We all have days that persist in our memory, ones that remain vivid despite the passage of time. This can result from any number of factors such as meeting particularly interesting people, experiencing things different from those part of one’s regular routine or perhaps visiting a place where the physical space imprints itself on onto your senses in a deep, affecting way. If we’re lucky, all three of those factors come together at once and for me they did in May 2006 when I visited the Saxon town of Hoyerswerda for the first time.
When I first announced to my German friends that I was intended to visit Hoy, as it is known by locals, the general response was :”What do you want to go there for?” To be honest, the reaction didn’t surprise me as Hoy has become a sort of shorthand for the wave of xenophobic violence that shook parts of Germany in the early post-unification years. When economic and social upheaval gripped eastern German during the early 1990s, neo-Nazis and their allies skillfully exploited the situation to cultivate antipathy towards foreigners. Attacks on those visually identifiable as “non-German” became alarmingly commonplace in the former-East, but in 1991 in Hoyerswerda the violence took on, for the first time, the character of mob violence perpetrated over several days to the open approval of a significant portion of the local population.
The victims of these attacks were asylum seekers and so-called “guest” or “contract” workers who had been brought to work in local industry during the GDR era and had decided to try and stay on. These “outsiders” were concentrated in a handful of apartment blocks in the town, essentially segregated from the locals and essentially sitting ducks for the mob violence. Most shamefully, after several days of rioting and attacks on the foreigners’ homes, federal and state authorities capitulated to the violence and removed them from the town thereby handing a victory to neo-Nazis who subsequently celebrated their role in making Hoyerswerda “ausländerfrei” (“free of foreigners”). I certainly recalled the terrible images from the television reports: the buses of the asylum seekers and guest workers inching their way out of town to the jeers and cheers of the mob with a police escort that was unable or unwilling to even try to defend the terrified passengers huddling under blankets to protect themselves from the shards of splintering glass caused by rock attacks.
My motivation to visit Hoyerswerda, however, was not driven by any perverse kind of “catastrophe tourism”.
Rather I wanted to go to explore the town’s roots as the GDR’s second “socialist city”. Begun in the mid- to late-1950s, the town was created to house the workers of Schwarze Pumpe (Black Pump), a vast industrial combine set up to process the lignite (brown coal) mined in the region that was so critical to the GDR’s economy. I’d stumbled upon Hoy, as it’s known by locals, during my year working in Leipzig in 1999 when a student recommended Franziska Linkerhand, a largely autobiographical novel by East German author Brigitte Reimann. This gifted writer had moved to Hoyerswerda in 1960 at the age of 27 as part of the Bitterfelder Weg (BItterfeld Path), a GDR cultural policy which assigned artists to live in industrial towns so that they might better depict the realities of socialist life. An enthusiastic Party member, Reimann had been eager to relocate, but soon grew disillusioned with the realities of the life on offer in what was, ostensibly at least, a sort of socialist utopia.
Reimann channeled her critique of what she saw as the perversion of the socialist project into Franziska Linkerhand, the story of an idealistic young architect (essentially a Reimann surrogate) sent to assist in the construction of a “socialist city”. She heads to her new post full of enthusiasm and with the goal of “constructing houses that will give a sense of freedom and dignity to those who live in them” (pg. 122 (1998 Aufbau Ausgabe), only to fail dramatically when confronted with a system interested only in housing its citizens as cheaply and quickly as possible. I found in this work a wonderfully nuanced depiction of life in the East German “outback” of the 1960s and decided to try and to visit the place that inspired it when opportunity presented itself.
In 2006, I wrote the tourism office of the town of Hoyerswerda to ask whether they could assist me in identifying someone who could give me an architectural tour of Hoyerswerda Neustadt (New Town). Within several days I received a reply from a Mr. Martin Schmidt who offered his services and asked what my specific interests were. I explained that I would like to get a tour of the town that presented its architectural history. That, was not a problem, he replied Would a visit to the City Archive be of interest? But of course! Then several days later, Herr Schmidt wrote again: Did I wish to meet with the mayor (Oberbürgermeister)? Things were getting a bit absurd, but what the heck?! How many chances did one get to be received by a mayor? It was clear that Herr Schmidt was going to great lengths to prepare my itinerary, but he didn’t share it with me in advance so I was in the dark as to exactly what was on the agenda as I pulled into Hoyerswerda with my good friend Jo on May 10, 2006.
