Exodus from east leaves land of broken promises to the wolves and neo-Nazis
Helmut Kohl hailed reunification's 'blossoming landscapes'. Instead anybody who can has left
Jess Smee in Hoyerswerda
Wednesday November 15, 2006
A father swings his squealing young daughter into the air, her starchy white pinafore gleaming against the powder blue sky. The mural, which adorns the entire facade of a tower block in Germany's former communist east, is unintentionally prophetic: this girl, like her peers, will more than likely head for the horizon, joining the more than a million-strong exodus from the former German Democratic Republic since the Berlin wall crumbled.
Beset by rampant unemployment and shrinking population, the eastern states of Germany are suffering a deep-seated malaise. The symptoms are easy to spot: empty streets, social problems and a burgeoning sympathy for the far right.
All these problems are apparent in Hoyerswerda, a small town in the deep east of the country not far from the Polish border. Back in the days of communism it was home to a coal mining company that lured workers from far and wide. Today it is better known for dereliction and decline - since the Berlin wall came down in 1989, it has lost one in three of its residents.
Sitting in a dark corner of a local bar, Karl, who preferred not to give his second name, said he would leave today if he had the money. "Most of my friends have moved if they can. Here there is no work about," he said, ordering another beer. "I did my back in working in the mines but even if I was healthy, I doubt I would get a job here."
About one in four people are unemployed in Hoyerswerda - three times the average rate in west Germany. Reports suggest that the real jobless figure, including those on retraining schemes or early retirement, is as much as 50% in parts of the east.
Such bleak prospects mean that people of working age continue to pack their bags and look for a brighter future elsewhere. Combined with Germany's falling birthrate and ageing population, this is having a devastating effect on the local social structure.
Young people, especially women, are over-represented among those migrating. What they leave behind are towns littered with empty buildings, places where high streets have the atmosphere of an out of season resort.
The trend makes a mockery of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's post-reunification promises of "blossoming landscapes" in the east. Instead, statistics show a wide gap in opportunities and income.
This discrepancy has occurred despite the huge cashflows eastwards since reunification. But public opinion in the west has turned against the hefty subsidies, with especially harsh criticism coming from poorer western regions - places that have home-grown problems of industrial decline and migrating populations.
Today state funds target a small number of thriving eastern towns and cities known as "lighthouses". These are the exceptions to the trend of eastern gloom, places like the booming urban centres of Jena and Leipzig and those in parts of Saxony that have earned the region the name Silicon Saxony.
But Hoyerswerda is no lighthouse. Here the local community bears all the hallmarks of the economic slump. Among its problems, widespread disillusionment has created a fertile breeding ground for rightwing extremists.
In 1991, the town came to epitomise the post-reunification rise in racist violence after crowds of neo-Nazis attacked a home for asylum seekers, injuring 30 people in successive days of clashes.
Statistics show that the extreme right is a stubborn headache for many of the former communist states. Recent months have seen an increase in violent crimes committed by neo-Nazis - and, worryingly, support for far-right groups has propelled them into the political mainstream.
In September the NPD (National Democratic party of Germany) won seats in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's regional parliament after taking a surprising 7% of the vote. The party, which has praised Hitler and has an openly racist stance, is also represented in the local parliament in Hoyerswerda's state of Saxony.
Dorit Baumeister, 40, an energetic Hoyerswerda-based architect, painted a bleak picture: "Anyone who is young and active leaves. Left behind are the social problems: drug abuse, alcoholism, vandalism and aggression. There's a deep feeling of hopelessness."
Ms Baumeister knows her subject well. Among a variety of local projects, she has worked with young people to find different uses for the newly emptied parts of the town centre. She grew up in Hoyerswerda New Town, more specifically in Living Complex No 8, one of the 50s and 60s tower blocks that were erected during the boom years of the coal mining firm Black Pump - the former motor of the local economy.
In those days it had a vibrant atmosphere, said Ms Baumeister, who moved to the New Town with her parents in 1968. "These blocks were once the epitome of modern living," she said. But since 1989, some 6,000 New Town flats have been demolished and many others stand empty.
A stone's throw from the father and child mural, bulldozers shift piles of rubble that include twisted window frames and lumps of wallpapered concrete. There are new grassy patches of wasteland where family homes once stood.
On the other side of the river, the streets winding off the main square in the Old Town are freshly anointed in pastel shades, but empty. For every shop that is open there is another one boarded up or with a To Let sign. One handwritten sign reads: "To rent immediately - very cheap".
In her office, located not far from the town hall, Ms Baumeister said the closure of shops was something the city would have to get used to.
"Here politicians still talk about growth," she said. "But we need a big rethink. Our city isn't about growth but shrinking. It's about vacant buildings. It's a painful process but it is the reality, and it's here to stay."
But while demographers and politicians fret about the east's future, environmentalists point to a silver lining.
Two decades ago, dust from coal mines dyed snow settling in Hoyerswerda a dirty charcoal. Today east Germany's fresh air and low population density is attracting new inhabitants - wolves and lynxes are back.
Former eastern states are also witnessing the fledgling development of ecotourism. Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, has discovered a new sense of purpose as a green haven for city dwellers.
Hoyerswerda's town mayor, Horst- Dieter Brähmig, who has just retired, sees tourism as a big chance for his region. He describes the process of depopulation as a "growing-up phase that we can deal with" and hands over glossy brochures about a venture to create Europe 's largest artificial lake district. Water sports, cycle lanes, golf and science-fiction floating holiday apartments are all featured.
"Tourism was never our big plan but this is a great opportunity. We've already had a rise in the number of visitors to the area," said Mr Brähmig.
