HAMBURG -- In the first weeks after the Berlin Wall opened, East Germans, rushing over the border in their sad, sputtering Trabant automobiles and marveling at the riches in the shops, were embraced with more warmth than many West Germans thought their nation could muster.

Even big cities, including this one, laid out a small-town welcome, showering newcomers with money, advice, food, clothes and jobs.

That was before West Germans watched the East German government collapse, before they discovered that the country they had always heard described as the jewel of the East Bloc was really an economic relic, firmly fixed in the 1940s.

It was before West Germans learned that the unexpected end of the 40-year division of their land could cost $775 billion over the next five years, enough to force even the most affluent nation in Europe to borrow money and, as the government in Bonn finally admitted this month, perhaps even to raise taxes.

Now, three days before the West German flag becomes the banner of all Germany, a surprisingly large number of West Germans are approaching the birth of a new nation with a combination of resignation, regret and nostalgia for their own country, that represented the rebirth of democracy after the Nazi disaster.

Last winter's euphoria is over; 29 percent of West Germans now oppose unification, according to a poll by the newsmagazine Der Spiegel. West German investment in the East is lagging far behind what the Bonn government had expected, largely because of continuing uncertainty about East German property laws. And even top aides to Chancellor Helmut Kohl now believe that, as one official said, "We went too fast. We both needed time. We are just too different."

"This is worse than an old house we are taking over," said Michael Stuermer, a West German historian and adviser to Kohl. "It's a rotten piece of real estate, but we have to buy it because it's an old family heirloom. There will be no end to the cost of repairs. But it must be done."

The jubilation that last fall led to an outburst of pride and flag-waving that Germans had not permitted themselves since the early years of Nazi rule has been replaced by a more sober, businesslike attitude. When President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev both said they were too busy to accept invitations to attend Wednesday's unification ceremonies, Kohl announced that instead of the proposed nationwide spectacle, the event would be "inward-looking."

The celebration may be muted, but no one has given up on the ultimate success of unification. Rather, the process looks slower and much more complicated than many had initially hoped.

The potential profits and pride that could accrue to the West from bringing 16 million people into a high-tech consumer society have captured the imagination of many West Germans. The West already is experiencing something of a unification boom. But on Wednesday, there will be no more West Germany, and the new part of the united nation is not a happy sight.

East Germany emerged from its proud, bloodless revolution little more than a charity case. Last winter, the Hamburg city employment office had little trouble finding positions for arriving East Germans. Everyone wanted to help.

But then word started trickling back from employers: East Germans got tired quickly -- they weren't used to working a full day. They had to be taught everything from how to open a bank account to how to find an apartment. They did nothing they weren't told to do.

Klaus Koch, chief of Hamburg's employment office, has dealt with West German employers and their East German workers since last fall. "As more things got difficult here," he said, "as more things went crazy over there, with their ministers coming and going, political nonsense, the costs going up and up, the taxes -- well, people here lost all interest in East Germany.

"Right now, all Oct. 3 means to most of us is one day off. Otherwise, it's just more problems, more costs. People here are disgusted with it."

Two-thirds of West Germans expect to have to make financial sacrifices to pay for German unity, but only one-third say they are willing to do so, according to the Der Spiegel poll. And another survey found that two-thirds of West Germans expect unification to produce rising social tensions.

Still, Bonn officials say there was no choice. East Germany unraveled faster than anyone expected; industrial production there has plummeted by 42 percent in the past year. And East German voters made their preference for quick unification clear at the ballot box in March.

The East German hunger for Western goods has given the already-strong West German economy an extra boost. The German Institute for Economic Research predicts 4 percent economic growth this year with a 2 percent rise in employment.

Nearly every major company plans to build plants or sell products in the East. Volkswagen broke ground last week for a $1.9 billion plant in Mosel, East Germany, where Europe's largest auto maker plans to produce 250,000 cars a year by 1995. In the first half of this year, the West German auto industry reported a 50 percent increase in new car orders over the first six months of 1989 -- a reflection of East Germans' desire to scrap their embarrassing Trabants and get something that can compete on the no-speed-limit West German highways.

