The Neisse River and the German-Polish border still separate the towns of Görlitz and Zgorzelec, but the people and the economy are already thinking in terms of one European city.
A border station still divides the "European City" Görlitz/Zgorzelec
Germany’s easternmost city, Görlitz, is one of the last European towns that continues to bare the scar of post World War II division. Separated from its Polish twin, Zgorzelec, on the other side of the Neisse River, Görlitz is an example for the history of eastern Germany and the future of Europe.
Just prior to the Nazi’s capitulation on May 8, 1945, retreating German troops blew up all the bridges across the Neisse River running through Görlitz. Several weeks later, leaders from the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union made the Neisse River the border between Poland and the Soviet zone of Germany. Görlitz’s eastern half was given to Poland and renamed Zgorzelec.
From that point on, the cities of Görlitz and Zgorzelec went their separate ways. Two new town centers arose separated by the river and national borders. New schools, hospitals and businesses were built. The people began thinking of themselves first as Germans and Poles and then as citizens of Görlitz.
The divided situation hardly changed even during the heights of the Cold War era. Although the German Democratic Republic and the Polish People’s Republic began to reach out to one another under the auspices of "fraternal cooperation", the main bridge that once connected the two halves of Görlitz is still on the drawing board.
Since the German reunification in 1990, the gap between the two cities has become even more evident. One only needs to take a quick look at the cities’ architecture to see the difference the connection to Germany makes.
The river that divides
Old map of Görlitz
The German side of Görlitz has some 4,000 buildings listed on the national historic landmark. The old town center with its colorful array of Renaissance and 19th century facades is the largest designated historic landmark north of the Alps.
Over the last decade, the city and the German government have invested heavily in the restoration and preservation of Görlitz’s architectural treasures. The city beautification process is not just for aesthetic purposes: Görlitz wants to attract tourists and new businesses.
"We want to promote this marketing sector", says Rolf Karbaum, Mayor of Görlitz. "We want to be attractive. And we have to create the right conditions for that. And that’s why the town has to be restored to its former glory."
Across the river, the Polish town of Zgorzelec has spent hardly any money on restoring its city center. The city cannot afford to invest the sums Görlitz has, and the Polish government is not contributing anything.
Nonetheless, Zgorzelec attracts thousands of new people to its center every year. The city is bursting at its seams with new immigrants who want to live and work near the German border. Most of them are young and eager to stake a claim in the future of Görlitz across the river.
The mayor of Görlitz can only wish his town would experience the same surge in popularity. Despite the attractive facades, Görlitz is losing a battle to keep residents happy and content in the border city.
Every year approximately 2,000 people move away from Görlitz and head for places further west. Since the mid-1980s, Görlitz’s population has shrunk by more than a quarter to 61,000. The city’s residents are disproportionately old – most of the young ones moved away in search of study and job opportunities in larger German cities.
Mayor Karbaum says the migration of young people from Görlitz is especially critical because the "hope and the city’s very future are vanishing with them".
Today nearly 30 percent of all apartments in the city are vacant. Businesses have moved away, and the unemployment rate is around 23 percent, one of the highest in Germany.
New investors are rare and the town’s mayor is faced with a seemingly hopeless situation. "I don’t know how we could make Görlitz more attractive," he told DW-TV. "We are in an area with the highest subsidies... we have excellent subsidy programs and possibilities for special subsidies, which are still available in this border area."
Money: the bridge that unites
But subsidies are not enough. Görlitz needs jobs, it needs businesses and it needs people who are willing to stay and make the city their home. Ironically, all of these are things that a partnership with the poorer but populous twin Zgorzelec can provide.
The two towns have realized that alone they are too weak to survive, but together they can attract outside investment. And to do so they have established a joint development plan concentrating on the banks of the Neisse River.
Mayor Karbaum predicts that once Poland becomes a member of the EU, the border dividing the cities will become nothing more than a river to cross. He’s confident that Polish EU membership will make it possible for residents of Zgorzelec to come to Görlitz without regard for borders.
Leonhard Held, manager of a Görlitz department store is all in favor of cooperating with the Polish city. He says opening the border to Poland will attract more young people and more businesses. Residents of Zgorzelec will simply walk across the bridge to shop in Germany.
Mayor Karbaum envisages a future in which Görlitz will no longer be divided. "Our vision for the future is for this town to become just like any other town the world over. That teh people here will come together and live and work alongside each other after decades of separation."
The mayors of both cities look upon them as one. Three years ago they officially declared Görlitz/Zgorzelec a European city.