EAST BERLIN, JUNE 8 -- Unemployment has suddenly skyrocketed in East Germany, shocking the newly democratic nation with a debilitating social problem neither its leaders nor its people have experience with.
The Labor Ministry has estimated that at least 100,000 East Germans have lost their jobs since December. The losses come as the country moves away from the rigid, bureaucracy-heavy communist system of the last 40 years and prepares for absorption into the free-market West German economy under monetary union scheduled to take effect July 2.
Some increase in unemployment was expected during a transition period, but officials said jobs are being lost more rapidly and on a greater scale than anticipated. As a result, the number of jobless may continue rising until the full effects of economic union take hold. A clear forecast is impossible before next fall, they said.
Economy Minister Gerhard Pohl and other officials, meanwhile, have warned that social unrest could break out among unemployed workers, particularly the young. The officials have urged prompt establishment of retraining programs to prepare these idled workers for the new jobs expected to be generated by privatizing shops and small businesses and, eventually, by investment from the West.
Ironically, the first to be hit by large-scale unemployment were employees of the Stasi, the once ubiquitous secret police force that is being disbanded. The police apparatus comprised about 85,000 persons -- from highly qualified technicians and computer scientists to ordinary gumshoes -- many of whom have been fired, said Gabrielle Endert-Reinhardt, public relations chief for the Labor Ministry's Central Labor Administration.
"Even the highly trained ones have a problem, because no one wants to hire them," she smiled.
Then East Germany's 2 million manufacturing workers -- such as those from unprofitable chemical industries near Halle or copper works closed down to protect the environment -- began to feel the pinch. A number of government ministries in East Berlin also laid off civil servants to streamline the administration, and now agricultural workers on state farms have lost work.
Endert-Reinhardt said there was virtually no unemployment recorded in East Germany as of December. By the time elections were held in March and Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere's government took over, the number of jobless had risen to 20,000 and was on the way up, she recalled.
"Now it's jumped up dramatically," she added.
The 100,000 figure, out of a work force of about 8 million, has brought East Germany nowhere near the unemployment levels endured perennially and peacefully by major West European democracies. In West Germany, often cited as a model economy, the government expressed satisfaction that unemployment fell last month to 1.82 million, or 7 percent of the work force.
But in a country used to 100 percent full employment and job security -- if often through featherbedding -- the swift rise in joblessness has produced an unpleasant hangover after the exhilarating political transformation of last fall and winter.
"You have to understand that people in the German Democratic Republic do not know how to deal with this problem of unemployment, and with the social ills that come along with it," Endert-Reinhardt said. "There are going to be a lot of psychological consequences that we can't predict."
For example, Endert-Reinhardt said, the Communist government forced state businesses to keep open a fixed number of apprenticeships for youths coming onto the job market, whether or not the business could actually use the apprentice. With this requirement abolished, she added, parents are "losing their heads" with worry about where to find work for children graduating into the workplace this spring.
Unemployment compensation has paid 70 percent of the lost salary up to a maximum of 1,000 East German marks a month. Although monetary union is scheduled to transform the payments into the same number of more valuable West German marks, price rises expected to accompany the union will keep the benefits low in terms of purchasing power, Endert-Reinhardt pointed out.
In any case, she said, the problem is as much political as economic because of East Germans' unfamiliarity with the entire phenomenon of unemployment, which occurred under communism mainly as a political sanction often associated with loss of property and other rights.
"Most people in the German Democratic Republic just don't know what this means," she explained. "For them, being forced to go to the unemployment office is something terrible."
In addition, the sudden rise in unemployment has come as a brutal reminder of the transformation the East German economy will have to go through after union with West Germany. Already East Germans have stopped buying some of their country's own products, preferring higher quality products from the West now that they are increasingly available here.
"It is no secret that we are going to have big problems making our products competitive," Endert-Reinhardt said.
In a clear indication that the trend has jumped ahead of official unification, workers in the last few days have attached a row of Marlboro cigarette signs along the length of a railroad overpass, replacing Marxism's New Man with the Marlboro Man on a main East Berlin artery. A nearby post office, meanwhile, cheerfully accepted payment and gave change in West German marks as if monetary union were already a fact.
Although no demonstrations or violence have been reported, Endert-Reinhardt said, East Germans learned from their political revolution last fall that taking problems to the streets can be effective. It was apparently with this in mind that Pohl spoke out about the danger.