What follows here is an abridged version of my diary from that day in Hoy:
“We arrived in Hoy around 9:30 am after a 90-minute trip from Görlitz. The countryside around the town was surprisingly pleasant: flat, but green and flecked with ponds many of which had swans bobbing on them.
We made our way to our rendezvous point with our guide Herr Schmidt, the City Castle which now houses the City Museum. When we found it, we were surprised to find him standing waiting for us on its cobblestone rampart, at his side a woman who turned out to be Frau J., the Museum Director. I was a bit surprised by the formal welcome that greeted us, but it was the first of many such gestures that we were to experience that day.
Frau J. had to excuse herself from showing us the museum collection as she had another appointment (the only time anyone in Hoy successfully assessed my relative importance!) and left us in the hands of her associate. Frau R. ushered us upstairs to where she had prepared some original documents on the town’s history for us to peruse. These included the decree from the Socialist Unity Party’s Central Committee in Berlin announcing the city’s construction, Party directives as to how this was to be done along with photos of the laying of the new town’s corner stone and other events from the early years.
Frau R. explained how Hoy’s earliest residents were largely families of displaced persons from further east who settled in the Soviet zone during the mass exodus from areas previously under German control that took place at the end of World War II. Typically these people often were housed in deplorable condition in underdeveloped areas of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Thürigen, so when call went out for able-bodied workers to relocate to Hoyerswerda in the mid-1950s, many did so enthusiastically lured by both the promise of relatively well-paid industrial work at Schwarze Pumpe and apartments of their own with all the mod cons. Frau R.’s family had apparently been part of the first wave to move to Hoy and she depicted its difficult post-war living conditions in such a vivid way that the willingness to leave these behind in favour of an unknown, not-yet-realized “socialist city” was completely understandable.
Through the archive’s pictures, we got a crash course in the various stages of GDR housing construction, from traditional brick masonry construction used for a few of the buildings in the old town in the early years after the war, through to the early experiments with industrial methods (so-called Grossbaublockweise method), through to the various types of Plattenbau or prefab blocks which became the standard and resulted in the building of seemingly endless swaths of identical, drab housing developments which to this day shape many people’s image of the GDR. In all these historical photos, one is struck by how bleak the scenes are as the town was essentially devoid of trees or shrubs, as if it had been dropped onto the Canadian prairie.
GDR Building Practices Through the Years
Nobody Told Me There Was an Old Town
After an hour of the sort of historical orientation I’d been expecting, we were passed back to Herr Schmidt and he took us on a brief reconnoiter through the old town. In advance of my visit, I had been unaware that Hoy had a substantial historical core. I’d come for the GDR-era, so this side trip into the further past was not really what I’d bargained for. Regardless, Herr Schmidt was not to be deterred and we strolled through Hoy’s old town all of which seeming to have been renovated in the buttery-yellow, pale pinks and greens favoured by those not wishing to rock the boat in any way.
Highlights were the Lange Strasse, previously home to the town’s tradespeople, and then the old Gynamsium (academic high school) named after one of the town’s most famous sons, Konrad Zuse, a pioneer in the world of computing. (Who knew?) Across the square stood City Hall, nicely renovated and, conveniently, the site of our next stop, a meeting with mayor Horst-Dieter Brähmig.
An Audience with the Mayor
After I’d agreed to the somewhat surreal offer to meet with the mayor, I took the time to google Mr. Brähmig to see what I might learn. I discovered that he was a bit of an anomaly on the Saxon political landscape in that he was a two-term mayor who didn’t belong to the dominant centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Rather, he was a member of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to the former ruling party in the East (Socialist Unity Party). However, the word was that Herr Brähmig tended to play against type with a business first-approach that had more in common with CDU policy than with what many might expect from a post-Communist comrade.
