Leuna and Buna, Pt. I: Industry and History

Whenever I think of Leuna and Buna, two of the GDR’s largest chemical production facilities, I am reminded of a pivotal scene in Mike Nichol’s iconic 1967 film “The Graduate”. In it, Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben, a recent college graduate struggling to figure out his place in the world, is taken aside at a party by Mr. McGuire, a man of his father’s generation who wishes to impart some wisdom to the young man:

“I just want to say one word to you,” the older man begins earnestly. “Just one word. Are you listening?”
“Yes sir,” responds Ben.
When Mr. McGuire is sure that he has the younger man’s attention, he finally speaks: “Plastics.”

What, you may be asking, does this have to do with two East German industrial facilities? Well, imagine Walter Ulbricht in the role of Mr. McGuire while the the East German populace is Ben. The pitch takes place not at a cocktail party in mod, 60s-era California bungalow, but rather nine years earlier at the “GDR Chemical Conference” taking place at the Leuna Works (GDR, always at the vanguard of progress! ed.). For it is here that SED leader Ulbricht articulated the Party’s vision for the GDR’s economic future which famously included the promise that “chemistry brings bread, prosperity and beauty”. This dream of better living through chemistry represented a broadening of the GDR’s economic focus to include not just Stalinist-style heavy industry (e.g. steel and machine building) but also the quickly emerging petrochemical chemical industry, a move which represented a big gamble.

Leuna Works Main Administrative Building circa 1980: “For Peace and Security in Europe – Against NATO’s Rocket Plans!” (Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Leuna, Leuna-Werke — 1980 — 21” / CC BY-SA 4.0).

Leuna and Buna: History in Brief
If you want a good illustration of the obstacles in the way of the East German leadership as it struggled to build the country’s economy, Leuna and Buna provide very good case studies indeed. Located in so-called “Chemical Triangle” in the south-central part of the GDR (the third point on this triangle was nearby Bitterfeld, a subject of an earlier post on this blog), both works were founded in the pre-World War II-era (Leuna was built in 1916, Buna 20 years later) and important cogs in Germany’s industrial complex. Leuna was a major producer of ammonia, a key element in the creation of nitric acid this a central component for both fertilizers and explosives. Buna, a sister facility to the larger Leuna, was built primarily as production facility for artificial rubber and a direct outgrowth of the Nazi government’s desire to address the country’s dependence on imported natural rubber. In addition to this important material, Buna also produced a variety of chemicals including PVC, acetic acid, trichlorethylene and acetone.

During World War II, each site played a central role in supplying the Nazi war machine and were badly damaged by Allied bombing as a consequence. Of the industrial plant which did survive the war at these facilities, at least 30% was dismantled by the Soviet Union (this is a conservative figure. I’ve seen numbers as high as 50% for the amount of infrastructure which was sent eastwards by the Soviets – ed.) and shipped eastwards as reparations payments (“Kriegsschäden, Reparationen und Demontagen”, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung website: http://www.kas.de/wf/de/71.6630/). 

Buna Facility, October 1953. GDR Press Agency Photo. Original caption: “As a sign of the deep friendship and equality which characterizes the relationship between the Soviet Union and the GDR, the Soviet government has decided to return the Buna Chemical Works in Schkopau, one of our country’s largest and most important industrial sites in our Republic, to the workers of the GDR, at no charge, effective January 1, 1954. The same holders true for all the 32 other Soviet Joint-Share Enterprises.” (photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-22015-013)

Postwar Period: From Soviet to East German Control
In the immediate post-war period the Soviet occupying powers assumed control of both Leuna and Buna (along with several hundred other important enterprises in their zone) and transformed these into so-called “Soviet Joint-Share Enterprises”. This reorganization ensured the enterprises’ continued operation and directed their production to the Soviet Union as part of German war reparation payments. This arrangement continued until the Workers Uprising in June 1953 spurred the Soviets into handing control of these facilities to the GDR government as of January 1,1954.

