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Recently, I returned from a two-week research trip to Dresden and the southeastern section of today's Germany, just a few years ago an integral and important part of the old German Democratic Republic. It was part of a visiting cycle there that began in the late 1960s.

This was my third trip to the former East Germany in the past five years. What, we wanted to know, had changed in the integration and modernization process since reunification in this country of whom, a few weeks ago, President Clinton said the United States has "no better friend"?This is the Germany that since 1945 seven million American soldiers have helped defend, now the strongest country in central and western Europe and the linchpin of an expanding European Union.

Right off, we discovered a great deal was visibly different. The location of the once-ominous, defining and forbidding border could now only be determined by a few remaining towers.

Dresden itself, as well as its surrounding area, looks for all the world like one huge construction site. Recognizing this fact, the city even presents itself to visitors as a city of "200 construction cranes."

It could also be called the city of scaffolding. Everywhere one drove, walked or looked there was renovation, cleaning up, new construction of apartments, businesses and public buildings, roads and bridges and the installation of a modern communication network and infrastructure.

In block after block of city apartment buildings - regardless of what part of the city - the same pattern appeared: Some buildings had already been renewed, elegant in their new stucco and paint; others were under renovation; and some yet remained with broken windows, black and dilapidated exteriors and shabby interiors awaiting their turn.

From the once ubiquitous drab gray and equally formless architecture that characterized the communist years, color and design have also returned - in the stores, buildings, advertising and even more in stylish clothing. Where once shopping areas offered little choice and often lay practically dead, they are now as filled with both goods and shoppers as anywhere else in Western Europe.

Tourists and travelers also have it better. Earlier, hotels and restaurants were few and drab, with mediocre offerings and nonexistent service; they now rival their counterparts in Frankfurt, Heidelberg or Munich in virtually every respect.

Even the beautiful countryside of Saxony looks more healthy with less fallow ground. Thriving crops of grain, corn, sugar beets and rapeseed all promise a bounteous harvest. The beautiful conifer forests and woodlands that divide the fields and dot the landscape, so important to the German economy, culture and psyche, and a few years ago thought to be dying, have recovered. They are more luxuriant than ever.

Perhaps most important, unlike a few years ago, there are telltale signs of freedom everywhere. Not only is the artificial border gone, but there are now a variety of newspapers from all over the world with real news and uncensored commentary. There is also pornography.

In the olden days, during extended visits to the former GDR, newspaper junkies like me nearly starved to death for news of what was going on in the world. That is now past. Former East Germans can also travel wherever they wish and can afford - on business, for an outing or for the sacred annual vacation.

These once especially galling restrictions are history. So, thankfully, is the secret police, with its extensive apparatus, miles of files and armies of "informal informers." Also gone are the party's propaganda banners.

Dresden itself is in the midst of a vigorous program to recover its once-cherished identity as a pre-eminent artistic and cultural center, the "Florence on the Elbe," as it was affectionately known in the mid-19th century when the pioneer Utah educator, Karl G. Mae-ser, was growing up there.

From the late 18th century until the devastating allied firebombing on Feb. 13-14, 1945, Dresden acquired a world-class reputation for its unique cultural heritage of churches, museums and public buildings.

Saxony is also the home of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and while religious piety and commitment are little in evidence, the desire to preserve landmark heritage churches is strong.

For example, Dresden's once-majestic Baroque jewel, the Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), a half-century in ruins, is now, Lazarus-like, being raised from the dead. Each preserved stone is identified and cataloged, later to be reset in its original place in the structure.

Here, Dresden's sister city, Columbus, Ohio, has also pledged $10 million over the next five years, joining with friends from all over the world to see this beautiful historic and religious monument arise again.

In fairness, the rebuilding of Dresden had already begun under the Communists.

But funds for cultural restoration were limited. Like its protector, the USSR, the East German economy stagnated in the 1980s, and the economic and political woes that eventually destroyed the system and both regimes continued to multiply. Thus, by 1990, there was yet much to be done. Tourists and others who wish to still see a few visible signs of the Communist era probably need not hurry, but with each passing year, they will be more difficult to find and put into perspective.

Both Dresden and Saxony border close on the Czech Republic. The contrast between the progress of the modernization of the two is striking. Unlike its less-fortunate neighbor, Saxony has been able to tap into the wealth of the former West Germany, even recently during times of recession. But the renewal has been much more costly in both time and money than anyone expected six years ago when unrealistic promises were made.