Germany: The rise and fall of a model socialist city

Tanya Beckett looks at how Germany has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall

Eisenhuettenstadt still has an imperial feel about it. Even though many of the windows are boarded up and the streets are relatively empty, the big apartment blocks have retained a sense of the city's former grandeur.

It is spacious, green - and oddly full of public clocks. The big steel factory - so vital to the rise and fall of this city - can be seen puffing out steam from the main shopping street.

Located in the east of Germany, close to the Polish border, Eisenhuettenstadt was built in the 1950s as a model socialist city by the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). And in many ways, the story of this town - once called Stalinstadt - is the story of East Germany.

In 1989 the factory employed 12,000 people. Nearly every family was in some way linked to it. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it was privatised - and now it employs just 2,500, leading many of the citizens of Eisenhuettenstadt to experience unemployment for the first time.

Map

It is no surprise then that the young people have left in droves in search of work. The average age of Eisenhuettenstadt in its 1950s heyday was early 20s. Now it is approaching 50 and more than a third of the population is over 60.

Seventy-four-year-old Konrad Baldszus has lived there since 1966. He was among the lucky ones who successfully applied for work in the town after studying in nearby Dresden.

'Community feel'
Konrad Baldszus Konrad Baldszus: In Eisenhuettenstadt since 1966

"I had a wife and two young children, so of course the nice new apartments were attractive to me. I also liked the job so I was very happy here," says Mr Baldszus.

"The work was better paid than in other parts of Germany because it was supported by the government."

Mr Baldszus is not misty-eyed about the old days. He was overjoyed when the Wall came down because it enabled him to see his son who had fled to the West. But there were some noticeable changes in day-to-day life.

"Before 1989 there was more of a community feel. We did more together - even if not always by choice. Now people are more focused on their family and their own lives," he adds.

Eisenhuettenstadt Many of the buildings in Eisenhuettenstadt are disused
A mural in Eisenhuettenstadt A mural that dates back to the 1950s in Eisenhuettenstadt

The ageing population in Eisenhuettenstadt is symptomatic of what happened in the former GDR more broadly. Post 1989, the country was left with a sharply diminished working population as the birth rate dropped dramatically and 1.1 million emigrants headed to the West, most of them under the age of 30.

'A bit surreal'

Journalist and author Sabine Rennefanz and academic-cum-blogger Ben Kaden were part of the younger generation to leave Eisenhuettenstadt. They were both at school when the Wall came down.

Sabine Rennenfanz Sabine Rennefanz left Eisenhuettenstadt for Berlin
Ben Kagen Ben Kaden, also now in Berlin, wrote a blog about Eisenhuettenstadt

"I didn't know about it until the day after it happened," says Ms Rennefanz. "And to be honest, sitting at home watching the news and seeing people dancing on the Wall all seemed a bit crazy, a bit surreal. I grew up thinking it would be there forever."

Mr Kaden says: "Initially we were all very excited about what we could buy - Milka chocolate, Rittersport - brands that you couldn't get in the East."

Everyone from the former GDR got 100 deutschmarks when they crossed the border. Ms Rennefanz says that what you spent it on is still a point of discussion among East Germans today.

"I bought a purple Levi's jacket that I was very pleased with," she says.

From bottom-up to top-down
Clock in Eisenhuettenstadt One of the many clocks around Eisenhuettenstadt

But after the initial euphoria, Eisenhuettenstadt - and the former GDR - had to deal with the new reality of unemployment.

Ms Rennefanz says her father, who lost his job in 1990, never got over the experience of being made redundant.

"It was like an existential shock and one that he never recovered from. No-one was prepared for it. He was the main provider and suddenly there were money issues. But also just the practicalities of it were difficult - he didn't know how to fill in all the forms, what to do with himself.

"Even though he found work again he never really got over that strike in his life."

Mr Kaden adds that the reunification felt like a complete takeover of the East by the West. Suddenly people were told that everything they had done was wrong, their whole way of life was worthless.

"What started as a bottom-up movement ended up as a top-down order," he says.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble on Germany's reunification

Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany's Finance Minister, was one of the key architects of reunification. As interior minister at the time, it was his job to implement it.

"Of course mistakes were made," he told the BBC, "but the biggest mistake would have been if we had not acted.

"There was no book in which you could read what should be done. In the end you have to be courageous enough to decide [to act]."

The West German government at the time made the decision to pour money into the re-integration. Exactly how much is not clear but estimates range into the trillions of euros [or deutschmarks at the time].

In a hurry

Mr Schaeuble points out that it was in the German constitution that if East Germany wanted to rejoin the West, they had the right to do so. And, he says, they were in a hurry.

"They felt they had been forced for 40 years not to live like their brothers and sisters in the West and they didn't want to wait a day longer.

