Just one year ago, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl was cheered as a hero when he visited the city of Dresden after his political party swept to victory in East Germany's first free elections, the beginning of reunifying the country into a single Germany. But all that has changed.

This past week, tens of thousands of people in cities all over eastern Germany gathered in political demonstrations to protest severe unemployment and to demand the resignation of Kohl. The rapid fall of the chancellor's popularity is one evidence of the difficulty in reuniting two radically different Germanies.The western half of the country has been one of the world's most prosperous industrial states while the economy of the eastern portion has been ruined by nearly 50 years of communist mismanagement. When suddenly joined together, the economy of the east - unable to compete - collapsed under the weight of free market conditions.

As a result, hundreds of thousands are out of work. Hundreds of thousands more are employed only part time. As a result, economic fear is stalking every eastern German family.

Of course, Kohl is hardly to blame for all this - as even the protesters acknowledge - but he makes a handy target. When the team isn't doing well, fire the coach. So the chancellor is criticized for being too slow in announcing a $14.5 billion reconstruction program earlier this month.

It is clear that everyone in Germany underestimated the catastrophic economic conditions in the east, and failed to grasp the enormous difficulty of reunification problems. Other former East Bloc nations share the same crippling economic legacy, but are not faced with the upheaval of trying to blend a rich half and a poor half of a nation together almost overnight.

So great, in fact, are the problems facing Germany that reunification may flop unless all major political groups, trade unions and employers sit down together and work out an agreed strategy for the future.

Kohl's government, however, isn't agreeable to such a radical approach, at least not yet. He feels his coalition can cope, though it won't be a smooth transition.

At the very least, the effort is going to cost far more than most of the former West Germans realized - including their leaders.

And instead of instantly sharing the higher living standards of the West, the former East Germans are going to have to continue to struggle with poverty, joblessness and a kind of second-class status in their reunified country.

Time and money, plus the legendary German ability to perform quality work, should eventually resolve the disparities. But for the next few years, the world can expect to see more demonstrations and perhaps even a rising militancy among the eastern Germans.