Back in the bar, Karl looked sceptically at the glossy tourist pamphlet. "That isn't the Hoyerswerda that we know," he said. "If I was going on holiday I'd rather go to Spain."
Do you want me to save it for you?
From your point of view, Walter, is that Guardian article accurate or a bit of an exaggeration? How serious is the neo-Nazi movement in the East these days?
Walter, do you think the Germans will swoop on this, and buy all the cheap properties? :wink:
In Germany, Men Who Burned Anne Frank's Diary Face Trial
A German man admitted Monday to publicly burning a copy of Anne Frank's diary, at the start of a trial against seven suspected right-wing extremists.
Lars Konrad said in a statement read by his attorney that he had tossed a copy of the Holocaust victim's diary onto a bonfire at a summer solstice party last June.
But he said he was not making a statement about the Nazis' mass slaughter of 6 million European Jews with his actions.
Another suspect admitted to throwing a US flag into the fire. The other five defendants did not address the court. The suspects, ranging in age from 24 to 29, stand accused of inciting racial hatred and disparaging the dead. They face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Konrad, 25, said in his statement that he had aimed to free himself "from an evil chapter of German history" but had no intention of denying the Nazis' crimes.
"He is very sorry that he was misunderstood," his attorney Thomas Jauch told the court.
But state prosecutor Arnold Murra dismissed Konrad's account, saying that the defendants intended to "glorify" the Nazis with the book-burning.
"You ridiculed Anne Frank and with her all the victims of the concentration camps," he said.
The case sparked outrage in Germany and abroad when it came to light, fuelling fears that neo-Nazi ideology is spreading through the economically depressed states of the former East Germany.
The act is reported to have taken place on June 24, 2006 during a Midsummer Night's party in Pretzien, a tiny village near Magdeburg, the capital of the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
Anne Frank's diary of life hiding from the Nazis is world famous and has sold some 75 million copies worldwide.
The young men, who are suspected to be from the far-right scene, are said to have modeled the destruction of the diary on the infamous Nazi book-burnings in Berlin. Shouting martial slogans and bearing flaming torches, the group is reported to have first tossed a US flag into a bonfire followed by the famous "Diary of Anne Frank."
The state prosecutors' office said in a statement before the trial opened that "by using clear-cut neo-Nazi and Nazi terminology," the men had not just mocked Anne Frank, who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 at the age of 15, but also all the other millions of Nazi victims.
"Nobody wants to be a witness"
The court in Magdeburg has invited eight witnesses to the trial, which is expected to draw much media attention around Germany. However media reports say the gathering of evidence and testimonies is not expected to be easy.
Though some 80 inhabitants of the 900-strong village of Pretzien are said to have witnessed the book burning last June, few are expected to come forward and talk about it.
"A huge silence hangs over the place," Andreas Holtz, the local Protestant priest told Berlin-based daily die tageszeitung. "People would rather stay silent than say something wrong. Nobody wants to be a witness."
"No coincidental act by drunken youngsters"
The paper pointed out that the case illustrates the difficulties of small towns and villages -- particularly in former East Germany where statistics show right-wing crimes are on the rise --in tackling the far-right scene and their dissemination of extremist ideology.
The paper said the seven accused were hardly marginal figures in the village; one of them apparently sings in the local male choir while two are involved in the voluntary fire department.
Men belonging to a recognized club in the village also freely sported T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Wehrmacht Pretzien," without anyone taking exception to it, the paper reported.
"We need more enlightenment," a local leader Frithjof Meussling told die tageszeitung. He pointed out that though a new group was trying to promote democratization in the village, "not much has happened. We don't have a panacea."
The head of the Berlin-based Anne Frank Center, Thomas Heppener, who will be at the trial, told the same paper that the book-burning was in no way "a coincidental act by drunken youngsters," but rather one that its roots in the organized neo-Nazi scene.
Trial raises questions about police lapses
The trial has also raised serious questions about the role of the police and how they deal with right-wing crimes.
In the case of the burning of Anne Frank's diary in Pretzien, local police apparently first deemed the crime as a mere "disturbance to peace" because they weren't familiar with the book and thus unable to grasp the intensity and political dimension of the act. They only began investigations and raids in earnest ten days after the crime.
"Unfortunately many police officers in Germany need to massively refresh their knowledge of the Nazi-era and the role played at the time by their profession," Detlef von Schwerin, head of a documentation and research group on police history at a police college in the eastern state of Brandenburg told German news agency dpa.
The state of Saxony-Anhalt where the diary of Anne Frank was burned however seems to have drawn some lessons from the crime.
According to Klaus-Peter Knobloch, spokesman of the state's interior ministry, the state has already modified police training programs in response to the crime.
"In seminars and other events, officers have since been increasingly learning about the Nazi-era, the historical context and in particular the current manifestations of the right-wing scene."
I wonder (passingly, without the present time or motivation to do any research -- I am a Yank, after all) if this isn't going on to some degree for all of the eastern states
Both. The exodus and the resurrection of inward-looking nationalist sentiment with a militant harkening back to a fictional "good old days." Where many American conservatives live, but with fewer missiles.
Exodus from what and to what?
Educated women leave east German men behind
Eastern Germany is facing a demographic crisis as huge numbers of women abandon the former communist region leaving behind an underclass of poorly educated, jobless and disillusioned men. The population imbalance in the former communist state is worse than anywhere else in Europe.
"The clever girls ... are leaving the east German working-class boys behind," said Reiner Klingholz, head of the Institute for Population. The most dramatic effect of the imbalance was the growth of a "new, male-dominated underclass," said Mr Klingholz. Its members often have little chance either of finding a job or a partner, and as a result they are typically drawn to far-right parties.