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East Germans exchange currency as economies join

By
CLIVE FREEMAN

EAST BERLIN -- Tens of thousands of East Germans jostled through lines Sunday to trade in their nation's practically worthless money for the powerful deutsche mark of West Germany, as the economies of the two nations merged and East Germany threw open its doors to capitalism.

As midday downpours began dissipating, thousands turned up at some 15,000 exchange houses across the country to surrender their old ost mark notes, many of them bearing the likeness of Karl Marx, for the new strong German deutsche marks.

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The night before, the central Alexander Platz in East Berlin was full of revelers, cheering, popping champagne corks, honking horns and singing in celebration of the union of the East and West German economies.

At midnight, the official hour of the currency change, an estimated 10,000 people vied to be among the first in line at a branch of the Deutsche Bank in Alexander Platz to exchange their marks.

Police said 13 people had to be taken to the hospital after they collapsed while lining up outside the bank.

On the other side of the plaza, once the pre-war heart of the German capital, East Germans were merrily throwing away handfuls of now worthless small change. Some sang the popular German refrain, 'Such a Day as Wonderful as This One.'

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Sunday's monetary and economic union of East and West Germany marked the leaping of another major hurdle in the race for unification of the two German states, now likely to occur before the end of l990.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, speaking in a television address Sunday, said the economic union is a guarantee the standard of living of East Germans will improve.

'No one will be worse off than before, but many will be better off,' he said. 'Only the economic, monetary and social union offers the chance, even the guarantee, that the standard of living will increase rapidly and thoroughly,' he said.

East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere was in an ebullient mood as he addressed journalists.

'Today the state treaty comes into effect. This means protection for investments and the possibility for foreign companies to buy property,' he said.

East Germans already had been getting a taste of life in capitalist society after 40 years under communism.

They have seen hordes of West German and international businessmen swarm into the country to make big deals. They have crossed the border to the West and returned home with armloads of consumer goods.

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East Germans have one week in which to convert D-marks. Rainer Voigt, president of the East German Savings Institutes Association said about 14 million of East Germany's 16.6 million population had already filled out the forms they need to convert their money.

Voight said he expected East Germans to withdraw the equivalent of about $162.50 per person and said he did not anticipate a massive immediate shopping spree for luxury Western goods.

Wolfgang Roeller, president of the West German Federal Association of Banks, said he was certain heavy foreign investment will follow economic union and keep the deutsche mark strong.

'A currency in which one invests remains hard,' he said in an interview with West German radio.

But while most East Germans welcomed the introduction of the deutsche mark, others expressed fear a cataclysmic shock was to come.

'I'm glad we now have a good currency' said Doris Schwenke 42, an East Berlin hairdresser. 'But I still think it will be very difficult for us to make ends meet. We have much lower wages than people in the West.'

Hannelore Widera, 52, said that 'events have gone too fast.' An administrator of a research institute, Widera said she expected both she and her husband would soon lose their jobs because the institute would no longer get state funding.

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Kohl stressed in his television address that 'hard work will be needed to realize unity and freedom, prosperity and social balance for all Germans.' He has acknowledged that many jobs in East Germany will be lost, but said many new ones will be created.

The East German government also has admitted that some of its state-supported industry will have to shut down in the face of direct competition with Western businesses, laying off large numbers of employees. Analysts say as many as 1.5 or even 2 million East Germans could lose their jobs.

It is expected that incomes of East Germans will continue to be as little as third that of West Germans in the short term.

The monetary union of East and West Germany, a key step toward the unification of the two German states separated since World War II, was accompanied by the elimination of state subsidies for many East German goods and an end to border controls between the two nations. Border guards joined celebrations, laughing, joking and drinking champagne.

'We didn't like the job we had to do here,' said a young officer on the Eastern side of the fabled Checkpoint Charlie border crossing.

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The 25 billion deutsche marks needed to finance the currency union had been dispatched to East Germany in armed convoys and stored in safes in the cellar of the former Communist Party building in Berlin.

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