Since the wall came tumbling down

Almost 25 years after reunification, how has the former East Germany changed? A journey through the region by our Berlin Correspondent begins today

Stories to tell: the spectacular Vierjahreszeiten Haus – the House of the Four Seasons. Photograph: Derek Scally

Stories to tell: the spectacular Vierjahreszeiten Haus – the House of the Four Seasons. Photograph: Derek Scally


There are two ways to tell the story of Wittenberge, a town in what used to be East Germany, halfway between Berlin and Hamburg. You can disembark at the train station, a pretty art-nouveau building, ready to see the negatives. On the wall of the closed station building, for example, beneath dusty windows, someone has scrawled Deprizone – zone of depression. If gloominess is what you’ve come to find, there are plenty more examples: the lone man drinking schnapps on a bench, the dozens of vacant buildings, and the stillness that is particular to provincial towns around eastern Germany.

But there is another way to look at Wittenberge, just as there is another way to view what has happened in eastern Germany in the quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall fell, on November 9th, 1989. On that night of tears and cheers, beer and bear hugs, the Germans were the happiest people on earth. Within a year the socialist east had, in an unprecedented feat of German efficiency, vanished from the map after 40 years. Western Europe’s cold- war division was over.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl became leader of a united Germany promising optimistic easterners a Field of Dreams political programme: if we rebuild, the companies will come, and jobs and prosperity will follow. He promised “blossoming landscapes”, but a more sobre reality soon hit home. The first things to blossom in the east were the media cliches of sooty east German towns and primitive locals watching in shock as one jaded state-owned factory after another was pronounced unviable and shuttered.

Towns such as Wittenberge developed a new life as case studies in urban decay, allowing Berlin journalists to document the hopelessness and folly of German unification in a few hours, and still be home in time for dinner. This reputation of failure proved even more difficult to shift than decades of grime on the eastern city facades. In 2010 Die Zeit dedicated its weekly magazine to the phenomenon, asking on its front cover “What’s up in Wittenberge?” The choice of uniformly drab pictures and loaded language – grim, welfare, decay – made the answer to the ironic question clear: nothing.

Expensive failure

If you believe everything you read then Wittenberge, the surrounding Prignitz region in the state of Brandenburg, and even the whole of eastern Germany, apart from a few bright spots, has been an expensive failure that still costs €16 billion a year via a payroll “solidarity charge”. After a quarter of a century, however, east Germans have learned that those who know the cost of everything often appreciate the value of nothing.

Mayor Oliver Hermann remembers the grey place from the book of journalistic cliches he found when he arrived in Wittenberge, 15 years ago. A decade after the Berlin Wall fell, Wittenbergers were still in shock at the collapse of an industrial tradition dating back to 1823. In that year a German-Jewish businessman, Salomon Herz, had founded the city’s first major factory, an oil-processing plant. In 1846, as a big shareholder in the new Berlin-Hamburg railway line, he ensured Wittenberge got the midway stop.

Combined with the sweep of the River Elbe, already a major trade channel, Wittenberge was now an attractive base for companies, and it thrived. It became the European base of the Singer sewing-machine empire. Its factory tower, with its seven-metre-wide clock face, still stands proudly over the city.

Although the town was bombed in the second World War, its industrial tradition survived. The East German government bought out Singer and renamed the factory Veritas; Wittenberge remained Europe’s sewing-machine capital. But the state-owned companies failed to modernise, and, almost overnight in 1991, all but one factory closed, with more than 5,000 jobs wiped out. The population has been in freefall since then, from 33,000 in 1977 to just 17,000 today.

“Many of the problems we have now – the industrial collapse, the population decline – would have come either way. The events of 1989 just catalysed things,” Hermann says.

But after lost years, companies are once again discovering the attributes – good instrastructure and location, low costs – that attracted Singer and Herz in the 19th century. Ahead of a new motorway opening nearby, the Austrotherm insulation company has just opened a €14 million plant.

In parallel to rebuilding investment and infrastructure, Hermann’s priority is to improve Wittenberge’s cityscape and quality of life. The complaints coming across his desk are no longer about existential crises, but rather grievances about roadworks.

There is one problem that can’t be easily solved: with an average age of 59, Wittenberge has one of Germany’s oldest populations. In Diakonie, a Lutheran care facility, 35 employees look after 130 people in the community. The staff say Wittenberge is facing a challenge today that the rest of Germany will face tomorrow.

Rita Langwisch, the cheery 61-year-old manager of the operation says caring for her clients on limited care budgets is a balancing act. “And yet we manage, like with the enormous challenges in the last 25 years,” she says. “I’d like to see how the West Germans would have coped.”