Upon arrival to City Hall, we were quickly ushered into the mayor’s office where Mayor Brähmig greeted us warmly. Once we were settled, he launched into what I assume was his standard “state of Hoy” lecture with the statement: “Many people here like to complain about the difficulties we face here, but on principle, I refuse to do this.” This set the tone for a monologue that had a “can-do”, Lions Club sort of feel, optimistic but not so divorced from reality that it completely ignored the town’s problems.
And, boy, did it have problems: Since its population peaked at 71,000 in the early 80’s, Brähmig told us, Hoy had lost approximately 30,000 residents, largely due to job cuts at the Schwarze Pumpe energy combine, once home to five coal-fired power stations and briquette factories employing 20,000 locals. Today one hyper-efficient, modern plant stands on the site, but it makes do with only 300 employees, trend: downwards. Recognizing the status quo is not sustainable, the town council, the mayor told us, was one of the first communities in the new German states (the former-East) to implement of a program of “selective demolition” of sections of the new town, preferring to tear down numbers of abandoned, prefab East German-era apartment blocks as a way to arrest the spread of dilapidation and to take strain off a water and sewer infrastructure which had been built to serve a population of 100,000.
Mayor Brähmig told us that he was born and raised in Hoy and his job, as he saw it, was to bring work to a town where the unemployment rate was over 25%. Hoyerswerda was, he told us, a traditional industrial centre and the people there would welcome any new investor with open arms. The main focus of his efforts was energy production firms, an attempt to build on the region’s experience with and knowledge of this sector. He waxed poetic about the possibilities of an alternative form of solar power generation, but intimated that no less than George W. himself had intervened with a U.S. firm to “encourage” them not to export this promising technology to a competitor nation. The Americans, Brähmig claimed, would like nothing more than for Germany to completely deplete its brown coal stocks, thereby making U.S. reserves all the more valuable and giving it almost complete control of the market. Conspiracy theory stuff or plausible reality? I couldn’t decide.
But the overall tone was an optimistic one. Before coming to town, my assumption had been the mayor of Hoyerswerda would have to be either a depressive or an irrepressible optimist. Herr Brähmig clearly fell into the latter category. Without denying the reality of things, his narrative infused Hoy’s daunting situation with a note of possibility, an ability that was likely at the root of his considerable political success.
As he continued to speak, however, I kept wondering how on earth he was going to find a way to address the stain on Hoyerswerda’s reputation which had been left by the 1991 pogroms. Surely he wasn’t going to ignore them and, indeed, after about thirty minutes, he paused and then offered:
“And of course there was this unpleasant affair in 1991. Very unfortunate, but we have learned from this experience and taken steps to combat this sort of thing.
Of course, you know that at most 3% of those involved in this incident were from Hoyerswerda. Rather, these troublemakers came here from all over, Hamburg, Chemnitz, Berlin, to cause trouble. I can honestly say that after 12 years of having to address this matter in every interview I give with the national press, that it has become very predictable and more than a bit unfair.”
I nodded. This was what I had expected to hear: acknowledgements but denials. The “out-of-towners” argument is not a new one, often hauled out by locals when this sort of event takes place, but it hardly leaves the impression of a population eager to learn from the past. That said, there was more than a kernel of truth to the mayor’s position as neo-Nazis from all over Germany had descended on Hoyerswerda to stoke the unrest and violence. But the scenes I’d seen of cheering crowds celebrating the removal of the asylum seekers and guest workers suggested that there had been significant local support for the violence.
Mayor Brähmig then told the story of how a French TV crew that had requested an interview with him about the events of 1991 several years ago. While his initial instinct had been to refuse, his aides convinced him that this would leave the town without a spokesperson, so he reluctantly agreed.
“We sat here,” he began gesturing at the table we were gathered around, “and they asked me their questions and I answered them. When we finished, the reporter turned to an African gentleman who had accompanied their team and asked him if what I had said was true. I was shocked! I had assumed this man was a producer or something. But he said, ‘Mr. Mayor, I must identify myself: I am one of those people who was run out of town in 1991.’ My heart sank, but then he began to speak and he told the reporter that what I had said was true, that this was not a “Hoyerswerda problem”, but that they could have gone to any number of towns in the East and experienced that same thing. The only difference was, he said, that Hoy had tried to learn from its past and taken steps to address the problem, something you can’t say about many other places.
