Old Comrade Coal: Lignite Mining in the GDR

In January 1989, lured by the poetry of Wim Wenders’ classic film Wings of Desire and the tragic melancholy of Berlin’s division, my younger self headed to Berlin (for two months of German instruction at the Goethe-Institut just off the West’s main drag, the Kurfürstendamm. The weather was dark, damp and grey and most mornings my classmates and I made our way to the school under a blanket of what we all took to be fog. One morning during our break, our teacher overheard us discussing how it was that landlocked Berlin had such wonderful fog. A native Berliner, teacher proceeded to inform us that those grey clouds were, in fact, smog, specifically, a by-product of the coal ovens many Berliners used to heat their flats. “Had we not noticed the acrid smell in the air?”, she wondered somewhat perplexed. “That was the stink of brown coal briquettes”, she told us,  “and a symptom of a massive environmental problem!” And so I was introduced to brown coal (otherwise known as lignite) . . .

Two chimney sweeps' bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993 (photo: B. Newson).

Two chimney sweeps’ bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993; note the bullet holes from WW II still unrepaired in the wall behind the bikes (photo: B. Newson).

As we explored the city over the following weeks, we began to notice ceramic-tiled coal oven in cafes and bars, usually in poorer districts, usually standing off in a corner of the room, emitting a lovely warmth into the room and a cloud of pollution into the air outside. When asked about the ovens, the locals would either decry the environmental cost of their use or praise the “gemütlich” (“cozy”) quality of the heat. Not surprisingly, the situation was no different on the East side of the Wall with the tenements of the old working class districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Lichtenberg and Mitte heated largely by identical brown coal ovens.

Indeed, deliveries from the coal man and sightings of distinctively-clad chimney sweeps passing on their bicycles were a common occurrence even still in 1980s Berlin – on both sides of the Wall. Perry Friedman, the Canadian folk singer who settled in the GDR, had a song on his 1987 album which picked up on several aspects, expected and otherwise, of coal delivery in “Old and New Apartment Blocks”, a song which appeared on his 1976 album Passing Through:

Zu uns um früh um Sechse                                      At six o’clock in the morning
Kommt der gute Kohlmann                                      The coal delivery man comes
Der bringt uns früh um Sechse                                At six o’clock in the morning
Drei Zentner Kohlen an                                             He brings three loads of coal
Wenn unser Vater Frühschicht hat                          When father’s gone on the early shift
Dann ist er sich erst richtig satt                                The coal man sees this as a gift
Dann ist er ganz besonders nett                              And then quite happily he lifts
Und bringt die Kohlen huckepuck                           Our coal up to our flat
In seinem ollen schwarzen Sack                             Carries it in an old, black sack
Zu Mutter in das Bett                                                   Right into mother in bed

East German author Daniela Dahn published Art and Coal (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1987), a wonderful series of portraits of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood in 1987. These pieces all reflect a time when the area was a mix of old working class Berlin and home to the GDR’s most vibrant underground culture scene. Dahn captures this mix quite wonderfully and, not surprisingly, even devotes some space to the coal men of Friedman’s song found above. In the title chapter of the book, we meet Hans Goldhammer, a third generation coal man who unsuccessfully tried to escape the embrace of the family business: “I wanted to stay three, four years, but once coal has a hold of you, it doesn’t let go. You’re marked by the black stuff for life.” Goldhammer relates the bone-breaking work of a coal man describing how one has to carry 80 kilos of briquettes on one’s back through the streets and courtyards,, up into customers’ apartments or down into their coal cellars. “It wears on your back and joints. A coal man always looks older than he is.” Interestingly, Goldhammer explains how business was declining in the area at that time, pointing to the increasing vacancy in the decaying buildings and the gradual installation of gas in the streets where renovations were taking place. The competition among the freelance coal men was fierce: “There are too many of them and so you have to beg your customers to remember you.” (Art and Coal, pg. 230.)

Since unification and the large-scale renovation of East German inner-cities that followed, the number of coal ovens still in use in the former-East has been continued to decline. As these renovations proceeded, the price differential between a renovated flat and an “Altbauwohnung” with coal heating became quite pronounced and made the latter the preferred option for low-income residents looking for affordable living space. A good friend of mine still lives in one such unrenovated, coal-heated flat in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg and he gamely hauls his coal up from the cellar in buckets and cleans out the ashes without any complaint. However, any romantic notions about coal heating which I may have held at one time have  been erased by the experience of waking up in my friend’s flat on winter mornings in temperatures chilly enough that I could see my own breath.

