Germany: The rise and fall of a model socialist city
- 28 April 2014
- From the section Business
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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
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.
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."