the rich capitalists from the other side of the tattered wall.

De Maiziere fought Kohl on one point after another, asserting his country's right to make its own way toward unification, pushing for extra weeks of sovereign life.

Occasionally -- astoundingly -- he won; he got the West Germans to let East Germany keep its liberal abortion law for a two-year interim period, and he squeezed through a compromise that may allow some of East Germany's small political parties to survive in the unified country.

Most often, de Maiziere, like his country, had no choice but to go along with Bonn's wishes. De Maiziere insisted that unification occur on the same day as the first all-German elections, so that his people would not have to go one day without their own elected representatives. De Maiziere lost: The elections will be in December.

The little Prussian had to settle for subtler victories. At the formal reception at which the two leaders celebrated the signing of the unification treaty, de Maiziere took out his viola and joined the orchestra to play a tune for Kohl. The chancellor thanked the East German, commenting that the viola would now be a symbol of the prime minister's office. De Maiziere responded by handing Kohl his viola.

But Kohl cannot play the instrument and awkwardly handed it right back. This, aides say, was de Maiziere's idea of winning a showdown with his powerful rival.

The victories have been small, and there will be no more. De Maiziere tries to be sanguine about the demise of his country. "We are, after all, one people with the same language," he says. "With the same culture. With the same history. The Cologne Cathedral no longer belongs only to West Germans, but to all of us. And the Leipzig Gewandhaus {concert hall} belongs to all Germans again."

In the end, however, he knows his country faces terrible hardship. Millions have already lost their jobs as the state-run industries collapse, unable to compete against Western companies. Millions more will be fired as Bonn takes over and streamlines the bloated Communist bureaucracy.

More than any economic pain, however, East Germans face years of being second-class citizens in their own country. They know less than their Western cousins. They earn less. They have less initiative.

"The situation at first looks like a one-way street," de Maiziere says. "People here have gotten used to having their minds made up for them. The process of unification is naturally difficult when one side comes from a system in which the political, economic and intellectual-ideological structures were a complete failure, while the other side comes from a successful system."

He has watched as the euphoria over last fall's peaceful revolution faded, to be replaced by a national obsession with the legacy of the Stasi secret police. The question has plagued de Maiziere's government: Every minister, every parliamentarian must answer, was he or wasn't he a Stasi informer?

The prime minister, whose file showed no record of any cooperation with the hated Stasi, favors prosecuting the "real criminals" in the security agency and then moving on. "I'm opposed to all forms of collective guilt," he says. "Guilt is always of the individual."

But the prime minister holds out hope that some of East Germany's gentleness, the deep friendships and emphasis on family life, may survive unification.

"I cannot deny that I am prone to melancholy feelings," he said after his last cabinet meeting this week. "But there is no regret at the passing of an unjust state. It is like the feeling at your graduation party: A chapter is over and suddenly you remember only the good parts."

De Maiziere will spend the next eight weeks as a minister without portfolio in the interim Bonn government. Then, if Kohl wins reelection, he may be offered a minor cabinet post. He will not get the job he wanted, minister in charge of reconstructing the East. That task will go to a West German.

If he doesn't get a job he wants, one in which he could feel like he is still a lawyer for his people, he says, he will return to legal work and occasionally to his viola.

Otherwise, he expects little change. "It's quite an exception that you've seen me without my jacket," he says. "I don't believe any colleague of mine has ever seen me without a tie. At home I have my tie on until late at night.

"You see, there are jeans people and there are non-jeans people. I am not a jeans person."