Brown Coal Mining in East Germany

Brown coal, or lignite, was one of the few natural resources which the GDR had in any notable quantity. This mineral was mined in large open pits and pressed into briquettes or burned in power plants (e.g. Combine “Black Pump”) to produce electricity. Most brown coal mining in the GDR took place in what is known as Mitteldeutschland, a region running across south-central eastern Germany where such practices had long been a part of the economic and social life. While brown coal was mined throughout the GDR period, the industry experienced massive growth in the mid-1970s after the oil shock sent prices of that commodity through the roof. No longer able cut a deal on Soviet oil, the GDR leadership made a decision to expand its domestic brown coal mining in a bid to ensure an affordable, secure energy supply for the country.

Given the long-standing nature of this activity, it’s not surprising that miners in this region cultivated a whole series of activities to mark their work and its role in their lives. One example of this is the practice of decorating briquettes of the sort used in apartment or house ovens with motifs that mark important occasions and I have managed to acquire a few of these from the GDR period for my collection. As one might expect, events of significance in the ruling Party calendar figured prominently here (e.g. Party conferences, anniversaries of the founding of the GDR or Soviet Union), but briquettes marking individuals’ retirement or other milestones were also memorialized in briquette-form.

Gallery of Decorative Briquettes
The Legacies of Brown Coal Mining in eastern Germany

Even before the decision was made to expand the GDR’s brown coal mining industry in the 1970s, this activity took a significant environmental toll on the region and country in general. Locally, the practice of industrial scale open pit mining laid waste to large swathes of landscape and created massive, denuded moonscapes devoid of almost all life. Towns and villages which stood in the path of a seam marked for exploitation were “relocated” at enormous financial, social and emotional cost. Indeed, I recall how in 1999, my roommate took me a few kilometers down the road from our Leipzig flat to the southern end of town where an unforgettable sight awaited. On the other side of the street to where the city ended was a gigantic open pit mine which must’ve gone 50-60 metres down. While taking in the scene, my roommate explained how, had the GDR continued to exist, the plan was to evacuate large parts of Leipzig’s southern most neighbourhood, Connewitz, so that the brown coal that lay underneath it could be accessed.

Beyond the mining region, the burning of lignite in the GDR’s often ill-equipped power plants (e.g. Combine “Black Pump”) caused large scale air and water pollution. Lacking proper filtration systems, East German power plants spewed thousands of tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the air, causing a myriad of respiratory problems for residents in the immediate vicinity of the plants and contributing to an acid rain problem which devastated many forests on the GDR-Czechoslovak border region. Indeed, concerns about the environmental degradation being wrought by GDR industrial practices, including the burning of brown coal, played a significant role in motivating the citizens’ protests which brought down the SED regime in the fall of 1989.

View over Hoyerswerda in 2008: on horizon at left the cooling towers of Vattenfall's coal-fired power plant on site of "Black Pump"; at right, the towers of a wind farm (photo: author).

View over Hoyerswerda in 2008: on horizon at left the cooling towers of Vattenfall’s coal-fired power plant on site of “Black Pump”; at middle and right, the towers of a wind farm (photo: author).

With German unification in 1990, the East German brown coal industry was hit hard. This was particularly true in those areas, such as the Lusatian district to the north of Cottbus and Dresden where brown coal-related activities had been cultivated as a sort of industrial monoculture by GDR authorities. Unable to meet German and European air quality standards, many power plants were mothballed with many miners added to the ranks of the unemployed. In areas where mining had been at the heart of economic and social life for generations, the loss of this source of employment and identity left individuals and communities struggling to survive.

In my travels in the region, the effects that the collapse of the major employing industry were impossible to ignore. Hoyerswerda, home to the Combine “Black Pump” and a good example of the sort of industrial monoculture mentioned above, was particularly hard hit. Where “Black Pump” had provided work to more than 12,600 in GDR times, the facility was largely decommissioned after 1990 throwing thousands out of work. Vattenfall, the Swedish energy giant, replaced the power plant with a new high efficiency model which required a workforce of fewer than 500 to run it. With its main employer no longer operating as in the past, Hoyerswerda has felt a dramatic impact. Residents of working age have picked up and left the town in huge numbers with the result that it has lost close to half of the 71,000 residents it had in 1989. In addition, the average age of its population has climbed dramatically and presented the town with a host of new social problems which it never dreamed of during East German times when it was the GDR city with the most children per capita and a relatively low average age.

