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Berlin Mayoral Race Rekindles Debate Over Communist Past - 2001-08-13

For days, German media have been full of reminiscences about the Berlin Wall, and the terrible division of Germany during the Cold War. But as the city officially commemorates the building of the wall on August 13, 1961, politicians are focussing on the upcoming elections for the city-state of Berlin.

It should be an occasion for Germany to celebrate. Unified once again after decades of division, restored to its former status of national capital after decades of enforced provincialism, Berlin has entered the 21st century as the heart of a newly self-confident nation.

Instead, the 40th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall has provided the excuse for party political mud-slinging, as Christian Democrats attack Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party and everybody gangs up on the former Communist party.

The problem: Berlin goes to the polls on October 21 and the Party of Democratic Socialism, heir to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled East Germany with an iron fist until the wall came down in November 1989, could soon be part of a coalition government.

It is not the first time the former Communists have stood for election in the capital. In the last state election they took a respectable share of the vote - especially in the former Soviet sector in the eastern part of the city. They are expected to repeat the performance in October, though not to make much of an impression in the western suburbs where the United States, Britain, and France once ruled.

It is not clear how much the former East German functionaries that still make up a substantial share of the party's leadership and electorate have changed. Although it has expressed regret at the killing of between 800 and 1,000 people trying to escape across the wall, the party has steadfastly refused to apologize for its construction.

What has changed this time is that the Mr. Schroeder's Social Democrats, under the leadership of mayoral candidate Klaus Wowereit, are prepared to break a 12-year-old taboo and build a coalition with the former Communists.

Hence the name-calling and mud-slinging. Bavaria's conservative leader, Edmund Stoiber, said the Party of Democratic Socialism is still building a wall between freedom and socialism. He accused any potential coalition partner of the former Communists of practicing East German style socialism.

And former Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl also said the Party of Democratic Socialism lacked the courage to say the wall that imprisoned the East German population was what he called "a wall of disgrace."

But there is an irony in the debate too. Frank Steffel, the Christian Democrat's candidate for governing mayor, shocked many of his supporters last week by hiring former East German politburo member Guenter Schabowski as an adviser. Mr. Schabowski was the man who announced the opening of the wall in 1989. But he was also head of East German propaganda and has spent time in prison for his part in the killings of those who tried to escape.