An article about eastern Germany in Oct. 24 editions stated that Salvador Allende, the former president of Chile, was assassinated. However, the precise circumstances of his death during a military coup in 1973 remain in dispute. Chilean police said after the coup that he shot himself with a rifle as troops stormed the presidential palace. Many Allende supporters have maintained that he was killed by those troops. (Published 10/26/04)
An autumn wind is knifing through the cobbled alleyways of this picture-postcard town, and so Christiane Nimes pulls her blue denim jacket a little tighter around her shoulders. Then she resumes raking the hard ground outside the concrete ruins of the Salvador Allende Hotel.
In the days of communist rule, the Allende boasted more than 300 constantly occupied rooms, a staff of several hundred workers and an annual May Day party that was the high point of the admittedly modest social calendar of Templin, located in the heart of the former East Germany 50 miles northeast of Berlin.
Then the Berlin Wall fell, east and west were reunited, a Swiss investor came and went leaving a lawsuit and a trail of creditors, and the hotel eventually was abandoned to graffiti artists, vandals and waist-high weeds.
Nimes, 47, who wraps her long brown hair in a tight bun while she works, is one of a handful of people hired under a public labor program to pick up the litter and tend to the weeds. It's the latest in a series of make-work jobs she's held over the past decade. She doesn't mind working hard, she says, but she resents being forced to do a job with no purpose and no future.
"They've never offered me a real job," she says of the state-run labor agency that provides her monthly stipend. The same is true of virtually all her neighbors in the anonymous apartment block where she lives. "Everybody I know is unemployed," she says matter-of-factly.
Fifteen years after the wall fell, many people throughout the former East Germany feel shortchanged and aggrieved. Unemployment officially hovers at 20 percent -- about twice the level in western Germany -- and pushes 30 percent in communities such as Templin. Those with the means and mobility head west for better opportunities. A special report commissioned by the federal government concluded that an infusion of $1.5 trillion in public funds since 1990 has failed to replace the decrepit industrial network that collapsed when communism fell.
The hopes of that era have been replaced by seething resentment and an eerie nostalgia for the past. In recent local elections, radical nationalist parties made inroads at the expense of the mainstream.
At the same time, many western Germans blame the east for dragging down Germany's lumbering economic recovery. Polls show sizable minorities on both sides who wish the wall had never come down.
When German President Horst Koehler told a newsmagazine last month that it was no longer realistic to expect that the country's six eastern states would ever enjoy the same living standards as the west, people here say he was only confirming what they already know. "We have no one to rely on but ourselves," is how Christiane Nimes puts it.
The Golden Years
For the people of Templin, population 15,000, the past was truly another country: the German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was officially called, a communist land of universal health care, low-cost housing and -- perhaps most important -- full employment. Never mind, critics note, that the health care was of low quality, that the apartments had leaky roofs, paper-thin walls, cracked windows and broken furnaces, or that full employment was achieved through rampant featherbedding. And never mind the Stasi -- the secret police who kept a repressive eye on everyone.
Ulrich Schoeneich's fondest memory is of the Monday evening demonstrations 15 years ago. Templin's energetic mayor recalls 5,000 protesters marching from a local church to the squat, brown prefab concrete headquarters of the Stasi, lighting candles and setting them atop the wall, serenading the security policemen barricaded inside with "We Shall Overcome."
But Cindy Bischoff, an ex-postal worker and mother of three who lost her job in 1997, cherishes a different memory. It was the annual May Day parade, which began with sports clubs, trade unions and youth groups gathering at the old market square and marching to the Allende for an all-night party. "It was especially nice for young people," she recalls fondly.
Templin was never your standard-issue Soviet bloc town. Five crystal-blue freshwater lakes converge here like the fingers of a hand. The forests are thick with pine trees and wildlife. The old city rests within a 14th-century wall, overseen by an austere 17th-century church tower and an 18th-century town hall.
During the communist era, these architectural jewels were preserved under a thick layer of coal dust, according to Mayor Schoeneich. "It was really a gray city," he says. "There was always a sour coal smell. The roofs in the GDR were painted red or blue, but the color was weak and after a few years they would all look the same."
The early years after reunification were golden ones, he recalls. He estimates that Templin and its surroundings received more than $150 million for infrastructure -- a water filtration plant, renovation of public housing, new roads. "The money flowed," he says. "You only needed ideas."
Under the old order, the giant state trade union association built two mammoth hotels for its members. The Friederich Engels, named for the communist theorist, went up on the outskirts of town. The Allende, honoring the assassinated socialist president of Chile, was built outside the old city walls. In their heyday, these behemoths took in thousands upon thousands of guests each year. After the revolution, Schoeneich says, he knew that maintaining them would be daunting.