SED leaders were very pleased to gain control of the enterprises which had been under Soviet control, seeing in them engines for building the GDR economy and the “Workers and Peasants State”. However, East Germany’s economic planners were clear on the challenges posed by the Leuna and Buna sites. The Soviets reparation confiscations had typically taken the most useful elements of each sites’ physical plant, leaving behind the least productive facilities. To make the most of these plants, considerable investments would need to be made and these would come in the years to follow.

Leuna II in October 1960, one year into construction (Bundesarchiv Bild 183-77241-0001)

Leuna and Buna As Drivers of the Socialist Economy: The Plan
In 1959, construction began on Leuna II, a petrochemical plant which would process Soviet-oil into chemical-based products. The GDR’s calculus was that this investment would pay off in a number of ways. First, the new facilities would produce higher-end products which could be exported to Western markets for badly needed hard currency. Second, the petrochemical facilities could produce a number of chemicals and petroleum-based products which the East was importing from abroad, allowing the country to save hard currency. Finally, the new facilities would help address the dissatisfaction felt by many East German citizens in regards to the quality and quantity of consumer goods available to them by churning out a wide-range of plastic-based items for the domestic market.

This approach was predicated on cheap Soviet oil which would be delivered through a yet-to-be-built pipeline. Remarkably, this was one aspect of the GDR’s plan which was realized, largely without a hitch. In testimony to the commitment and cooperation of the Soviet Union and the GDR on this project, an oil pipeline and refinery (in the town of Schwedt on the GDR-Polish border)  was constructed and online by the mid-1960s.

But the planners’ economic and political calculus only proved correct to a point. First the positive: on the consumer side, Leuna and Buna were able to churn out masses of functional, reasonably attractive consumer goods that permitted the vast majority of East Germans to adopt a lifestyle that could reasonably be labelled “modern”. Everything from egg cups to transistor radios, hair dryers to cutlery was produced in whole or to a significant degree by using plastics, and in quantities and at prices which virtually anyone could afford. From today’s perspective, it’s hard appreciate what a triumph this was, but back in the day, plastics helped the East German economy satisfy consumers in a way that it had previously not been able to do.

Despite this notable success, however, the oil shocks of the 70s and early 80s threw a wrench into the plans. The GDR’s “friendship prices” for Soviet oil disappeared and delivered quantities fluctuated wildly. Planners responded to this by doubling down on more advanced Western production technology in order to produce even higher-end products which in turn could command even more hard currency income. These processes, however, came with higher production costs which wiped out any economic gains which had been foreseen. Exacerbating the situation were the GDR’s trade commitments to Comecon, the Soviet-led trading bloc for socialist nations. While such trade was ideologically desirable, it meant that East Germany a significant portion of economic production was earmarked for markets which could not provide the GDR much of value in return. By the mid-1980s, the decline of the GDR economy was obvious to virtually all East Germans and these negative developments played a key role in helping create a social atmosphere in which resignation and hopelessness were increasingly common attitudes.

History’s Legacy & Leuna
Indeed, Leuna and Buna are excellent examples of how the deck was stacked against GDR economic planners. Every attempt to get ahead of the curve and create the economy of the future in the country were hampered. Whether it was the inefficiencies of Comecon and commitments to the Soviet Union and even less productive socialist sibling states or continued exposure to the capitalist world market (see oil crises, ed.), each time planners tried to pivot, they ran into road blocks. Another constant hurdle was the continued dependency on outdated production facilities at both Leuna and Buna.

The extent to which history continued to cast a shadow over these sites was underlined for me in an interview I did with Mat S., a former-East German citizen who worked at both places during his compulsory service in the National People’s Army in the mid-1980s. Mat recalled:

“One of the things we often did at Leuna and Buna was to dig trenches for pipelines or cables . . . And when we were done, the engineers would come and carefully incorporate whatever we had found underground into their technical drawings. The reason was that they didn’t have any record of this, because when the Americans retreated (the region containing both chemical plants was originally liberated by the US Army in the last days of the war; these troops subsequently retreated from what was to be the Soviet zone of occupation as determined by the Allied Powers at the Yalta Conference – ed.), they took everything that was on paper with them: the company records, formulas, blueprints, site maps, everything. So, forty years later, the staff at these places were still trying to figure out these sites.” (interview with Mat S. in May 2017)

Leuna Works, November 9, 1964 (photo: Helmut Schar, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-C1105-0008-001).

