The MZ factory in Zschopau was the birthplace of German motorbike production, but these days there is virtually nothing left. For 20 years Andre Hunger fought to keep it alive. He has finally given up.
MZ bikes have become museum pieces
Andre Hunger pours a cup of tea which he says comes from Malaysia. The former personnel manager of MZ converted from coffee to tea back in the mid-1990s when an Asian investor took over the Saxony motorbike company. It was not a liaison that lasted, and when they pulled out, they took Hunger's hopes for the company's survival with them.
He says it became apparent that the company was dependent on the decisions of people "somewhere in Malaysia, a long way from what was going on and who didn't understand the tradition." From the point of their departure, it has downhill all the way.
Downhill never used to be an issue for the Zschopau motorbike manufacturers, whose advertising slogan back in the 1920s was "goes uphill as fast as others go down."
During the GDR era, there were times when annual production exceeded 100,000 and the light, robust, two-stroke engines were commonplace in the Eastern Bloc and countries in the developing world. In the 1920s and again in the 1980s the MZ motorcycle company, which was founded in 1906, was the largest in the world.
Business as usual at the Zschopau factory in 1971
In the local museum dedicated to the company, visitors can watch old television reports about the glory days of motorbike sports, in which MZ drivers took on Honda drivers and the GDR team won the Six Days trials, the toughest in the world, on MZs. Such prestige made the company a dream workplace for many, including Andre Hunger, who first joined its ranks in 1988. There was never any doubt that that was where the young man who learned about bikes from his grandfather wanted to work
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the GDR collapsed shortly thereafter, the then 28-year-old mechanical engineer regarded reunification and the market economy as a positive challenge.
Andre Hunger fought hard for survival
"We thought everything would get better, without the shortages we had always struggled with. We thought it was our chance to finally prove what we were made of," Andre Hunger said.
Like everyone else, he forewent 10 percent of his wages in order to help the company forge ahead, and in 1990 his co-workers elected him to the works council. But it wasn't long before the dream of making a splash in unified Germany turned into a nightmare.
Sales dropped, and in 1992 MZ was forced to file its first petition for bankruptcy. As a member of the works council, Hunger had to rubber stamp a radical redundancy plan that reduced the 3,000-plus workforce to one of just a few hundred.
Taking the blame
Hunger will never forget the trauma of the early 1990s. He recalls going shopping and bumping into a man who had once worked at the factory. "His daughter wanted a chocolate Father Christmas, but the man told her he couldn't buy it because he was unemployed," Hunger said. "And then he pointed at me and said: 'It's because of that man there that I don't have a job.' Everyone looked at me and I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me."
Andre Hunger says the real guilty party was the Treuhand privatization agency set up to oversee the transition from a planned to a market economy. He believes there were people in the agency connected to West German companies who were keen to crush any competition from East German businesses before they could become a real threat.
"We were told we had to learn how to work properly. The Treuhand absolutely did not want anything to remain in tact," Hunger recalls, adding that the privatization agency was responsible for the death of many traditional companies that could have survived.
Enough is enough
After two decades of fighting to survive, there is not much left of MZ anymore. The company no longer manufactures bikes, and the factory floor currently accommodates a meager handful of people building electric scooters and bicycles with electric engines. Hunger says the new owners, two former motorbike racing drivers, plan to import Chinese models and sell them under the MZ trademark.
A later MZ model
But he is not keen on the idea, which doesn't sit well with his understanding of a motorcycle factory.
"That's why I left," he said. He is unwilling to say more on the subject for fear that his words could be interpreted locally as betrayal of the old company.
The former works council member and long-time head of personnel stopped working at MZ in August 2009, and has now been experiencing interviews from the other side of the desk. He says he has sent off some 50 applications and is sick of hearing politicians spout their "clever talk" about the lengths to which the unemployed are supposed to go in order to find work.
"They have no idea what it means for a person who has led an active life," Hunger said. "It's very bitter when you realize they don't need you any more." During the conversation, his telephone rang. It was a personnel department interested in his application. But he is not going to let his hopes run away with him. At least not yet.
Author: Bernd Graessler / tkw
Editor: Nancy Isenson