Now, I thought this was very fair of him and so I invited him and wife and child to spend a weekend with me and my wife at our dacha. And a real friendship has grown out of this experience. He’s been back several times for a visit, most recently a couple of months ago where he gave a talk at our church in his national costume. Now he and his wife have three children, the youngest of whom shares a birthday with my wife, naturally our favourite. Last time he was here, he and I visited the Lausitz Centre (ed. note – Hoy’s main shopping mall) and I carried the little one on my arm. One of the residents here, an older woman, ran up to me and asked, ‘Mr. Mayor, is that child one of your daughter’s or your son’s?’ ‘Neither nor!,’ I replied and pointed to my friend.”
Having established his multicultural bona fides, our time with the mayor was up. But before we could leave, Mayor Brähmig put an exclamation mark on our encounter by presenting both me and Jo with watches bearing the Hoyerswerda city crest. I guess they had run out of keys to the city.
Christian Values in the “Godless” East
Any suspicions I had the Herr Schmidt was keen to use the day to counter any preconceived notions we might have of his town were confirmed by the next stop on the itinerary. We left City Hall on foot, passing first a Gasthaus named after the Enlightenment-era author Gotthold Lessing (apparently he spent much time here visiting an uncle), then a Kindergarten upon the unused chimney of which sat a pair of storks. Then, in the idyllic setting of a bend in the Schwarzes Elster Canal, we came to the Johanneum, the town’s Christian Gymasium, or academic high school. This private school, Mr. Schmidt told us, had existed for approximately ten years and was the direct result of the 1991 pogroms. After these events, the Lutheran Church in Saxony contacted the city and suggested that the town do something that would serve as a symbol of the community’s rejection of the values of exclusion and hate which had motivated the mob violence. The Church suggested a Gymnasium, but opinion was mixed with Social Democrats and Free Liberals rejecting the plan, arguing that the values of tolerance and equality could best be transmitted in a public school.
Interestingly, however, the Communist-successor party of Mayor Brähmig, the PDS, made common cause with the Christian Democrat caucus and approved the project. The result is a gorgeous, crescent-shaped, two-story structure is the result. All its external walls are glass, allowing wonderful light and a view of its lovely, almost woodland setting. Enrollment is just over 400 and the school expects upwards of 450 students next year. They attract students from throughout the region. There is a tuition of 115 Euros a month, but this is waived for families who can show that this is a burden. We were shown around by the school’s director, Herr Kiefer, a teacher of Greek and Latin in his early forties who greeted each of the students we encountered by name. After a chat in his office, another first, when he asked me to sign the school’s new guest book. I was on a page after the Bundespräsident, Horst Köhler, who had been through the week before. His contribution was notable for its Goethe quote, mine I fear for its awkward construction and grammatical errors.
The Press?! No one said anything about the press
While we ate lunch in the school cafeteria, Herr Schmidt’s cell phone rang repeatedly and ominously. Each time he would say something to the effect that we were on our way and that patience was required. On our way to the car for the trip to the Neustadt where we were to take the Brigitte-Reimann-Walking Tour, I asked him who was calling. “Some people are waiting for us.” “Who?”, I asked suspiciously. “I have alerted the press to your presence.” I was stunned. Colleagues at the university research centre where I work had warned me of this possibility, but I had laughed it off, sure that my emails clarifying my relative unimportance would suffice to ward off any unwarranted attention. Clearly I had been wrong.
Remembering Brigitte Reimann: “Glückauf!”?
When we pulled up to the apartment block where Brigitte Reimann had lived a few minutes later, I was shocked to find no fewer that 15 people waiting for us: two print journalists and their photographers, one TV cameraman, several former architects, a current architect working on the “editing” of the cityscape now and then various members of the Kunstverein Hoyerswerda (Hoyerswerda Art Club), an organization that spearheaded efforts to preserve the memory of Reimann in Hoy.
