Hugo Hamilton, ‘What is this freedom the silent herds want so badly?’, in The Irish Times (10 Nov. 1989), p.6.

Note: orig. in The Irish Times (10 Nov. 1989), p.6; rep. in The Irish Times Archive, in The Irish Times [Sat] (7 Nov. 2010), p.15.

The “Freedom Express” which has so far brought 185,000-plus East Germans and Poles of German origin to West Germany, has also brought problems - an unprecedented competition, for the fruits of prosperity; jobs, accommodation and opportunity. In some West German cities the strain has begun to show with a rise in the number of skinheads and other neo-fascist groups showing hostility towards the newcomers. How willing is the West German to share?

In addition to the massive cast of playing host to the influx of refugees from the East, the West German, Government has now set up a 3 billion mark media campaign to make sure the new immigrants remain welcome.

The front-page pictures of the first ecstatic women embracing freedom last September captured the imagination of the Western world, where it is still hard to believe the cold war can be over so quickly. For Germany, it has become a warm war. The tactic of open arms and ignoring the division between the two Germanies since the Berlin Wall went up seems to have paid off. Killing the GDR with kindness almost dragged it into the democratic West.

But how long can West Germany keep up what led GDR leader, Erich Honecker, calledd the “picnic”? On arrival, each East German refugee receives a bed, money and, as soon as possible, a job. Not everybody in West Germany is overjoy by what is now seen as an employer’s market, with thousands of more-than-willing new workers.

The West German worker has just been demanding a 30-hour week. And for the out-of-work West German it is often a matter of employing a solicitor in order to get to get unemployment benefit so, generously handed out to refugees.

Already, West Germany’s social services are switched to overdrive, commandeering castles, youth hostels, disused barracks, and sports halls to accommodate the influx. In the next few months wooden cabins will sprout all over Germany. Hotels have been block-booked in some areas. A staggering 10 per cent and more of all available hotel bed spaces are already occupied by the new immigrants. It’s more than a picnic.

Accommodation in West Germany has never risen much above crisis level at any point since the war, despite successive building booms. Now, the new wave of East Germans is expected to snap up the cheap apartments which used to go to Turks and other non-European immigrants.

There is concern, too, that it is the Turk in West Germany who will bear the brunt of the new influx and the competition for opportunity. So far, there is no talk of open arms or amnesty for undocumented non-European immigrants.

The influx has also brought the promise of a new baby boom in a country where, up to now, the Germans were said to be dying out. The Bundes-Family-Ministry has already estimated the bill for a quarter of a million new babies and additional children’s allowances by 199.

Who will pay for all this is the common question many in West Germany. Already, many West Germans accuse the East German refugees of copping out at the first sniff of prosperity. They should stay at home and change their own system, they say.

In the northern German town of Osnabrueck, a castle formerly occupied by the British Army has been hastily redecorated to host new refugees from Poland and Russia. They don’t assimilate, according to the people in the town.

Their don’t even speak German, they look like people from the Fifties, they go around in silent herds and they always carry plastic bags. The influx is going to make cut-price shops like Aldi and Norma rich overnight. What exactly is this freedom in the West which the East Germans want so badly? According to one West German family in Osnabrueck, freedom means freedom of choice in the supetmarket. The choice between 35 bars of soap. The choice between purple and sludge green blouses, all the rage at the moment. The freedom to boot down the autobahn at 160 kph.

The first environmentalist pressures to introduce speed restrictions has produced an immediate backlash. The new organisation - Free World, Free Drivers - can only have been formed in West Germany.

On the “Freedom Express” in the opposite direction from Cologne to Presto, it is not unusual to find yourself sitting opposite a woman in purple leather trousers. Not unusual to find yourself sitting beside two Australian girls who have been travelling for eight months, worried that the money might start running out and they might have to go back to work. It puts the East German longing for freedom of movement into perspective.

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