BERLIN -- Her predecessor was assassinated by terrorists. Everywhere she goes, angry people call her "job-killer" and worse. Her unique and historic task is the creative destruction of a nation's economy.
Birgit Breuel, the most powerful woman in Germany, is selling off a country. As president of the Treuhand, the agency set up to dismantle and privatize east Germany's communist-era economy, Breuel must fire millions of workers who had assumed capitalism would improve their lives overnight, find buyers for thousands of outdated, environmentally poisoned factories and somehow inject market thinking into a people who had known nothing but dictatorship for nearly 60 years.
"We are cleaning up 40 years of history," said Breuel, a banker's daughter who spent most of her career in local politics. "We can try to explain ourselves to people, but they will never love us. Because whatever we do, it's hard for people. With every one of the 10,000 enterprises, we either privatize or restructure or close them down. In every case, people lose jobs."
The full name of her agency is a classic German tongue twister: Anstalt zur treuhaenderischen Verwaltung des Volkseigentums, Office for the Trust Administration of People's Property.
Its job is equally complex: Starting from scratch, the Treuhand had to hire 3,000 people, figure out who owned what in east Germany, divide it into reasonably attractive chunks and sell it off to investors willing to light the pilot flame of capitalism. Along the way, the Treuhand will have sacked the majority of the 3 million workers employed by the enterprises it is charged with unloading.
This is not popular work. But Breuel, 53, seems to have no desire to win votes. She speaks quickly and nonchalantly about the need to shut down noncompetitive industries. Breuel opposes government-controlled monopolies such as the phone system and the national airline. She is a firm, chain-smoking patrician, an acolyte of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman in a country whose social market economy is in many ways more social than market.
She wrote a book called "No Such Thing as a Free Sandwich" and lost an early privatizing attempt when she failed to get the state of Lower Saxony to unload its stake in Volkswagen. But she did not lose her faith in privatization, just as she had not lost her desire to be involved in the world of finance, despite her father's refusal to consider a woman -- even his own daughter -- for a post in the family bank.
Often compared in the German press to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Breuel says the comparison "does me honor, but I think I am not as harsh and am more compassionate."
Breuel moved up from a post on the Treuhand's governing board this spring, when her predecessor, Detlev Rohwedder, was shot to death at his Duesseldorf home. The assassination by the anarchist Red Army Faction shocked Germany and added a thick layer of security to an already forbidding job. Breuel claims not to be constricted by the security, but concedes it is hard on her family, which was already mourning the death of Breuel's youngest son from cancer last year.
Some in the Bonn government say Chancellor Helmut Kohl picked Breuel in good part because few top German executives wanted to be associated with the Treuhand's thankless task. But Kohl was hardly scraping the barrel by choosing Breuel, who had won a good reputation among business leaders for her work as Lower Saxony's finance minister.
Breuel took over an agency in turmoil. Investors who wanted to get in on the ground floor of the east's transformation often found themselves stymied by an agency that did not seem to know what it was doing. Rohwedder acknowledged early this year that the Treuhand was having so much trouble finding good executives that "in fact we've taken anyone we could get."
The Treuhand's slow start outraged east Germans who watched old communist functionaries slide easily from defunct state-run conglomerates to positions atop newly founded corporations.
Even if she wanted to, Breuel could not escape the history that hangs over the Treuhand's work. Her offices are located in Berlin's most prominent remaining Nazi ministry, Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe headquarters, a thick, labyrinthine stone hulk next to the city's excavation of ruins of Nazi buildings destroyed in the final days of World War II.
At the entrance to the Treuhand building, which the Communists used as a party headquarters, the recent past lurks in the form of a just-renovated mural showing a battalion of heroic female workers clapping hands over their heads as they follow a strapping, guitar-strumming Aryan boy and revolutionary children ahead of a banner praising socialism.
Inside, the Nazis' flair for drama and self-importance endows the Treuhand offices with the look of an omnipotent, omnipresent administration, as unadorned marble doorways feed relentlessly off long, wide, straight corridors.
The Treuhand has added its own style, installing sleek west German ergonomics and clean design that tell easterners the drab days are over. Indeed, two-thirds of Treuhand employees are eastern, proof, Breuel says, that workers brought up under communism can learn western ways quickly. "They work hard and loyally," she said. "They have high intelligence and are well-trained, but they are not at all used to modern machinery."
Most easterners are quick to toss out the old and embrace the new, she said. Whatever clinging to the past persists, the Treuhand is determined to excise.
"The people here really didn't finish their revolution," she said. "They expect us to finish it, legally. So whoever worked for the Stasi secret police has no place with us. This is also true for people who worked for the politburo or the central committee. But we do not mind communist party members."
From the start, the Treuhand became the target of easterners' anger about the soaring unemployment, drastically reduced production and depression-like hopelessness that have accompanied the overthrow of communism. The Treuhand's image as the executioner of German unification has been fed by what many executives see as the Bonn government's reluctance to get involved in the thorniest issues of the economic transformation.
"The Treuhand was supposed to just sell the property," one agency source said. "No one ever said anything about labor policy. That's what the government is there for. But the Treuhand is a convenient scapegoat."
The Treuhand is selling about 20 companies a day now, and it is finally able to say with some confidence what exactly remains on the auction block.
"For months, we had no information about our own companies," Breuel said. "We asked and they couldn't even answer. They didn't know what their parent enterprise was. They didn't know what buildings on their property belonged to them."
A huge cataloguing operation has produced a remarkable list of available properties collectively illustrating the boundless reach of the socialist state. For sale are chicken slaughterhouses and radio monitoring stations, coal works and beach houses, parking lots and saunas, warehouses and nightclubs, iron foundries and luxury villas, orphanages and hunting lodges.
But despite improving sales figures, some economists still say the Treuhand is selling too slowly. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is a multinational think tank that forecasts economic trends, said in a report last week that the Treuhand needs to pick up the pace. And Hans-Peter Krueger, an east German economist, said in an interview that "the main task of the state is to attract private capital and that job has not been done so far."
Breuel is moving into the next phase of what the Treuhand dubs the sale of the century. The hard sell began last month, when Breuel, an Oxford graduate who is fluent in English, went to Tokyo to drum up Japanese interest in eastern Germany. Only 5 percent of the Treuhand's sales thus far have been to foreigners and only eight sales have been made to American firms, nearly all of them to companies that already have subsidiaries in western Germany.
In October, Breuel will visit the United States to open a New York office and persuade skeptical U.S. executives that eastern Germany is their best and last chance to get a foot in the European Community before it merges into a single, possibly more restrictive market at the end of 1992. With the help of a New York firm that counts former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker among its partners, the Treuhand hopes to attract substantial American investment.
"I've heard people say the best cherries have already been picked" by the west German companies that dominated the first phase of the sell-off, Breuel said. "But we are about to begin breaking up the old conglomerates," a process that has already increased the number of available enterprises by 2,000.
"We are still far away from capitalism," Breuel said. "What we have now is a mixture of everything on the road from socialism to a social market economy."
As the trailblazer for the rest of the old Soviet Bloc, eastern Germany stands before a course already cleared in good measure by west German financial resources, technology and management know-how.
But Breuel is quick to point out that the German transformation is impeded by a factor existing in no other eastern country. "It's harder for us because the eastern people expected a western standard of living overnight," she said.
That has not happened and will not for several years, possibly for a decade or more.
"The ones who try to understand often do," she said. "But many don't try. They just say 'You took our jobs, you closed our plants.' That's all right. We have a job to do, and being loved is not part of that job."