Still, most of the plans remain just that. Many firms have postponed expanding to the East because East Germany failed to guarantee the finality of land purchases by Westerners or because the desperate shape of the East German infrastructure seemed daunting.

Last winter's benevolence has been replaced by an undercurrent of resentment against the struggling East Germans. A West German official complained that her nephew, the son of an ambassador, is angry because the Foreign Ministry is making his job search harder by deciding to hire East Germans. A Bonn landlord told her tenants she has found them a new and cheap gardener, but she will have to send a friend to watch over him because he is East German and therefore may steal.

For months after the Berlin Wall fell, Ruediger Loewe, a Munich television executive, did not visit his ancestral estate in East Germany even though his family has two sets of Meissen china buried on the grounds. "Of course we had to send them Christmas parcels every year," Loewe said. "But really, I feel no connection to them. We have so little in common."

"They are total strangers to me," said Angelika Volle, a political scientist in Bonn. "I don't know any East Germans. I know more Hungarians and Poles than I do East Germans. They don't know anything of Europe. My friends are British, French and American. I speak their languages. The East Germans don't.

"They've never traveled. They've never been confronted with being German and taking responsibility for what this country has done. We had all those painful discussions in our student days: What did your parents do in the Third Reich? What did we do to the Jews? The East Germans are just starting all that."

West Germans who have tried to reconnect with their cousins "over there" are sometimes frustrated, sometimes rewarded. "We used to have a bad conscience about them because they had a wall and we were rich," said Sybille Wehrle, 31, a West Berlin schoolteacher. "Now you meet them and you feel like the mother. They want you to teach them everything. So now people here feel free to say, 'Lousy Easties.' "

When Wehrle met some East German colleagues, she found the cultural gulf too deep. Her fellow teachers immediately addressed Wehrle using the informal German word for "you" and called her house the day after they first met. "That would never happen" in the more formal West, Wehrle said. She did not return the call.

But other West Germans have rediscovered bonds that had weakened over two generations of forced separation. Monika Zimmermann, a West German, is the new editor of East Berlin's Neue Zeit, a daily newspaper now owned by the Frankfurter Allgemeine, one of the West's most successful papers.

"West Germans really knew nothing of East Germany," she said. "Some just had this fear of socialism. Some wouldn't come over {to the East} because of all the unpleasantness you faced at the border. Then suddenly the whole world said we West Germans were the experts on East Germany. It wasn't true. The human contact between West and East was mostly between relatives, and it was forced. I have relatives in the West whom I don't see because I don't like them. But if you had relatives in the East, you had to send a Christmas basket -- no question."

Now, building relationships driven by more than guilt, Zimmermann finds East Germans curious about her and hungry to connect with the West. "This is a poorly developed part of Germany," she said. "We have to give them the courage to make their own decisions, and then things work perfectly."

The clash between East and West can be ugly. Some East Germans accuse West German politicians and business people of being arrogant colonizers. Some West Germans respond by calling their cousins lazy workers incapable of thinking for themselves.

"In fact, we are not arrogant," said Theo Sommer, editor of Die Zeit, West Germany's most influential intellectual weekly. "We just know how things work. Maybe what they resent is that their way doesn't work."

The gap between the two societies has been exacerbated by a relentless West German assault on nearly every aspect of the East German system. After long and bitter debate, East Germany was allowed to keep its more liberal abortion law for an interim period of two years, but other than that, the East Germans lost almost every major dispute with Bonn during unification talks.

West German politicians and TV commentators routinely ridicule East German leaders. The premier of Bavaria called them "hobby ministers." The Bonn government put out an instructional comic book for East Germans showing Ludwig Erhard, architect of West Germany's 1950s economic miracle, teaching a dog the basics of capitalism. The comic was quickly scrapped after criticism that it was insulting to East Germans.

