Until the early 1990s, the telephone exchange in Zossen in the eastern state of Brandenburg looked like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Thousands of ancient, motor-driven switches produced a ceaseless clattering as they dialed calls digit by digit. Today, after Deutsche Telekom has completely revamped the former East Germany's antiquated phone system, the only sound in the Zossen exchange is the murmur of call-routing computers.
That sonic leap is typical of the changes eastern Germany's infrastructure has undergone in the past 10 years. The federal government and the states have pumped $136 billion into modernizing the former German Democratic Republic's roads, rails, waterways, airports, telephones and sewers, raising them from 40% of the infrastructure level in western Germany to 70%. "A lot has been achieved in the last decade," says Thomas de Maizière, chairman of a joint reconstruction working group of the eastern states. "We have covered half the distance of a long way."
A top priority was East Germany's antiquated telecom system. In 1990, only one person in 10 had a telephone, two-thirds of the equipment dated back to the 1940s and mobile phones were nonexistent. Thousands of villages lacked even a pay phone. Seven years and $23 billion in investment later, Deutsche Telekom has laid 140,000 km of fiber-optic cable and 10 million km of copper wire, installed 5.5 million new connections — half of all eastern Germans now have one — digitized all switching stations and established a mobile phone network.
East Germany's pre-World War II railway system also needed help. "A paltry third of the lines were electrified, more than 70% of them were single-track, and the maximum speed of 120 km/h could be reached on only a quarter of the main lines," says Siegfried Knüpfer, managing director of a Deutsche Bahn subsidiary that co-administered a $16 billion revamp of the system. With 5,200 km of tracks now electrified, expanded or reconstructed, average travel times have been reduced by more than half. Completion of a high-speed link between Hanover and Berlin in 1998 cut that 280 km trip from four hours to 90 minutes. "We made up for six decades in only one," says Knüpfer.
Between 1991 and 1998 another $11 billion in federal money was funneled into overhauling the east's Hitler-era highways. About 120 km of new autobahns were built and another 1,100 km expanded. Additional billions went into modernizing locks, canals and airports. The state of Saxony, for instance, spent $900 million to make Leipzig/Halle airport world-class, with a jumbo-jet-length runway and 24-hour service.
Much remains to be done. Roads, for instance, are a mess. According to Rüdiger Pohl of Halle's Institute for Economic Research, it will take at least another decade and $136 billion to make the east's physical plant world-class. Germany's eastern states may not yet be the "flowering landscapes" promised by then Chancellor Kohl in 1990. But at least the flower beds are being dug.