What to do with the large number of mined out open pits left behind by brown coal excavation was one of the major challenges facing local and regional governments in Mitteldeutschland in the early 1990s. While living in Leipzig in 1999, I took the opportunity to visit one of the first sites that had attempted to grapple with this question. Ferropolis was a former open pit mine near the town of Bitterfeld, a chemical centre notorious for having been labelled Europe’s dirtiest city in the late 1980s. When the open pit mine Golpau-North was shut in the early 90s, a group of workers and some academics from the Bauhaus in neighbouring Dessau had the foresight to agitate to have some of the massive machinery preserved with an eye to creating an open air museum documenting aspects of the brown coal industry’s history in the area. When my friends Doug and Aandra came to town for a visit, I convinced them that a day trip was in order and off we set (See, I’m not the only one for whom this sort of thing constitutes a good time.). Once we arrived at the site, we found a wasteland that I compared to the badlands of Alberta in my diary of the time (though today the better analogy for me is the Alberta Oil Sands around Fort McMurray.) . The only difference being that this windswept desolation was man-made. A huge digger and gargantuan conveyor belt sat like industrial dinosaurs creating a most impressive backdrop for the visit. In what is a notable success story, the intervening years have seen Ferropolis establish itself as an event venue of some renown, one that incorporates both a museum and open air stage for concerts and festivals.

The most common way through which the challenge of the open pits was addressed was by using ground water to fill them. Indeed, if you click on the link to Ferropolis’ webpage above, you’ll see how the event site sits as a peninsula within a lake. It was the bottom of what is now that lake that made up the badlands-esque scenery onto which my friends and I looked on our visit in 1999. In the Lusatia region around Cottbus and Hoyerswerda, the plan was even bigger. Here, decision makers touted the creation of a chain of lakes which would transform the region into the Lusatian Lakeland, a tourist destination for Central Europeans looking for a holiday by the water. For politicians, this project was a way to address the environmental and economic challenges in the region, but locals were less enthusiastic about abandoning an industry that had provided employment and identity for several generations.

In the fall of 2008, I was part of a study tour of the former-East which included a visit to an International Building Exhibit at Grossräschen, the site of a former open pit mine which was in the process of being flooded to create one of the lakes that would be part of the region’s future (photos of this experience are found below). We took a guided tour of the pit with a former miner from the area and this proved an unforgettable experience. Before descending to the pit floor, we had a decidedly surreal moment when, as a cold wind whipped around us, the guide taxed the limits of our powers of imagination by pointing to a desolate spot on the lip of the crater and explained to us how this was where the marina and hotel were going to stand. We then made our way down to the bottom of the mine, navigating a path through the sandy soil that had been carved by rain. We encountered the tracks of wild boar, a sign that nature was reasserting itself in the region and listened to our guide explain how, as the years have passed and it has become clear that lignite mining was not going to return, the initial hostility of the locals to the lake project has given way to a resigned optimism: “We now see that (tourism) is our only chance.”

Five years later, the project to create this lake district is nearing completion and there are some signs that the region might indeed become, as unlikely as it may seem, a tourist destination.

The International Building Exhibit at Grossräschen

Another aspect of the environmental challenges posed by the legacies of brown coal mining was featured on the website of German newsmagazine Der Spiegel on April 10th in an article about deleterious effects of an iron sludge created by rainwater passing over the high iron-content soil left exposed in the mine pits. The runoff has made its way into the groundwater and this is slowly seeping into the Spree River tributaries killing all plant and animal life in its wake (though it is harmless to humans). The article reports that the brown ooze is threatening the ecologically sensitive Spree Forest, a tourist area south of Berlin renowned for its idyllic network of quiet canals and streams. In the hopes of averting an ecological and economic disaster, the federally-owned management company charged with addressing the legacy of the East German brown coal industry is scrambling to dredge a canal that will re-route the toxic runoff to a holding pond in which the water will be “rehabilitated” using natural filtration methods.

You’ll find the article mentioned above in English, along with some remarkable photos, here.

Lignite Mining in Germany Today

Germany has long been the world’s leading miner of lignite with production peaking in the 1980s at around 390 million metric tonnes per year. At that point, the vast majority of this activity was taken place in the East, although brown coal was mined in the Rhineland region of West Germany as well. With the decommissioning of many East German mines, however, the figures today stand at roughly 170 million tonnes per year. While this represents a dramatic decrease, brown coal still accounts for roughly 25% of Germany’s energy needs with most of this being burned in power stations. Private homes and apartments using coal ovens still exist (see photo below) but are ever fewer in number.

Coal dealer in Berlin Mitte, Fall 2008 (photo: author).

Coal dealer in Berlin Mitte, Fall 2008 (photo: author).

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