EAST BERLIN -- At midnight as Wednesday begins, fireworks will flame over dozens of cities in both Germanys as the German Democratic Republic becomes the first country in modern history to erase itself from the map peacefully and democratically.
The physical changes are dramatic enough. From Ho Chi Minh Alley in East Berlin to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Street in Oranienburg, place names will be scrapped, and statues of Marx, Lenin and the other socialist icons will fall. Industries collapse daily; under the economic prescription the Bonn government calls "creative destruction," nearly 2 million workers already have been let go or had their jobs cut to part time.
But the invisible changes are even deeper. After more than 40 years in isolation, under the constant and unforgiving eye of the Stasi secret police, East Germans have grown far from their cousins to the west. Now, when overnight they will become simply German again, they are expected to blend in.
It won't be easy.
"We needed more time to get to know each other," said Hans Modrow, the country's last Communist prime minister, now a member of his country's parliament. Modrow at first tried to slow the marriage of the two Germanys, then faced the reality on the streets and endorsed quick unity.
"I'm afraid what we will actually bring into the united Germany is quite little, almost nothing," Modrow said. "We're pretending that the last 40 years never happened, but without the past, one is nothing."
One year ago, East Germany was the Soviet Union's most important European partner, the economic pride of the East Bloc, a rigid society ruled by inflexible, corrupted old men -- former idealists who had done time in Nazi concentration camps because they were Communists.
Now, in their country's last hours, the 16 million East Germans find themselves guinea pigs in the historic experiment emerging from the collapsed Soviet empire. Moving from communism to capitalism in a matter of weeks, they are losing their jobs, military, police, schools, flag, traditions and, many say, their identity.
East German churches are being merged with West Germany's. The number of plays by East German authors produced at East German theaters has dropped from 27 in the first half of 1989 to five in the same period this year. East Germans will lose their subsidized vacations and their ability to turn right at a red light, a practice West Germans derided as "the socialist right turn."
East Germany's teachers will be tested and retrained. Judges will simply be sacked. The government, other than a contingent of legislators who will go to Bonn for an eight-week transitional session, will cease to exist. Everywhere East Germans turn, everything they know is becoming Western.
In the long run, most East Germans expect their financial status to improve. But many -- especially people in mid-career or older -- believe they will never be able to adjust completely.
A wave of nostalgia is sweeping over East Germany in its final moments. Not for the corrupt regime or the lack of consumer goods, but for a simpler, less competitive life, for rich friendships and the security of a system in which careers -- assigned and organized by the state -- were secondary to home life.
Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere said in an interview that East Germans already are losing what they called the Nischengesellschaft or "niche society," in which people closed themselves off from the state's prying eyes and built tight circles of friends. Those deep private bonds -- the only saving grace in a society that cast a political pall over much public discourse -- were "often nothing more than a reaction to the pressures and constraints of the state system," de Maiziere conceded.
Despite their artificial foundation, the friendships were real. Now, many say, they have the wrong survival skills. East Germans tended to be inner-directed, finding the rewards of life behind their shuttered windows, away from neighbors and co-workers who might have been reporting every spark of individuality to the Stasi. Now they must compete in a society that measures success in places such as work and school -- the very areas of life East Germans often tried to pass through unnoticed.
Much of the nostalgia for the vanishing life is, as East Berlin university student Mark Scheffler put it, "a bunch of over-romanticizing. But I feel justified in trying to hold onto something. We're just being taken over."
East Germans always lived two lives, a public, East German one during the workday and a private, West German one after 5:30 p.m., when they got home, locked the door and tuned in to Western TV.
That secret life -- evening upon evening spent soaking in the news, fashions and attitudes of their capitalist cousins -- not only fed the desire for change, but also made it happen much more quickly once the Berlin Wall fell. East Germans, as they showed by voting for Bonn's business-oriented Christian Democrats in March, knew exactly what they had been missing. They chose the Western way instead of the "third way," a new, reformed socialism advocated by the leaders of last fall's revolt.
While revolutionary leaders in other East European countries now run those nations, the heroes of East Germany's bloodless uprising -- leaders of the grass-roots New Forum and Democratic Awakening groups -- have become marginal, almost comical figures who occasionally appear on the evening news holding banners or complaining that their government is selling out to Bonn.
East Germans have watched this summer as their heroes were discredited one by one, as reports leaked out about pacifist ministers, revolutionaries and dissident writers who allegedly worked as informers for the Stasi.
