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Deconstructing Germany

Kyle JamesSeptember 3, 2004

Due to a weak economy, falling birthrates and higher numbers of people relocating to find jobs, some German regions are losing population; their cities are shrinking. The problem is especially acute in eastern Germany.

Forty percent of the apartments in Wolfen North are to be torn downImage: DW

Kristine Michel stands in the doorway of a local Red Cross clothes distribution center in the sprawling apartment compound called Wolfen North and looks out at the conglomeration of pre-fabricated concrete blocks that has been her home since 1971. It's funny, she said, that in East Germany, there was a waiting list to get an apartment at Wolfen North; it was a desirable location. Now people can't get out of the place fast enough.

"It has become a ghost town," she told DW-WORLD. "You just need to walk through Wolfen North at night to see it. There are just dark apartments and vacant buildings, without windows or anything."

Wolfen North was once at the center of the East German chemical industry, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, some 33,600 employees from the three major factories in the neighboring town of Bitterfeld called the 256 hectare (655 acre) complex home. Today, there are just 17,000 residents left, and that number continues to decrease.

"Blossoming Landscapes"

Just after German reunification, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised enthusiastic East Germans "blossoming landscapes." Their ramshackle socialist economy with its outdated factories and second-rate products would be transformed into a powerhouse of quality manufacturing on a par with that of West Germany.

Empty space is growing at Wolfen NorthImage: DW

Fourteen years later, those landscapes are indeed undergoing a transformation, but it isn't exactly how East Germans had envisioned. Communities like those at Wolfen North are being abandoned as increasing numbers of people leave economically weak regions to find work elsewhere. The promised "blossoms" have turned out to be those of meadow flowers that have bloomed on the neglected tracts of land where empty buildings once stood, not factories and prosperity.

Wolfen is typical of several eastern cities in Germany which watched as their industrial base collapsed after reunification. Despite promises to the contrary, investors and new businesses did not rush in to fill the hole left by inefficient East German factories that closed after the Wall came down.

While the government poured billions of dollars into building up the region's moribund infrastructure, shiny new streets and modern telephone systems could not replace the thousands of jobs that disappeared over the next five years.

Wolfen's 1990 population of 43,901 began to fall off as people went in search for work. By 2003, only 25,969 were left -- the city had lost 41 percent of its residents. Many of them moved to western Germany, where the economy is healthier, and the unemployment rate is half of what it is in the east.

"I have two kids who have moved over there," said Michel. "If I could find work there, I'd pack my bags right away and follow them."

Mass dismantling

Abriß von Plattenbauten
Tearing down excess buildings in eastern GermanyImage: AP

Wolfen is not a special case. The list of towns and cities in eastern Germany which face declining populations is long: Leipzig, Halle, Cottbus, Hoyerswerda, Zwickau. As these municipalities lose residents, local governments struggle against a surfeit of vacated buildings and shuttered businesses. In many cases, especially on the towns' peripheries, they've simply begun tearing them down.

The German government estimates that in the east, some one million excess apartments now face the wrecker's ball. That statistic is likely to run even higher in the future, since demographers predict eastern Germany's population will fall from its current 15 million to 11.1 million in 2050.

"It's a new way of thinking, and one that brings all kinds of new challenges with it," Uwe Lummitsch of Renewal Wolfen-Nord, told DW-WORLD. His organization is coordinating the demolition of some 3,800 apartments of the 13,500 in the complex. Plans are to tear down at least 2,200 more over the next several years. He said the organization jokes that they are playing something akin to the computer game "The Sims," but in reverse.

"There you build up an infrastructure. Here, we're having to deconstruct it," he said. "But we're trying to do it in such a way that we limit the impact on the quality of life. We don't want to make it more unappealing to live here."

Once desirable living quarters, Soviet-style apartment blocks stand empty across the EastImage: DW

That's a difficult task. While the dismantling of cities and towns aims to achieve stabilization, it can also be the start of a long downward trend. As schools and shops close down due to lack of students and customers -- Wolfen North is closing four of its seven schools -- public transport systems start closing bus and tram lines and new businesses become ever more reluctant to move in.

"It's kind of a vicious circle which is very, very complicated to stop," Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for World Population and Global Development, told DW-WORLD.

Western Germany is not immune to the shrinking city syndrome. Several regions in the former Ruhr industrial area or the Saarland region are facing the same contracting future.

Expensive solution

For utility companies, the planned dismantling of the east has turned into an expensive headache. While the government and utility companies met in July to talk about who would pay to pull out cable and pipes and reroute them to still-standing apartment blocks -- it costs about €1,000 ($1,200) to disconnect a demolished apartment from services -- it appears that the utility companies and their shareholders will be left with the bill.

"Customers are leaving and we have to make changes to the infrastructure," Thomas Glauer of the Stadtwerke Wolfen, the local utility company, told DW-WORLD. "But that means we're having to spend money on a strategy of declining sales. It's about the worst thing you can do from a business standpoint."

The company, which is privately owned, has given up on making a profit locally and depends on customers it can gain elsewhere in Germany and the European Union for its survival.

Left behind

Those remaining in Wolfen -- many are unemployed or elderly -- watch with resignation as jackhammers and cranes turn the buildings they and their neighbors once called home into piles of rubble, and then into open, somewhat desolate stretches.

In the middle of one large expanse that once held two apartment blocks sits the Ice Pearl, a café that Beatrice Kracht and her husband opened in 1996, when hope for the future still outweighed disappointment and apathy in the region.

Verlassene Plattenbauten
Boarded up and vacated, communities like Wolfen North are disappearingImage: DW

She said that back then, she thought a few buildings might come down for cosmetic reasons. But she never envisioned that the dismantling would take on the magnitude that it has and that her densely built-up community would start disappearing before her eyes.

"If we had known, we never would have invested so much in this place," she said, adding that the café would "probably last one more year, no more."

After that, they'll move on and the lights will go out in another apartment at Wolfen North.