Our sizeable group set off on the tour with Herr Schmidt giving some background on Reimann’s eight years in Hoy. He pointed out that the plaque marking her residence was only erected in the late 1980’s, some 17 or 18 years after the author’s untimely death in 1970 at the age of 40. Reimann, he explained, was not much loved by local authorities due to her critical nature and excellent ties to the SED leadership in Berlin, particularly then-Party leader Walter Ulbricht. The plaque was installed with no publicity and in the presence of only 6 people, a fate echoed in the reception to her posthumously published works in the GDR. Then a teacher of English and German at the Lessing Gymnasium read passages from both Franziska Linkerhand and Reimann’s diaries at the sites referenced as we passed them on the tour. These were wonderfully read and perfectly illustrated the inspiration behind Reimann’s texts. Particularily vivid were the passages relating to the “Glückauf!” restaurant found in a courtyard behind Reimann’s building. The depiction of the vandalism of this building that is found in the novel, accompanied by its present state of abandonment was very affecting.
As our group strolled through the oldest sections of the New Town, I spoke with the local press. What did I think of Hoy? Green and not at all what its reputation would have one to believe. Why was I there? Shrinking Cities in comparative perspective. What did I know or Reimann? I’d been introduced to her by a student in Leipzig and had found her to be an excellent window into the GDR’s Construction Era. Did I have any other hobbies? What? Could you repeat the question? Yes, what else did I do in my free time? Uh, I liked soccer. So, I was there for the World Cup! No, I replied, rather for German soccer. This went over well. Very odd interview though and I could not imagine what they would spin out of this thread, but spin they did . . .
“Amazingly Green”: kanadische Belanglosigkeiten über Hoyerswerda
Glückauf!: “Selective Deconstruction” and the Shrinking City
Thomas Gröbe rolled out his plan of the city on the grass of one of Hoyerswerda’s many verdant courtyards. Hired by the city to oversee the “selektiver Rückbau” (selective deconstruction) of the New Town, he once again ran over the figures with which we had already become familiar with in our short time there: astounding figures of population loss, unemployment and, something new, a projection that the town’s population should stabilize at around 29,000 in ten years time. Gröbe looked up from the map to add, “These are only calculations.” The inference: there is no guarantee the free fall will end there.
He then outlined his plan: the city is removing some neighbourhoods at the edges of the New Town, shrinking Hoy into an hourglass form with the narrow at the juncture where the old and the new towns meet. As he laid out the details to us, I noticed a well-turned out woman of retirement aged standing over us, listening intently. I later learned that in GDR times she had been an architect who had helped build the city. What must she be feeling to see her life’s work being erased? We should all expect our efforts, achievements to be revised and repudiated by those who follow us, but to live to see this happen so dramatically and emphatically? I suppose one of the things East Germans have been doing constantly for the past 16 years is taking leave of the familiar and the “deconstruction” is only another concrete example of this process.
It’s one thing to see such a project on paper, but what did the locals think?, I asked. What sort of resistance had they faced with this plan? Gröbe paused for a moment, then replied: “This plan is not widely known. People here are, by now, aware of the general direction of our work, but we don’t spread the details. In terms of resistance, I would think the more accurate word is resignation. At the outset, there was certainly opposition, but this has largely disappeared as people recognize that we really have no alternative.”
Herr Schmidt was not comfortable with this dark tone and as we took a short walk to the town centre, he provided a lively commentary on our surroundings. As we passed through what had been the shopping area built for the first Wohnkomplex (literally “Living Complex”, the GDR’s term for neighbourhood in a prefab district) in the New Town. Herr Schmidt pointed out the pictograms over each shop. Each of these had a graphic portraying the product or service available inside. This, he explained, was one of the ways planners had tried to deal with the fact that Hoy had been built in the region home to the Sorbs, a Slavic people and the GDR’s only ethnic minority. This small plaza, Herr Schmidt explained, had been one of the few fully-realized shopping areas in the New Town during its early years and he took pains to point out evidence of a Bauhaus influence on its lines and layout. A modest victory of design principles in a town largely devoid of these, but a victory nonetheless I suppose.
