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Germany

Germany's Fifteen-Year Hangover

As Germany marked the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the country's politicians took stock of the state of the nation -- and concluded that East-West discrepancies are still cleaving the country.

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Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl is often called the "architect of unity"

A week after Chancellor Gerhard Schröder angered politicians and public alike with a proposal to scrap Germany's official Day of Unity on Oct. 3 as a public holiday, the nation celebrated the anniversary many see as even more significant.

But while East Germans were welcomed with open arms by the West in 1989, relations these days are characterized by animosity and mutual resentment. Often dubbed the most joyous day in German history, Nov. 9 is now an anniversary overshadowed by what came after.

Where did it all go wrong?

Anniversary with different east-west significance

"As far as I'm concerned, Nov. 9, 1989, is a key date in world history," insisted Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse, who comes from the eastern state of Thuringen. "It's even more significant then 9/11," he said in an interview on Deutschland Radio.

Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel, who also hails from eastern Germany, echoed his feelings. In an interview with Die Welt, she accused the chancellor of lacking interest in this aspect of Germany's past and suggested the recent plan to ditch German Unity Day was typical of his attitude to the troubled eastern part of the country.

"The Chancellor showed he completely lacks sensitivity regarding the significance of our national symbols," she said. "Anyone who wants to trade in this anniversary for 0.1 percent economic growth clearly has no interest in German reunification."

Ignorance and exploitation?

Perhaps he's not the only one.

Jahrestag 15. Jahrestag Mauerfall in Berlin

As politicians such as Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit, Social Democrat leader Franz Müntefering and Angela Merkel laid wreaths Tuesday at one of the last existing stretches of wall in Berlin, others expressed mixed feelings about the direction Germany has taken over the last 15 years and regretted the nation's ignorance of what Nov. 9 stands for.

Speaking in Berlin's "Tränenpalast," a former border crossing point named in memory of the many tears shed by friends and families forced to say goodbye on the Friedrichstrasse, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed sadness at Germany's dwindling awareness of this chapter in its past. Often described as "the architect of unity" for his role in bringing the divided country together, he cited surveys that show one in three Germans no longer have any idea what actually happened on Nov. 9, 1989.

During the discussion organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, Kohl and former East German civil rights lawyer Bärbel Bohley debated the fall of the wall and Germany's subsequent course.

The man who famously predicted that Germany would evolve into a "flourishing landscape" admitted his forecasts for economic growth had been well off the mark. "I'm angry at myself for mistakes made," he told the audience.

But he insisted the country could pull itself together. "We may have some giant problems, but this country is healthy at its core," he argued. "The people can do it. The problems can be fixed if we remain reasonable and work hard."

He also stressed he'd always understood the scale of the task. "In 1990 I said that a difficult path lay before us and we would need to make sacrifices," he pointed out. "But our economic problems can be resolved if not overnight then in the foreseeable future."

He was also keen to overturn the widespread perception of "Ossis," or eastern Germans, as whingeing poor relations with a victim complex, instead laying blame with profiteering West Germans. "I was bitterly disappointed by some western managers," he observed. "They saw 17 million East Germans as consumers, not as manufacturers. They sold cars, furniture and shoes there but didn't want to produce there. I didn't think that was possible."

West no longer an example

Wolfgang Thierse lent weight to Kohl's criticism Wednesday, telling the Financial Times Deutschland that western Germany no longer spearheads the country.

Aufbau Ost Allee der Kosmonauten Plattenbau

East Berlin

While the enormous cost of reunification -- €1.25 trillion ($1.61 trillion) in public funds invested in the East since 1990 -- have left many westerners bitter over the sacrifices they have made, Thierse insisted it was time to overhaul Germany's prevailing mentality.

"The days when the East looks to the West as an example are long gone," he said. "For fifteen years the basic principle was that all the changes have to occur in the east, and the West can stay as it is. Now it's time the whole country changed."

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