Leuna as Communist Memorial and Propaganda Site
In addition to the economic importance of Leuna and Buna, control of these sites resonated deeply for many SED leaders for ideological reasons. These facilities, after all, embodied the economic transformation which was at the heart of “The Workers and Peasants State”, a move in which control, and the benefits of, these plants, were wrested from private hands and placed in public hands for the good of the masses. For the cadre of SED leaders, it was at the Leunas and Bunas of Weimar-era Germany where they had focused their efforts to raise the consciousness of the working class and bring about a socialist Germany. Now, having been given the opportunity to put their theories (or those of their Soviet “Friends”) into practice, Party leaders were unsurprisingly focused on transforming these sites into exemplary socialist industries.

Commemorative coins issued by Leuna and Buna SED Organizations (photo: Jo Zarth).

Not surprisingly, the SED saw a propaganda value to control of these sites, particular;y in the case of Leuna, a site with considerable symbolic importance for many in the SED leadership ranks. The primary reason for this was Leuna’s history as a site of workers’ conflict during the Weimar-era, most notably in March 1921 when the Communist Party and radical far-left members of the Social Democratic Party spearheaded a general strike in the region. This strike had its roots in the Moscow-controlled Communist International and its aim was to demonstrate the Communists’ power in Germany by forcing the country’s Chancellor to resign. Over ten days, workers, many of whom were armed, seized control of some towns and industrial sites – including Leuna – and engaged in violent confrontations with authorities including police, military and paramilitary. By the time authorities put down the uprising by the poorly-armed and organized workers, approximately 180 people, including 35 policemen, had been killed and the workers’ position weakened dramatically. Predictably, SED historians from the Central Committee’s Institute for Marxism-Leninism refused to see in the 1921 uprising a defeat, choosing instead to characterize the strike as a justifiable defensive maneuver by a proletariat reacting to state provocation. (Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim Zentralkomitee der SED. Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung. Vol. 3,1917 bis 1923. Berlin, 1966 pg. 323.) Underlining Leuna’s importance to the SED regime, the works’ name was changed as of January 1, 1954 to “People’s Own Leuna Works Walter Ulbricht”.

GDR-era metal etching of People’s Own Leuna Works “Walter Ulbricht” with the Memorial Site for Weimar-era Leuna workers killed in confrontation with authorities in the foreground (photo: Jo Zarth)

Further evidence of the place Leuna held in the hearts of the SED is found in the inclusion of the song “At Leuna” in a songbook of the Free German Youth from the year 1958 (Verlag Neues Leben). Translation by author:

At Leuna

At Leuna many fell, yes, the blood of workers’ flowed
And it was there at Leuna that two Red Guardists made their oath
It was there at Leuna that two Red Guardists made their oath

An oath to one another, such was the bond they had
Were one of them would fall, he’d write the other’s mum and dad
Were one of them would fall, he’d write the other’s mum and dad

Then came an enemy bullet, shot right through the one’s heart
For his parents this meant sorrow, for the police it was a lark
For his parents this meant sorrow, for the police it was a lark

And when the battle was o’er and the Red Guard returned to their homes
The one who’d lived sat down to write just as he had pledged
The one who’d lived sat down to write just as he had pledged

With shaking hands, tears rolling down, he wrote upon the page
“Your son was killed by cops, at Leuna he is laid.
Your son was killed by cops, at Leuna he is laid.”

You gentlemen, we swear to you that soon the day will come
When we’ll revenge those workers’ blood
By spilling some of yours
By spilling some of yours


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