East German municipalities: the long way from upheaval to new beginnings

East German municipalities: the long way from upheaval to new beginnings
East German municipalities: the long way from upheaval to new beginnings

Status: 10/6/2021 2:56 p.m.

East German municipalities have been struggling with emigration, upheavals and tight coffers for 30 years. For some, however, the turnaround towards growth and new beginnings has succeeded so well that their concepts arouse interest nationwide.

It has everything a provincial town needs to attract city dwellers: lots of potential, good connections and cheap rents. The railway line between Berlin and Hamburg is currently being renovated, but the ICE is expected to stop in Wittenberge again from December. The small town in Brandenburg is considered the new Berlin – only in small and rural areas.

Empty factory buildings have been converted into airy co-working spaces. There is an atmosphere of change. “Corona really got to the heart of mobile working and life in the country,” says Mayor Oliver Herrmann. A forecast more than ten years ago sounded extremely bleak. The former GDR industrial site was described as a “dying city” in a study by the sociologist Heinz Bude. After the reunification, Wittenberge shrank from almost 30,000 to around 17,000 inhabitants.

From the dying city to little Berlin

In a current study by the Berlin Institute, however, Wittenberge suddenly stands out as a prime example. Representatives of small towns from Bavaria, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein are visiting the town on the Elbe these days to learn from Wittenberg’s miraculous development. “We are experiencing another influx, and what potential we have experienced here, we can pass on,” says building authority director Martin Hahn on the sidelines of the “Small Town Academy” workshop.

The small town of Stendal in Saxony-Anhalt also defied the dark predictions of future desertification: “After we closed and demolished schools for many years, we are now building new ones. That means the demographics that were predicted 15 years ago are correct does not match today’s reality “, Stendal’s Lord Mayor Klaus Schmotz is quoted in the study by the Berlin Institute with the optimistic title” Of upheavals and new beginnings “.

East German municipalities are missing a whole generation

Not all of the mayors of the twelve East German municipalities interviewed for the study report on new beginnings. On the contrary: most of them complain about a precarious financial situation. East German municipalities often have lower trade tax revenues than West German ones and are more dependent on state allocations from municipal financial equalization, according to the researchers. The tight budget situation limits the right anchored in the Basic Law to local self-government.

The emigration of young people is clearly felt. “It is the group of those who at that time had the only option to start a career – generally for a start in life – to move to Lower Saxony, Canada or anywhere else”, says Frank Schütz from the community of Golzow in Brandenburg: “We miss this generation. She won’t come back either. “

Benefit from the big city fatigue

The new zest for the big city dwellers is the great hope not only of the East German municipalities. City hall bosses open the doors of vacant buildings for temporary residents, as in the “Your year in Loitz” project in the small town in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, following the Wittenberg model.

At the “Summer of Pioneers” in 2019, almost 30 young people came to Wittenberge to live and work. Half of them now live permanently in Wittenberge and develop the city with their ideas, reports Mayor Hermann. A development that seemed unthinkable twenty years ago: “Back then, parents said if you wanted something, then leave town.”

Resilience as a success factor

You have to be open to new things and try out new things, says Wittenberg’s Mayor Hermann, and sounds almost like the founder of a start-up. “If ten projects become one really good, then that is a lot.” And the right attitude is an important key: “One would paraphrase that today with the word resilience. The resilience and also the will of the city’s decision-makers not to give up and to develop the city despite difficult framework conditions.”

The eleven other mayors in this study seem to feel the same way. “In many places, the experience gained has not only led to the courage to change, but also to great serenity and pragmatism,” summarizes Susanne Dähner from the Berlin Institute, “but the challenges experienced alone do not automatically make a community crisis-proof.”

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