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Psychological Border Still Divides Germany - 2003-11-14

It has been 13 years since Germany was reunited. Until now, attention has focused on the immense challenges of integrating two very different entities. But the slow pace of achieving parity between the dilapidated economy of the former East Germany and the affluent, powerhouse economy of the west, has sparked resentment and a sense of inequality in the east. Such feelings and the passage of time have sparked growing nostalgia for elements of the "good old" days before unification. Borders in the mind are harder to dismantle than the wall that once divided Berlin.

The trend has even acquired its own label. Combining the German words for east or ost with nostalgia, produces "ostalgia".

Signs of it are everywhere. Television programs focus on life and culture in the former East Germany. Young people in eastern cities hold "Ossi" or easterner parties.

And, at least one luxury hotel in Dresden is offering an "Ostalgia" vacation package, which includes a sightseeing tour from the back of a Trabant, the small car that came to symbolize East Germany in the waning years of communism.

In the German capital today, there are few remaining physical traces of the Berlin Wall which served as the symbolic dividing line between all of East and West Germany. Nowadays, though, many observers say, there is a psychological wall that still exists in many German minds.

Thomas Habicht, senior political editor for the broadcast news station Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, says there are many strong reasons East Germany should not be resuscitated.

"The East German reality was characterized by low pay, by shortages in supplies, by 1,000 people who were killed at the inner-German border and at the Berlin Wall, 1,000 victims of this deadly border system," he said.

Mr. Habicht says these are not the source of "ostalgia," but, after all this time, East Germans are simply looking for a way to justify their own lives.

"If you, as an East German, believe that you have done a good job in the wrong system, but you, yourself, have done a good job - then, there are West Germans coming who tell you, 'nothing, which you did was valuable - nothing you did was any productive contribution,"said Thomas Habicht. "We now have to pay for your situation.' It's the 'rich uncle' attitude. So, I believe it is perfectly understandable."

A film that German media have described as riding the crest of the "ostalgia" wave is Goodbye, Lenin, which tells the story of a young man and his mother in East Berlin, right before reunification.

With more than six million viewers in Germany, the film enjoyed tremendous box office success, and won the country's top prize for best film of the year.

The film's director, Wolfgang Becker, who is from western Germany, says he is tired of answering questions about "ostalgia."

"That's the thing, which annoys me a little bit, because we didn't intend to create [an] ostalgic movement," he said. "We were never thinking about ostalgic things, because we didn't felt it - we didn't feel it."

Mr. Becker says, just because his film does not focus on the negative aspects of East Germany, does not mean it is trying to whitewash the regime. He says he believes the movie struck an chord of "ostalgia" that already existed in the population. The film director says, until now, no one has focused on the ordinary lives of the people who were living under the East German dictatorship.

Mr. Becker says, for Germans experiencing ostalgia, their feelings go deeper than a superficial interest in the typical clothing, or foods of the era.

"It was like a part of their memories, a part of their life, which is not just a lot of people have very good memories," said Wolfgang Becker. "Because, of course, [also] in a dictatorship, you have your first kiss, or your first sex, or you become parents, or you have good parents, or you get kids, and so on and so forth. There are so many positive memories."

For many former East Germans in Berlin, ostalgia centers on a relatively modern building, covered in smoky glass, called the Palace of the Republic. Critics call it ugly. It was erected in 1976 by the East German government on the foundations of an 18th century palace that was damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. The modern structure, which once housed the East German parliament, performance stages and restaurants, was closed shortly after reunification because authorities found dangerous levels of asbestos in building materials. On a recent tour of what is now a gutted concrete, steel and glass shell, 25-year-old Katja, from eastern Berlin, remembers her one previous visit, two decades ago.

"I've been [here] before," she said. "One time in my life, in this place. I was a child. I think I was five-years-old, or so. And I can't remember very concretely. But I think it was enormous. It was great and brightness. It was a party for Christmas, or something like that. It was a big adventure for me."

Now, she says, as she walks around the darkened building, she is sad to find nothing left of the lights that played such a prominent role in her memory.

Ostalgia is the subject of much debate in contemporary Germany. One example is the fate of Berlin's Palace of the Republic, what's left of which is to be torn down. The current plan, if authorities can raise enough money, is to reach back in history long before there ever was an East or West Germany and rebuild the old palace.