Even now, after months of intense local political activity including three election campaigns and the unification blitz, East Germans know far more about West German politicians than they do about their own leaders.
In a national poll conducted by the West German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, only one-fifth of East Germans said their local leaders should be East German. Indeed, four of the 10 major candidates for premier of the new East German states are West Germans. After Oct. 3 there will be no local residency requirement for holding these offices.
As the impact of their July 1 overnight conversion to a market-based economy has hit hard, many East Germans have come to fear not only the change but themselves. Pointing to repeated attacks on foreigners, they worry that the masses of unemployed will turn to nationalism as an easy answer to a hazy future. A recent psychological study of East German youth found that 26 percent of them said all foreigners should be kicked out of the country -- almost twice the anti-foreigner sentiment that West German youth expressed.
"We are so hesitant, so unsure of ourselves," said East German government spokesman Matthias Gehler. "No one really knows whether they will be able to make it in a competitive society."
Michael Froese, an East Berlin psychiatrist flooded with new patients straining to adjust to the new society, said the Communist system "drained the vigor from our society and left many of us with a sit-it-out mentality."
Even now, many East Germans facing unemployment sit at home and wait. They may know rationally that there is no more bureaucracy to give them a new position, but they cannot face going out to make their own way. In a West German TV network poll, 78 percent of East Germans said they expect to be second-class citizens in the new Germany for a long time.
Those who have had direct contact with West Germans often retreat to familiar ground, frightened by Western self-confidence or embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge.
Thomas Grube, a 20-year-old electrician who moved west to get a job, is going back home to Magdeburg this winter, because he cannot find friends in the West, because he cannot bear to see the "Easties Out!" graffiti in the streets of Hamburg, and because he cannot stand the smirks he gets when he walks into a car showroom and has to admit that he has no idea what financing is, let alone how it works.
"The mentality is so different," said Ulrike Jenss, 19, an East German who moved to Hamburg this summer to find work. "The way we talk, what we talk about, what we dream about -- all so different."
Jenss found a job as a bartender at a luxury hotel in Hamburg. Out of a lifetime of Communist teaching about classless equality, she found herself addressing customers with the informal form of "you," du. Most West Germans use the formal sie with all but their closest friends and relatives.
"It's been so embarrassing," Jenss said. "But it's so strange to say sie to someone your own age."
One of Jenss's customers ordered an Irish coffee, but the East German had never heard of the drink. Her West German co-workers would not let her forget the lapse. " 'Oh God, typical East German,' they say, like of course we have no experience with anything," Jenss said. "So I didn't know how to prepare Campari and soda. So what?"
Those who try to hold their own against their rich neighbors have found the going rough. "I feel I have to personally show the Westies what was good about the East," said Scheffler, the East Berlin university student.
"Why try to convince them?" replied his friend Guido Tuschke, a law student. "Nobody there believes it anyway."
But whatever their adjustment problems, most of those East Germans who chose to go west rather than reshape their own artificially created country, are prepared to stay. They are not about to give up the new life, with its rich variety of food, technological marvels and freedom to complain and create.
Those who stayed east, live in a very different place, a land where the air makes you cough, the ground water is ruined, the phone system is pre-war and the railroads are largely unelectrified. Nevertheless, they have retained a strong strain of optimism.
Polls show that about half of East Germans believe their personal economic situation will improve in the next year and large majorities say that in five years, their part of Germany will look little different from the rest.
"We are, after all, one people," de Maiziere said. "A people which was able -- unarmed -- to overcome one of the best-organized secret services in the world will be able to manage the upcoming problems."
In the sweep of reunification, the problems in the East range from massive unemployment to the existence of DT-64, East Germany's youth radio station. On a cool September night, the music station suddenly fell silent, replaced seconds later by a popular West Berlin station.
The demise of a music station seemed so trifling that no one bothered to announce it in advance. But within minutes, loyal East Germans besieged the West German station with calls. Letters followed, as did a hunger strike by listeners, all to protest the loss of another piece of national identity, a place on the radio dial where East Germans could hear the language spoken their way, with their jokes and advice programs about their lives.
The outpouring stunned West Germans and, 72 hours later, DT-64 was back on the air, a small symbol that while East Germany was nearly gone, it would not be buried quite yet.
But like other state-controlled enterprises, DT-64 is spending money its government does not have. In the next weeks, it too will be shut down, this time forever. NEXT: United Germany -- should the world worry?