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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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Youth Researcher Collective in the Leuna Works Research Centre, October 1971 (Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-K1027-0014)

In our previous post on the Chemical Works at Leuna and Buna, the focus was very much on the political and economic history of those sites. But what was working life like for the nearly 50,000 East German workers who were employed at these works (28,000 at Leuna, 18,000 at Buna)? In this post, I’ll speak to someone who did just that in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the life of a blue collar worker in the “Workers and Peasants State”.

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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

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