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Business

East German industrial ruin reinvents itself for 21st century

The towns of Bitterfeld and Wolfen were once symbols of East Germany's collapse and environmental ruin. Two decades after reunification, they've been transformed. But can their local economies survive in the long run?

Bitterfeld in 1990

Bitterfeld was not a pleasant place to visit in 1990

Newsreels from the communist German Democratic Republic regularly praised factory workers in the towns of Wolfen and Bitterfeld, which formed the core of East Germany's chemical and mining industries. What they didn't mention was that those workers were toiling in one of the dirtiest corners of Europe - a region so polluted that clothes hung out to dry used to change color depending on which factory the ever-present chemical clouds were coming from that day.

Today, it's a different story. Instead of a ruined industrial landscape covered in ash, the towns, now merged into one entity called Bitterfeld-Wolfen, are marketed as a tourist destination, complete with a sparkling lake and large forests, as well as a center for Germany's burgeoning solar energy sector.

For those who have lived here for decades, the change is overwhelming. Matthias Gabriel remembers sitting on a park bench one day in the 1960s. When he stood up, he noticed stains on his trousers.

"The stains wouldn't come out and after a few weeks, they turned into holes," Gabriel said. "The place just stank, it was always foggy with chemical fumes. If you could imagine what hell looked like, that was it."

Goitzsche Lake

Goitzsche Lake was created from an old mining pit

Bitterfeld and Wolfen epitomized a failed East Germany. Tens of thousands of people in the region lost their jobs as uncompetitive factories were shuttered after the Berlin Wall fell. Almost half of the population left for greener pastures elsewhere.

Even now, if you mention Bitterfeld almost anywhere in Germany, a certain look comes across people's faces. It is not one of fond remembrance.

Transformation

But a visit to the region today is not marked by ecological horror, rather by a strong sense of a town seeking to overcome its past and reinvent itself in an environmentally, economically sustainable community. Bitterfeld-Wolfen wants to be a vacation spot.

One of the attractions aiming to draw visitors is the Bitterfeld Arch, a steel sculpture with a 30-meter-high observation deck, designed to recall an old mining excavator. From the top, a landscape of water and woods, quaint houses and small factories stretches out to the horizon.

"I think we are a town which is the best example for change," said Katrin Kuhnt, the town's press spokeswoman. "Change from a destroyed environment to a tourism attraction."

The town still has smokestacks, but overall, it's largely been scrubbed clean of the notorious ash and soot from the bad old days.

"We have a well-functioning environment and we have a lot of tourists here. We have industry too, but it's clean industry," Kuhnt said. "It's a huge change."

New and improved industries

The chemicals sector hasn't disappeared from the town, but the plants today meet modern environmental standards. Solar companies have set up shop in the region, which is now referred to as Germany's "solar valley."

"We have an industry and a branch proceeding at a pace you would not have imagined when the wall came down 20 years ago," said Konrad Sell, the head of corporate communication for Sovello, a solar manufacturer that employs 1,200 people.

Bitterfeld-Wolfen today

Bitterfeld-Wolfen has transformed itself, but still faces economic problems

From almost any perspective, the turnaround from industrial nightmare to renewable energy center and vacation destination is remarkable. It has been made possible by a large infusion of taxpayer money to the former east, at least 1.3 trillion euros ($1.7 trillion), largely from western Germany.

The money, raised from a so-called "solidarity tax" that all Germans pay, has been invested in roads, environmental clean-up projects and other infrastructure projects. It also subsidizes the region's budding solar industry.

Still, beneath the shiny surface, real problems remain.

Long-term challenges

Many of the town's buildings have been lovingly renovated, but at 6 pm, downtown Bitterfeld is almost devoid of shoppers. Those who are still out and about are mostly retirees, not the highly skilled employees of the solar and high-tech firms. Most young professionals prefer to live in bigger cities nearby, like Leipzig.

That absence, as well as the competitive pressures on the town's newer industries, has raised real concerns about the long-term economic outlook of Bitterfeld-Wolfen.

Bayer aspirin manufacturing

Chemicals giant Bayer is has set up shop in Bitterfeld-Wolfen

"In modern factories, you don't need as many people," said Mayor Petra Wust. "We will never have as many industrial jobs as we once did here. It's just not going to happen."

Today, Bitterfeld-Wolfen's factories only employ about half the number of people they did in the 1980s. Unemployment remains high, and young people continue to leave for jobs in other parts of Germany, particularly large cities.

Like many towns in the former east, Bitterfeld-Wolfen is shrinking. Large apartment buildings are being torn down because there's no one left to live in them. Twenty years ago, Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised eastern Germany would become a "blooming landscape" of economic development. But according to most indicators, it is still dragging behind, which has led to a sense of disillusionment.

"In the smaller towns you can feel a kind of anger in the people. They usually say they feel disappointed by the politicians," said Miriam Mueller, a researcher at Berlin's Free University who studies eastern Germany.

"What they had expected from western Germany was Utopia."

Instead, they got capitalism. And even two decades later, many people are still having a hard time coming to terms with it.

Author: Kyle James

Editor: Sam Edmonds

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