"In the end it [reunification] worked... much better than anyone expected."

And it is true that East Germany has come a long way since then. From earning just 45% of their West German compatriots, East Germans now earn 70%. Emigration has reduced to a trickle.

And while it is difficult to see how Eisenhuettenstadt will recover its former glory, not even its citizens would want the Wall back.

"There may have been flaws [in the reunification]," says Mr Baldszus.

"But my wife and I, we were just so happy to see our son."

More Business stories

RSS

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    BP TRADING Breaking News
    British Petroleum sign

    BP has reported profits (second-quarter replacement cost profit - which strips out the effect of oil price movements) of $3.2bn, compared with $2,4bn a year earlier.

     
  2.  
    BIG CHEESE 07:13: BBC Breakfast
    Cheese

    The biggest event in the global cheese calendar starts today in Nantwich in Cheshire. Steph McGovern is at the International Cheese Fair for Breakfast along with the 4,500 cheeses there. Andrew Loftus, agriculture manager for Morrison's supermarkets says: "Customers need a big variety, the block cheese, the cheddars, but we also have our own range that we cut and grate in our factories."

     
  3.  
    BANKING ETHICS 07:03: Radio 5 live

    Control Risks' Charles Hecker on Wake Up to Money pulls together the two big topics of the morning - Russia and banking ethics. He says it's the ethics that attract them: "There is a reason why the British banking sector is by a mile the preferred destination for Russian financial transactions. It's seen as transparent and liquid market that is well regulated and is seen as clean." And they also like the flight time and the restaurants, he says.

     
  4.  
    UBS RESULTS 06:53:
    The logo of Swiss bank UBS

    Swiss bank UBS reports second quarter net profit of 792m Swiss francs (£516m), up from 690m francs last time. Results were whacked last year by a $885m settlement with the US housing regulator over the mis-selling of mortgage-backed bonds. The bank has still had to set aside 254m euros (£165.4m) this year, mainly to settle legal claims that it helped wealthy Germans to dodge taxes.

     
  5.  
    RUSSIAN SANCTIONS 06:41: BBC Radio 4

    In case you were wondering why sanctions were back on the news menu, last week, European leaders agreed there should be tougher sanctions on Russia after Ukrainian separatists brought down Malaysia Airlines MH17. This week they decide what sanctions should be applied and against whom or what.

     
  6.  
    BANKING ETHICS 06:31: Radio 5 live
    Triumph of Virtue and Nobility

    Would getting bankers to swear an oath promising good behaviour work? That's a suggestion by one think tank, ResPublica. It wants to introduce "Virtuous Banking". But the chairman of the Banking Standards Review Council, Sir Richard Lambert, tells Wake Up to Money an oath won't help to bring that about.

     
  7.  
    GAS GUZZLER 06:21:
    Mayor of London Boris Johnson

    London mayor Boris Johnson wants the drivers of diesel cars to pay an extra £10 - on top of the congestion charge it should be noted - for the pleasure of driving into the centre of the capital according to a report in the Daily Mail today. Other cities are also considering introducing low-emission zones to crack down on diesel fumes. These cars were once encouraged as being less polluting...

     
  8.  
    RUSSIAN SANCTIONS 06:08: Radio 5 live

    More from Charles Hecker. He tells Wake Up to Money: "I don't think anybody is that keen on sanctions that are going to impact on their own economic sectors." Part of the problem with European sanctions against Russia is the French have defence deals with Russia, there is a substantial amount of Russia money in the UK's financial services sector and Germany has energy deals with Russia, he adds

     
  9.  
    RUSSIAN SANCTIONS 06:01: Radio 5 live

    Charles Hecker of consultancy Control Risks tells Wake Up to Money targeted sanctions, whether against sectors of the Russian economy or against individuals, would have a potential impact and suggests the Russian economy is already teetering on the edge of recession. But he adds both Cuba and Iran have been subject to far more stringent sanctions and that further sanctions against Russia are unlikely to change the country's behaviour.

     
  10.  
    06:00: Rebecca Marston Business reporter, BBC News

    Yes, we're back. And we're here: bizlive@bbc.co.uk @bbcbusiness - should you wish to get in touch.

     
  11.  
    06.00: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning everyone. Yesterday afternoon we had a £218m fine for Lloyds for its part in the 2012 Libor scandal, while the think-tank ResPublica has suggested this morning bankers should take an oath - a bit like doctors - to fulfil their "proper moral and economic purpose". We also have second quarter trading updates from BP and Next this morning, plus more on Russian sanctions.

     

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • The smartphones of shoppers being tracked in a storeClick Watch

    How free wi-fi can enable businesses to track our movements and learn more about us

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.