Exploring the Town Centre
We then turned onto the New Town’s main drag, the Magistrale, which led to Hoy’s main square. This remained unfinished right through to the end of the GDR despite longstanding plans to create a proper town centre here for residents. Responding to the demands of residents, East German authorities did erect the first new department store in the country here in 1969. This store, with its era-specific aluminum façade, was a member of the GDR’s Centrum chain and a popular destination for those in the region. It stood, however, largely alone on an uninviting square until the mid-1980s. Two weeks before our visit, the store’s current owners, Karstadt, had announced its imminent closure, a harsh blow to the local economy and its self-image. A new tenant, we were told, is being sought.
Across the square from the condemned department store, stood Hoy’s other architectural landmark: the Lausitz Hall. This classic East Bloc-style House of Culture had a remarkable founding story and Herr Schmidt related it to us as we crossed the square. Hoy had been promised such a facility since its inception, but the funds for its construction always got cut from the Plan. Finally, in late 70s, the local directors of industry hit upon an idea: they suggested to GDR leader Erich Honecker that, if they built a House of Culture in Hoy, the country could play host to an annual meeting of the International Union of Gas Producing Nations. A vice-president at Schwarze Pumpe sat on the executive of this body and assured Party bosses that such a deal could be arranged. Perhaps, he apparently suggested, hosting such an event might help convince the USA to issue GDR leader Erich Honecker his much desired invitation to the “New World”.
Honecker bit and construction began in the early 80s. At each phase, the East German leader would ask when the meeting was going to happen, only to be told if he would just approve a couple more facilities then they might . . . He did, but by the time the building was finished in 1984, the Reagan years were in full bloom (to quote Mr. Joe Pernice) and an invitation was out of the question. Still, residents did get the Haus der Berg- und Energiearbeiter out of the deal. Today the square has been completed by the construction of the Lausitz Centre, a surprisingly hopping mall judging by the activity we witnessed there.
At the end of the tour, Jo and I retired to the mall to enjoy an ice cream at the Italian Ice Café with Herr Schmidt and it was here I got to ask him about the press. It would have been nice, I told him, to have received some advance warning about their presence. During the walk I had seen an article he’d had placed in the regional paper, the Sächsische Zeitung, in which he had announced my imminent visit and labeled the “Vice President of the Toronto University”. As the coordinator of a research centre at another university altogether, this was more than a little embarrassing. He explained that the title error was due to a misunderstanding, something I was not initially inclined to believe, but when it was explained to me later that “Koordinator” in Germany means “Chef”, I could see how this supremely awkward mistake was made. Mr. Schmidt explained that my title was really immaterial. What was important that I was from Toronto and had an interest in Hoyerswerda. “The residents here,” he explained, “have such a low self-opinion of their hometown. The only time we are mentioned in the national press is in connection with the pogroms or in the context of an article suggesting that the town should be razed. So whenever an opportunity emerges to present the town in a positive light, to show people here that their town has a value and is of interest to others, we take it.” With this explanation, I understood why I had been instrumentalized. I only wish that I had know this agenda in advance so I could have done better by Mr. Schmidt.
Come Back? – Why Certainly!
After saying our goodbyes, Jo and I set off on our own to explore the area around the train station, one of the first sections built in the GDR period. The ensemble here was newly renovated and very cheerful, a sort of scaled down version of the “National Construction Style” of Berlin’s Stalinallee (later Karl-Marx-Allee and the Südring in central Leipzig. Then we headed out to see the Planetarium and Rosarium, products of the National Construction Program carried out in 1969 to mark the GDR’s 20th anniversary. Tellingly a now abandoned hall adjacent to the Planetarium sported signage from its brief tenure as a night club in recent years. The name of this hot spot? “Come Back.” How was this to be understood? As confidence in a bright future? Perhaps. Or was it a plaintive cry to those many young Hoyerwerderaner who have turned their backs on the place in the recent past?”
When I reflect on my experiences in Hoy on that first visit, I recall of course the remarkable narrative told by the built space of the New Town and the meetings with the mayor (a watch?!) and visits to the archive and Gymnasium. However, first and foremost I remember the generosity of both my host, Herr Schmidt, and all those people we encountered as we made our way about the town. Life in Hoy is most certainly a challenge, but what I saw there were a group of engaged residents committed to working with each other to make their town a place they could be proud of. It was a pleasure to spend time in the presence of such people as they shared their enthusiasm with me and Jo.