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German Reunification

'The smart ones all want to leave'

Twenty years after unification, the country's East is a radically different place. Structural changes have left urban populations in decline, and the brightest inhabitants are usually the first to go.

A renovated apartment block next to an empty one

About 150 apartments are demolished every year

Right on Germany's eastern border the town of Schwedt overlooks the River Oder. In the 1960s, this was a boom town: people moved here in tens of thousands to work in the local oil refinery. But since reunification that trend has been radically reversed.

The PR assistant in Schwedt Town Hall insists that the mayor himself will answer any questions. "Urban restructuring is a matter for the boss," she says. Sure enough, the mayor, Juergen Polzehl, a gray-haired man in his mid-50s, invites me to go for a ride with him in his official car. He tells the chauffeur to drive us to the Kuelz district.

On the way there we pass row upon row of prefabricated apartment blocks - a legacy of the final, brief heyday of the Uckermark regional municipality. The town's population swelled to 52,000 after the refinery was built, and housing had to be created for all the new arrivals.

Rapid decline in population

Schwedt Mayor Juergen Polzehl

Mayor Polzehl says Schwedt has spent billions of euros on urban restructuring

Then came German reunification. Workers at the refinery were laid off. In the past 20 years, 20,000 people have moved away from Schwedt. At one time thousands of apartments stood empty.

"We had to respond to the situation," says Polzehl, pointing out of the window. Suddenly the buildings are interrupted by a wide, uneven open space. "All this was apartment blocks, one after another. Now it's all been returned to nature," Polzehl explains.

For a while they were demolishing as many as a thousand apartments in a year in Schwedt. Now, Polzehl says, it's about 150 per year: the contraction of the town is gradually becoming more manageable.

Billions of euros have been spent on urban restructuring. Demolition, reconstruction and reforestation help alleviate the sadness of the shrinking towns, but the alteration of the demographic has had a lasting effect on the makeup of the population. Polzehl is particularly concerned that so many young women have moved away.

This is a problem for many of the regions - and it has led to a severe shortage of young women in the new federal states. The newspaper Die Welt reports that, in the 25-30 age bracket, in the East there are only 85 women for every 100 men.

Polzehl remains optimistic. "Perhaps that will change if we locate a few businesses here and a local authority office. That'll improve the job situation," he says, hopefully.

The oil refinery in Schwedt

The oil refinery was once the city's largest employer

Brain drain

The mayor has set himself a considerable challenge. Conditions here, as in many parts of eastern Germany, are not good. The unemployment figure for the country as a whole is less than eight percent, but the East is struggling with more than 12 percent unemployment. In Schwedt it is even higher at 16 percent.

More efficient production methods and the closing or relocation of industry have greatly reduced the number of jobs available in the East. Those who are able to leave, do. Salaries, too, are higher in the West.

The young, the intelligent and the educated are leading the exodus, leaving behind the old and those described by despairing employers as "barely trainable." In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung in 2004, Ulf Matthiesen, a researcher in area studies, described them as "unemployed urban idiots with no family ties and no prospect of forming a relationship."

In parts of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania the number of pupils dropping out of school is 50 percent higher than the national average. More than 10 percent leave school early, according to Heike Liebmann, head of the City Regeneration Department at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Development. She describes this as an indication of the degree to which the general level of education among the local population has fallen.

Furthermore, the fewer creative and enterprising people there are in public life, the less attractive the prospect of staying here becomes for those left behind. It's a vicious circle.

Every year, Ruediger Ober-Bloebaum resigns himself to seeing more of Schwedt's bright young people move away. The stocky 50-year-old is the headmaster of the town's last remaining high school. Last summer 103 pupils graduated, but he says: "Of these, only seven are staying in Schwedt. The others are all going away to study or start an apprenticeship, and only 10 of those think they might come back." Ober-Bloebaum supposes Schwedt is too quiet for them; there's just not enough going on there.

But there's another problem, too. He refers to a 2007 study by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development which suggested "that the girls are leaving because they find the boys here too stupid."

Wild, wild East

A pond full of lily pads

Large parts of Schwedt are returning to nature

Before unification in 1990, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke of the prospect of "landscapes in bloom." He used the term as a metaphor for the economic development of the East, but in recent years regional planners have suggested it should be taken literally. They have proposed returning parts of eastern Germany to nature.

Liebmann says it's hard to imagine how the movement of people could be controlled in such a process, but she adds that "it is certainly useful for society to consider whether it can afford to maintain the existing infrastructure in areas that are becoming less densely populated."

Polzehl is dismissive of such ideas. "We can't just let all this become a jungle. We have our roots here; this is our home."

And Schwedt still has good things to offer. It is responsible for 15 percent of the industrial production of the state of Brandenburg, and Germany's only meadowland national park is right next door.

On the way back to the town hall, Mayor Polzehl draws encouragement from his own life story. "I moved away too, when I was young," he says. "And now I'm back again."

Author: Heiner Kiesel, Schwedt/cc
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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