They were hidden inside flowerpots, a sand-filled aquarium and a black handbag. Tiny skeletons of nine newborn babies, found by police recently in the east German village of Brieskow-Finkenheerd. The prime suspect: their mother, Sabine Hilschenz, 39, charged in the killings dating from 1988 through 1999. Police say the unemployed dental assistant admits she had "something to do" with the deaths--but adds she was too drunk each time to remember either the infants' births or the killings. Whenever she moved, she took the pots with her, using them to grow flowers and vegetables. She would sit by them and smoke a cigarette, she told investigators--because she "wanted to be near" her children.

Almost as shocking as the crime itself was the environment in which it happened. At the apartment building where the woman lived--known as the Stasi Haus because most of the tenants once worked for the communist secret police--no one saw or heard anything amiss. Neither her husband (also ex-Stasi) nor her parents or neighbors apparently noticed she was pregnant. The case might never have come to light if Hilschenz hadn't recently been kicked out for failing to pay the rent. She had to move the containers into a ramshackle garage at her mother's house, where a nephew, cleaning up one day, uncovered two of the skeletons.

The gruesome details have mesmerized Germany--but not only for the facts themselves. The real scandal erupted when a western politician in Brandenburg, the region where the murders took place, pointed out that such brutal and unusual crimes are so much more common in the former German Democratic Republic, from infant killings to violent hate crimes. Lack of human "empathy" is a particular plague, he went on to say, implying that, unlike west Germany, the east is typified by indifference and social decay. That consequence of living under communism for so many decades, with its "forced proletarization" of society, he suggested, will burden Germany for generations to come.

Because the politician was a prominent leader of the Christian Democrats, Brandenburg Interior Minister Jorg Schonbohm, the reaction to his remarks was swift and damning. Politicians and commentators of every stripe attacked him for "insulting" easterners. "This kind of crime can happen in any society," huffed Brandenburg's east German Education Minister Holger Rupprecht. Even his own party boss, Angela Merkel, moved quickly to repudiate Schonbohm, insisting that he formally apologize. Herself an easterner, whose political future will be determined in next month's national elections, the last thing the Christian Democrats' would-be chancellor wants to do is alienate eastern voters. Anything that smacks of condescension toward Ossis, as easterners are popularly known, would be pounced on by opponents--not just current Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's Social Democrats, but also the former communists. These self-declared defenders of Ossi interests already poll 31 percent in the east, according to the latest surveys, and have now emerged as a potentially decisive electoral wild card.

All this is unfortunate, because Germany needs a serious public discussion about the east's many unsolved problems. Fifteen years after unification, the old east is as sunk as ever in economic and social depression. Crime statistics bear Schonbohm out. Around the same time that Hilschenz allegedly killed the last of her babies in Brieskow-Finkenheerd, another mother in the town left her two infants to die of thirst--unnoticed by the neighbors. In nearby Cottbus, police last year arrested a mother who'd chopped up her 6-year-old and stored him in the freezer--and for three years no one asked why he was missing. Christian Pfeiffer, a professor of criminology who's spent years studying the east-west crime divide, says infants are up to six times more likely to be killed by their parents in the ex-communist east. Other categories of violent crime that are sharply more prevalent in the east include random killings of foreigners, he says, which are three times more common per capita, even though there are far fewer foreigners in the east. According to Federal Criminal Bureau figures, 60 percent of east German cities are considered high-crime areas, versus only 15 percent in the west.

The question, of course, is why. But as happens so often in German public and political discourse, the problem itself is no longer the problem, but rather how one talks about it. Not talking about it, or debating it only indirectly for reasons of political correctness, leaves the problem to fester and grow. In east Germany, this atmosphere of political correctness mingles with the country's age-old instinct of labeling anyone who criticizes the group as a Nestbeschmutzer--one who sullies one's own nest, says Anetta Kahane, founder of the Antonio Amadeo Foundation in Berlin, which battles xenophobic violence. "East Germans will punish any political party they feel is criticizing easterners."

The result is an "eastern taboo zone," says Stefanie Wahl of the Bonn Institute for the Economy and Society. In the new P.C., east Germans are victims, suffering the dislocations of transitioning from communism to capitalism. They thus cannot be directly criticized, especially by westerners. Beyond that, Kahane says, many easterners have eased into the rosy myth that communism was full of warmth and solidarity compared with the cold, competitive west. "That's not how I experienced communism at all," says Kahane, also an easterner. "But east Germans are going to defend that myth tooth and nail against anyone who tells them it was different."

And so debate is frozen. Just as it took west Germans decades to break the taboos inherent in their (much shorter) totalitarian past, perhaps it will be up to future generations of easterners to deal with the social and psychological legacy of a half century's dictatorship.