Langwisch’s attitude – light-hearted tempered with steely resolve – is one you encounter a lot in Wittenberge. After mastering everything thrown at them since 1989 – a shock transition from socialism to capitalism, economic and population collapse – nothing can faze them. Easteners have made the leap – cradle-to-grave socialist security to precarious capitalism – and have kept going. Change is just something to be managed. Even in Wittenberge, with its problematic demographics.

Although inward and outward migration have stabilised, the death rate is more than twice the birth rate. With a population headed downward to 16,000 by the end of the decade, a 61 square-meter two-room apartment is on offer in an estate agent’s window here for €241 a month. More than 500 apartments have been torn down, with more to follow.

As Germany’s tourist industry winds up the 25th-anniversary machine, five years after the last outing many people here say they’re growing tired of the ritualised memorialising. As a result, the memory of East Germany is both present in and strangely absent from daily life.

Just as the Nazi era is dominated by the Hitler and Holocaust headliners, the East German debate rarely digs deeper than the Stasi secret police and the Berlin Wall. How East Germany survived four decades of repression is as rarely discussed as the society left in its wake.

“The debate about how this East German ship hit the rocks and sank never looks any further, to ask what happened to the cargo,” says Ines Geipel, a former East German athlete and now an author of many books on the East German legacy. “I think Germany’s second dictatorship was one too many to cope with. East Germany was simply pronounced guilty by the West and that’s that.”

Her latest book places responsibility for the limited debate with what she calls Generation Mauer – the wall generation. Born around 1961, the year the wall went up, Geipel argues that her generation had the best of both worlds: young enough to start over in 1989, relatively untainted by the old regime, but old enough to have an adult understanding of East Germany to pass on to future generations. Yet the people who could contribute most to remembering East Germany have, she says, absented themselves from the debate.

“The fall of the wall in 1989 was the pivotal point in our lives, yet the events themselves are so distant for many,” she says. “This is a very political generation, yet they don’t express political views in public today; they don’t want to be burned.”

This vacuum has been filled by another East Germany, she thinks, constructed by the media and held together by an unlikely alliance of eastern Germany’s 60-plus generation and their grandchildren. The older generation, who saw old certainties and existences swept away with the Berlin Wall, have a very human need to salvage some dignity from lives dumped on history’s scrap heap. In this they have found allies in their grandchildren who are hungry for a sense of where they came from.

The ‘unity’ generation

While the Wall Generation work quietly and pay their taxes, the “unity” generation – the first to be born in a united Germany – are embracing eastern Germany as a regional identity rather than as part of an old east-west pattern. But in their enthusiasm to embrace Germany’s new “world champion” business and football status, Geipel worries that they are not being exposed to the complexity and ambivalence of German identity. “I see a new desire for innocence and frivolity in Germany that has no time for the historical reality of where we’ve come from,” she says.

Frivolity and innocence are in short supply back in Wittenberge. Gerhard Haine looks up with a start, as if he hasn’t seen a customer for weeks, when I arrive for lunch in the pub he has run since 1980. As he talks and fusses around his only customer, dozens of clocks, old and new, tick noisily on the wall, all showing different times of day. “On one it’s always the time you want it to be,” he jokes.

Between trips to the kitchen to check on my schnitzel, the 62-year-old gives a long monologue on his town’s decline. “This town is dead. If there’s no one here at 8pm I can shut the door for the night,” he says. When I ask why he still opens up his pub, his local pride emerges. “I think we will land on the sunny side here in Wittenberge,” he says. “But I don’t know if I will live to see it.”

Other Wittenbergers already see a better future for the town. At the red-brick complex that was once Wittenberge’s oil factory, its new owner, Lutz Lange, exudes can-do attitude. His family employs more than 60 people here in a hotel, restaurant and conference centre. In one old storage tower is a climbing complex; the other will soon be an enormous diving tank. Beside the complex is a hive of building activity. A cycle lane has opened up this glorious landscape to tourists, the postindustrial town’s big hope.

With every step forward in Wittenberge, from growing tourist numbers to open-air concerts at his complex, Lange notices a rise in people’s self-esteem. “For years after the catastrophe people waited for rescue from outside. Then they realised there would be no more industry and we had to make things happen ourselves,” he says. “In East Germany we learned to be flexible, now we’ve learned to be pragmatic and uncomplicated. It’s how Angela Merkel is too.”

Walking back to the train station, it’s easy to see why Wittenberge historians call the place a city of contrasts. Leaving behind the crumbling East German Plattenbau housing blocks, with their factory-assembled facades, the town has one final surprise before I leave: an old villa quarter with newly paved streets and pristine art-nouveau facades. At its heart is the spectacular Vierjahreszeiten Haus – the House of the Four Seasons.

As I begin my journey around eastern Germany, a quarter of a century after the Berlin Wall fell, my last memory of Wittenberge is the House of the Four Seasons and its explosion of colour. It’s a heartening reminder that even the greyest and gloomiest season can pass. Eastern Germany has new stories to tell.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.