Klaus Bubl, who had been managing director of both hotels under communist rule, was the first to try. In 1991 he and a partner won a one-year contract to operate them under public ownership. But the state soon decided to unload the properties.
The Allende went to a Swiss businessman who failed to secure private financing and wound up in court in a dispute that Schoeneich says is still unresolved. A Dutch company backed by the Bank of Thailand bought the Engels, which it renamed the Ferienhotel.
Before it went bankrupt five years ago, the company managed to renovate two of the hotel's three wings. Instead of 700 rooms, it now has 409 under new management that offers package deals to families and tour companies -- in this, the off season, a two-day weekend costs just $120 per person, including breakfast, dinner and recreation.
Hotel manager Jonas Avendano says he manages a 50 percent occupancy rate, the highest in the region. In recent years he's added bowling alleys, a sauna and the region's largest indoor pool. But instead of 689 employees under the old days, the hotel is down to 80 in peak summer months and 40 in the winter.
To help keep the local tourist industry afloat, Templin secured more than $40 million in public funds to drill down about 1,600 yards to thermal underground waters, then built a state-of-the-art spa over them. Public money also helped fund Europe's second-largest go-cart track. Farther up the road, officials sold the old state youth camp to a Bavarian company that opened Silver Lake City, a Wild West fantasyland.
"We really wanted to get something for everyone to get every possible kind of tourist," says Schoeneich. "Now you can go to the spa in the morning and tango at night."
At first it seemed to work -- on opening day four years ago the spa took in 1,500 customers. But the clientele has dropped steadily each year -- from 405,000 then to 340,000 in 2003. One problem is that other communities have followed suit -- there are now at least a half-dozen spas in the region drawing on the same limited pools of customers.
The Allende was not the only landmark to fail. A few blocks away sits a whitewashed, single-story factory complex. Once, it was a state-owned clothing factory and famed maker of the "wisent" -- trademark East German blue jeans. Christiane Nimes worked there for 18 years, sewing pockets onto the jeans. It was painfully boring but steady work, she recalls.
In those days, the plant had some 450 employees, many of whom seemed to spend their days drinking coffee and playing cards. After the wall came down, the German government sold it off to Brandtex, a Danish firm. It modernized the factory but cut the staff to less than 90. Nimes was one of the last to go. A few years later, Brandtex closed the plant, moving its operations to Poland and Bulgaria.
Every once in a while, says shop manager Angela Moeller, someone comes in asking for a pair of the long-gone wisents. But business is fading. Even the $5 blouses and pants flapping in the October breeze on a rack outside the front door go unsold. "We have fewer and fewer customers," she says. "People just can't afford to spend."
Wanted: 'Real Jobs'
The curtains are drawn in the small conference room on the ground floor of Red Cross regional headquarters. Nine women and three men sit expressionlessly as Diethard Deibel, regional director, explains how the new workfare system will operate. No one touches the cookies and fruit set before them on thin paper plates.
The Red Cross will receive state money to employ people for a variety of tasks, he tells them -- administering medication to house-bound patients, reading to them, shoveling their sidewalks and driveways in winter, transporting handicapped children. The pay is meager, about $1.40 per hour. But the state can require unemployment recipients to work at least 20 hours each week or forfeit their benefits. "It's up to you to seize this opportunity," says Deibel.
One man interjects. "Real jobs would have been even better," he tells Deibel.
The government's controversial new austerity program, known as Hartz IV, is designed to reduce the size and scope of the Germany's extensive welfare state, compel people back into the workforce for minimal salaries, and pump fresh blood into a sclerotic economy. But critics say it will not help the east, where the problem isn't that people on welfare don't want to work but rather that few vacant jobs exist.
Sigrid Bauer, 52, is a part-time janitor at a local school. She earns about $200 a month from her job, which supplements the $620 she receives in welfare payments. When Hartz IV takes effect in January, she estimates, her monthly income will be reduced by about a third. "The television and the telephone will have to go," she says.
Last summer, Bauer helped organize protests every Monday against Hartz IV that echoed the old freedom marches that helped bring down the communists. The demonstrations have ceased for now, but every Monday a half dozen or so of her neighbors meet in her living room for a self-help discussion that ranges from babysitting needs to politics.
Everyone, it seems, has a hard luck story that involves job layoffs and reduced unemployment benefits. Michael Kuc, 45, an unemployed dairy worker, says his benefits are about to be cut despite the fact he is partially disabled. No one believes in the bright shining promises of the West. "It doesn't help that there are all these wonderful things on the shelves to buy when we can't even afford to buy yogurt," says Bauer.
So, a visitor asks, do you miss the communists? There is a moment's hesitation, a few rueful smiles. Then there is an emphatic chorus: Yes, we do.