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German Reunification

The extraordinary transformation of Bitterfeld

When the Berlin Wall came down, then Chancellor Helmut Kohl predicted eastern Germany would be transformed into a "flourishing landscape." Twenty years later, his forecast has come true for Bitterfeld.

Aerial view of Bitterfeld

Bitterfeld was once the most polluted town in East Germany

The transformation of Bitterfeld is a topic that never fails to get Horst Tischer waxing lyrical.

"It's been a remarkable development," says the city's 69-year-old mayor.

A former engineer, he well remembers the city's erstwhile reputation as the most polluted town in the GDR.

And although he concedes that unemployment is a nagging problem, he would much rather talk about positive developments such as the former Goitzsche mine, which was flooded to create a new landscape of lakes on the edge of town.

Bitterfeld harbor

The water in the Goitzsche Lakes didn't used to be this clean

Leaving for work

But in fact, Bitterfeld barely survived the post-reunification years. In the 1990s, widespread unemployment left one in four jobless. One result was a mass exodus westwards. The younger generation in particular left in droves, and indeed continues to do so.

"It is a cause for concern," admits Tischer.

With the population shrinking, the authorities decided the only option was to merge a number of districts. In the summer of 2007, Bitterfeld disappeared from the map as a city in its own right and fused with Wolfen, Greppin, Holzweißig, Thalheim and Roedgen to become Bitterfeld-Wolfen. Its population now numbers 45,000 -- roughly the population of Wolfen alone back in 1989.

The sunny side

But Horst Tischer likes to look on the bright side. And one definite bright spot on the horizon is the Bitterfeld-Wolfen Chemical Park -- all 1,200 hectares of it. It's actually bigger than Bitterfeld itself, and is making the most of the 3.5 billion euros ($4.4 billion) that have been invested in it since 2001.

It has succeeded in attracting much-needed business, and is now home to some 360 companies from Switzerland, Norway, Australia, Chile, France, Sweden, the US and Japan -- including Akzo Nobel, Bayer and Evonik (formerly Degussa). Around 11,000 jobs have been created.

Bitterfeld-Wolfen

Bitterfeld-Wolfen is in the state of Saxony-Anhalt

One company in particular has enjoyed meteoric growth. Founded in 1999 to produce silicon wafer-based solar cells, Q-Cells employed 19 people in 2001. Six years later, Q-Cells had 1,700 employees, making it the world's largest manufacturer of solar cells.

Not surprisingly, success on this scale has regional Economics Minister Reiner Haseloff rubbing his hands in glee. He showed his appreciation by awarding the company the "Success Story - Made in Saxony-Anhalt" prize.

Haseloff hopes other businesses will follow Q-Cells' example, and predicts that some 5,000 people will be employed in the area dubbed Solar Valley on the outskirts of Bitterfeld by 2010. This would consolidate the region's status as a top location for the solar industry.

Back to nature

But Horst Tischer wants everyone to know that it's not all work and no play in the Bitterfeld region. And these days, anyone with time on their hands is likely to head to the man-made Goitzsche Lakes.

Decades of open-cast mining had left gigantic holes and slag heaps scattered across the landscape, but in the late 1990s, the opencast Goitzsche mine was recultivated to include four lakes with a surface area of 2,350 hectares. Holiday homes and restaurants line their banks, and there's even talk of a new Bitterfeld Riviera.

Is the region an example of the "flourishing landscapes" hailed by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1989? Having experienced the hardship of reunification, Horst Tischer is none too keen on political rhetoric, but he is proud of his city's achievements:

"When you compare the region today with what it used to be," he says, "you realize what an extraordinary transformation has occurred."

Bayer factory in Bitterfeld

Bayer makes its well-known aspirin in Bitterfeld