Despite such lapses, many West Germans have faced unification with a sense of duty, turning considerable attention and resources to the mammoth tasks of rebuilding houses, roads and railways and installing telephone, energy and pollution control systems. They are doing the work in part because, as East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere said, "it is their moral obligation." But they are also doing it to save what they have built since Germany surrendered in 1945, its cities and villages reduced to rubble. West Germany was the first German state in which democracy thrived, and West Germans, proud of that legacy, are worried that the addition of 16 million East Germans may threaten their political stability.

"They're more xenophobic than we are, condescending and even offensive to Poles and Russians," Sommer said. "The priority here is not to get back on the nationalist track."

Last fall, West Germans were thrilled by East German demonstrators' standing up to their government and chanting, "We are the people." But now, Sommer said, "We have to stand up for West Germany. The time will come when we say, 'We are also the people.' The tail can't wag the dog."

NEXT: East German anxieties

At midnight Wednesday, the West German flag will be raised over the Reichstag, the once and perhaps future home of the German parliament in the center of Berlin. At that moment, East Germany will cease to exist.

FOUR POWERS

The Bonn government will be fully sovereign in all of Germany. The four World War II powers, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States will suspend all of their legal rights in Germany. Those rights will legally end after each country has ratified the international treaty on German unification.

BONN

Commissioners appointed by Bonn will take over administration of East Germany. Five ministers from the East German government and 144 members of the East German parliament will move to Bonn to represent their part of the country until an all-German government is elected on Dec. 2.

EAST GERMAN GOVERNMENT

Most of the 1.7 million East German government workers -- about one of every five workers in the country -- will lose their jobs. Some will be reassigned to new local governments.

BERLIN

Berlin will become the capital of the united Germany, but that does not yet means that the government will leave Bonn. The unification treaty leaves that question to the new, all-German parliament.

NATO

Germany will be a member of NATO, but NATO will not station troops on former East German land. Soviet troops, supported by money from Bonn, will remain on East German territory for up to four years.

May 23, 1949: THe Federal Republic of Germany is formed from the former French, British and American zones of occuppied Germany.

Oct. 7, 1949: The German Democratic Republic is created from the former Soviet zone of occupied Germany.

May 26, 1952: East Germany sets up prohibited zones along its border with West Germany.

June 17, 1953: Anti-government strikes break out in East Berlin, but Soviet troops put down the insurrection.

May 6, 1955: West Germany joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Jan. 29, 1956: East Germany joins the Warsaw Pact.

Aug. 13, 1961: In an overnight operation by East German and Soviet forces, a fence that soon becomes a concrete wall is erected encircling West Berlin.

March 19, 1970: The heads of government of the two Germanys meet in East Germany.

May 3, 1971: Erich Honecker succeeds Walter Ulbricht to become East Germany's second Communist Party chief.

Dec. 21, 1972: The Two Germanys sign a treaty normalizing relations.

Sept. 7, 1987: Honecker becomes the first East German party leader to visit West Germany.

May 2, 1989: Thousands of East Germans flee to the West after Hungary opens it border with Austria.

Oct. 7: While Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev attends 40th anniversary celebrations in East Berlin,tens of thousands of East Germans take to the streets in Leipzig and elsewhere.

Oct. 18: Honecker quits, replaced by party loyalist Egon Krenz, who promises reform.

Nov. 9: The Berlin Wall opens. Thousands poor across in a scene of mad jubilation.

Nov. 13: Reform Communist Hans Modrow is appointed prime minister as street demonstrations grow.

Nov. 28: West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl offers surprise 10-point plan toward German unification, with the final step envisioned at least five years away.

Dec. 3: Krenz, who abolished the Communist Party monopoly and agreed to free elections, is forced out.

1990

March 18: Kohl's Christian Democrats, promising quick unification, win decisively as East Germans vote freely for the first time in 57 years.

April 12: Lothar de Maziere takes office as East Germany's first and last elected prime minister.

July 1: East Germany hands over control of its economy to Bonn.

July 16: The Soviet Union agrees to NATO unification.

Aug. 22: The two Germanys set Oct. 3 as unity day and Dec. 2 as date of first all-German elections since 1933.

Oct. 3: East Germany is no more.