The suicide of a man who faced losing his home to a pre-unification owner has shaken Germany, focusing attention on the millions of eastern Germans unsure of whether they may lose their property.
Detlef Dalk, 48, left a passionate letter urging the government to change its position on housing claims, "otherwise I will not be the last."The German unification treaty enshrines the principle of favoring previous owners of eastern German property, but the government has not put through legislation on how to handle it.
Over 1 million ownership claims have been registered, and some towns around Berlin have as much as 70 percent of the properties claimed by previous owners or their heirs. The claimants range from Jews dispossessed by the Nazis a half-century ago to East Germans who managed to flee to the West shortly before the 1989 revolution.
Dalk, a teacher and town council member, hanged himself Wednesday. His open letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl drew a stream of reporters Friday to his two-story home on an unpaved street in Zepernick, a village on the northeast edge of Berlin.
His brother, Wolfgang, said that although he had been upset about the prospect of losing his house, "I think it's a mistake to say that he took his life only because he might have to give back the house.
"The tragedy of his whole life was that after the revolution, his hopes weren't fulfilled," said Wolfgang Dalk.
Dalk's three-page letter recounted his changing political views: from Marxism to "human socialism," to membership in a Lutheran study group, and to dashed hopes that easterners would have their views heard in united Germany.
Friedrich Bohl, Kohl's chief of staff, said in Bonn that Dalk's suicide was a tragedy but warned that it should not be taken as "symptomatic of the situation in the east" nor used for political purposes.
Zepernick's mayor, Carsten Bockhardt, said many of the village's 8,000 residents faced property crises, with 1,365 claims by former owners against local properties.
"If only half are realized, we would have 700 or 800 families on the street. I have no way to put up new houses," the mayor said.
The housing uncertainty hits a broad spectrum of the 16 million easterners, many of whom have lost their jobs. Unemployment now stands at 16 percent.
Bockhardt said Dalk's home was claimed by the previous owner who had fled to the West in 1986. Dalk bought the house in 1988 and the land in early 1990, under terms of a law passed by the short-lived reform Communist government permitting people to buy land. In earlier years, East Germans could own houses but the land remained under government ownership.