Wolfgang Neubert used to work in an East German combine making clunky refrigerators for the socialist bloc. The factory went under after German unification. Out of a job at 43 but not content on the dole, Neubert hooked up with a Western auto-parts supplier. Today he heads a company with 83 workers in Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt, manufacturing components for BMW and truck maker MAN. Business is booming despite Germany's recession. "Every one of my employees knows we had to work hard to get from nothing to where we are," he says, adding that his east German employees would even "work around the clock."
For the longest time, west Germans caricatured Jammerossis, or "whining Easties," as slothful parasites collecting welfare checks. But stories like Neubert's are increasingly disproving this old cliche. True, the east is still the economic black hole of Germany, with double the national employment rate and sucking in subsidies of 100 billion euros a year. But it's easy to be deceived by the gloom. All across the old swath of the GDR, easterners are displaying a get-up-and-go spirit of entrepreneurship and hard work that few would have thought possible a decade ago.
Numbers tell part of the story. Ossi entrepreneurs have founded more than 500,000 new companies in the 13 years since unification, catching up to their supposedly more energetic countrymen to the west. They work an average of 1,725 hours a year, compared with 1,592 for Wessis. Their companies are also significantly more likely to stay in business and hire additional employees, according to a recent study by the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. Young east Germans are "significantly more ambitious" and "better prepared for the challenges of a flexible and mobile work force" than westerners, concludes a 2001 study by Shell Oil's German subsidiary. Personnel recruiters report that they're filling a disproportionate number of jobs with east German applicants, partly because they are so flexible and willing to move to different cities or try a new job. "East Germans are more open to challenge and change," says Grit Redes, head of a Swiss recruiting firm in Berlin.
East Germans are also playing a surprisingly pivotal role in the nation's next budding revolution: free-market reform. Eastern shopkeepers widely flout restrictive store-opening hours, and helped force the government to relax regulations earlier this year. And in June they faced off against Germany's most powerful labor union, IG Metall. When it called a strike to shorten the workweek to 35 hours, most eastern workers (including Neubert's) ignored it. Result: east Germans handed the nation's largest union its first defeat, ever.
What explains the new Ossi attitudes? Necessity. Most east German firms went belly up almost immediately after unification. Mil-lions of workers suddenly had no job; their educations were out of date and often worthless. Most were forced to start over, says Karin Kukielski, 45, an agricultural engineer who retrained herself as an accountant and is now chief financial officer at Aperto, a sleek Web-design firm in Berlin. "You were absolutely nothing," she says, "except what you made of yourself." It may one day be said that the fall of slothful German capitalism began with those lazy Jammerossis.