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The Leuna Works, 1980 (Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Leuna, Leuna-Werke — 1980 — 21” / CC BY-SA 4.0).

While East German planners placed great hopes in Leuna and Buna as drivers for the GDR’s economy, developing these sites came at a considerable cost to the environment. Both facilities caused significant damage to air, soil and water in the immediate vicinity and beyond. In fact, some have argued that the catastrophic state of the East German environment was a key factor in bringing people to the protests in Leipzig, a city badly impacted by the effects of the country’s chemical industry and home to the demonstrations which ultimately helped drive the SED from power..

In this last post on Leuna and Buna, we’ll look at the environmental damage which emanated from these two sites.

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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. Read More

Earlier this year, I was able to travel to the German-Polish border region southeast of Berlin to the town of Guben. In GDR times, Guben was an important centre for textile production and known as “Wilhelm-Pieck-Stadt Guben”, an honorific paying tribute to the GDR’s first, and only, president who was born there. These days, the town is perhaps best known, if at all, as one of Germany’s “oldest” municipalities, a result of the collapse of the region’s industry and relocation of many from its younger generations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is a still considerable GDR-era imprint on the town and that’s what I went to find on this field trip.

I was recently able to sit down with Dr. Luise von Flotow, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation, to discuss They Divided The Sky her excellent English language translation of GDR author Christa Wolf’s 1963 novel Der geteilte Himmel. Our chat is now online through Radio GDR, the English-language podcast dedicated to all things East German and you can find it here: https://radiogdr.com/they-divided-the-sky-christa-wolf-episode-12/ 

Wolf’s novel is great place for those looking to get a sense of everyday life in the GDR during the “Construction Years” of the late 1950s and early 1960s and Dr. von Flotow was able to share some interesting insight into the work, its translation history and why it remains a vital piece of GDR culture.

East German city planning is a particular interest of mine because here the frictions between the utopian aspects of the socialist project and the concrete realities of daily life in the GDR are revealed in a most telling way. East German leaders were determined to create the “new socialist personality” (their version of the Homo Sovieticus) and saw in city planning another tool to facilitate this goal. At the centre of these efforts were four so-called “socialist cities”, towns planned from the ground up and, theoretically at least, built in such a way as to enable its citizens to live their lives in conformity with the values and priorities of the state’s socialist ideology. Over the past number of years, I managed to visit three of these several times (Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Halle-Neustadt), but had never made it to the fourth, Schwedt. That changed this past April when I was able to spend a day in this town in the lovely Uckermark region to the north-east of Berlin.

Public Art from GDR Era, Pt. 1

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My guide in Schwedt was Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a resident of the town since 1969 and someone who will be familiar to regular readers as the subject of several recent posts. My hope was that she would be able to give me a personal take on Schwedt’s history and I was not disappointed. Before heading out for my tour, however, I gave a close read to Dr. Philipp Springer’s Verbaute Träume: Herrschaft, Stadtentwicklung und Lebensrealität in der sozialistischen Industriestadt Schwedt (Blocked Dreams: Power, City Planning and Daily Life in the Socialist Industrial Centre of Schwedt – Ch. Links Verlag, 2006), a detailed look at the development of this “socialist city” and source of many of the facts laid out here. Read More

During my year teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, the school I worked for held the contract for retraining groups of the long-term unemployed both in Leipzig itself and in Hartha, a town about 75 kilometres to the southeast. This was not a coveted gig as instruction began at 7:30 am, a starting time that meant one had to leave the city by 6:00 am the latest. As low man on the totem pole, I was assigned the Hartha gig shortly after my arrival in January. Though I grumbled at first, my assignment to “middle Saxony” turned out to be a blessing in disguise for there I was exposed to a completely different reality than the one I was experiencing in Leipzig. In Hartha the news reports about rural eastern Germany and aspects of GDR history came to life. Whether it was the “flight of the youth”, the rise of neo-Nazi youth culture or the rocky road on the way to the new  economic order, Hartha offered perspectives that I couldn’t get in the city.

The video below is a portrait of the town that was shot by the film club at a Hartha elementary school in 1982. For scenes of town life, skip to the 1:30 mark. The film is remarkable for the candour of local residents. When asked what it is they like about their town, one answers, “About Hartha?! At the moment not much! There’s nothing to buy in the grocery store and you have to stand in long lines!.”

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In 2008 I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Marcus Funck, my friend and colleague from the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies to lead a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the former-East. The central theme of our trip was transformation and one of our aims was to expose the group to what this process had been like not only in the major cities such as Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, but in smaller centres as well. Given the way in which Eisenhüttenstadt had been connected to the old regime, we were confident that including it in the itinerary would be useful and I’m pleased to say that we were not disappointed.

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

Children are our future: Stained glass from 1950s by Walter Womacka in former daycare centre (photo: author).

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Until a few years ago, I could tell my stories about Eisenhüttenstadt and 99% of people wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Then Tom Hanks went and ruined it. After the actor’s 2011 visit, and subsequent storytelling of it on the Letterman Show, “Iron Hut City” now occupies a tiny space in the popular consciousness and even the local tourism board has gotten into the action creating an unintentionally amusing video that uses Hanks’ visit as a jumping off point to lure visitors to eastern Brandenburg, an endeavour likely to bear little fruit.

Which is not to denigrate Eisenhüttenstadt. While it may have little to attract the average tourist, those with a passion for architecture, city planning and East German history will find much to explore. Over the years, I have the opportunity to visit “Hütte” four times and In this week’s post I’ll give a bit of background on the city history and share my experiences exploring the German Democratic Republic’s first “socialist city”.

1987 photo of Eisenhüttenstadt's main street, Leninallee, which leads to the city's steel mill (photo: Peukert).

1987 photo of Eisenhüttenstadt’s main street, Leninallee, which leads to the city’s steel mill (photo: Peukert).

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"Reconstruction East": Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

“Reconstruction East”: Marcus Funck and John Paul Kleiner in Frankfurt/Oder, October 2008 (photo: author).

My 2006 visit to Hoyerswerda is one the most memorable experiences I’ve had in the former-East, so when the opportunity to return presented itself, I jumped at the chance. In my role as Coordinator of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies at Toronto’s York University, I was able to co-organize a study tour of Canadian graduate students to the “new German states” with my friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Funck in the fall of 2008. The tour itinerary looked at the impact of German unification from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and incorporated visits with a number of my previous contacts. From the beginning, it was clear to both Marcus and myself that Hoyerswerda should be included in our plans and what follows here is my diary entry documenting the beautiful sunny day our group visited Hoy in October 2008:

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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.

Sun shining through the grey: a ceramic mosaic graces the wall of a block of flats in "socialist city" Hoyerswerda (photo: author).

A ceramic sun shines through the grey from the wall of a block of flats in Hoyerswerda, East Germany’s second “socialist city” (photo: author).

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”. Read More

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