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05/12/2011 03:34 PM

Half Empty

The Slow, Painful Demise of Rural Germany

A massive exodus is causing cities across Germany to swell while draining rural areas of people, money and life. While funds are needed elsewhere, should more be done to save dying communities? By SPIEGEL Staff

"Just stay calm," Josef Daum thinks. "Remember your heart." His wife has already cast a worried glance around the corner. Ever since his heart attack last September, Daum has had to be a little more careful. But that's easier said than done -- especially in his position as the mayor of the northern Bavarian town of Nordhalben.

Just take the figures: 85 out of the town's 820 houses are empty. The town had 3,000 inhabitants not too long ago, but now there are only 1,900. When elderly citizens have passed away, there has been no one there to replace them.

"Nobody lives there anymore either," Daum says, pointing to a mint-green single-family house. The industrial bakery moved to the east, he explains, and the area in front of the former garden furniture factory is full of dandelions. The Edeka grocery store closed its doors for good last year, and no trains have passed through the town since 1994.

And don't get Daum started on money issues. Most state contributions to municipalities depend on their population figures. But since people are moving away from Nordhalben, it has had to borrow €3.5 million ($5 million) just to make ends meet. "We're now taking out loans just to pay off our other loans." Daum says. "If we were a company, we'd be a classic case of insolvency."

To make matters worse for Daum, even his daughter has moved away now, to Munich, because that's where the jobs are.

'A Declaration of War on the Provinces'

Nordhalben is a municipality in its death throes even though it is located in the relatively wealthy state of Bavaria. Indeed, Bavaria is the most self-confident of Germany's 16 federal states, enjoying the greatest purchasing power, the highest economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate. Just recently, owing to federal rules that require richer states to give some of their proceeds to poorer ones, the Bavarian government even had to hand over €3.5 million.

But despite this prosperity, parts of Bavaria are doing very poorly. According to analysts at Switzerland's Prognos institute, Bavaria is already the state "with the greatest disparities between individual regions." While some are chic, others are "problematic." While home prices are skyrocketing in Munich, there's a mass exodus from the rural areas of northeastern Bavaria.

Politicians can do little to counteract the trend. Erwin Huber, the former head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), praises his people's "pride in their own identity." Konrad Kobler, a CSU parliamentarian in Passau, rails against the threatening "liquidation of Lower Bavaria." And the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) fears "a declaration of war on provincial areas."

The 'Special' and the Empty

Horst Seehofer, Bavaria's governor, has appointed a "Future Council" to look into the problem -- and its suggestions have been causing uproar in several areas for weeks. For example, the council has suggested expanding what it calls "potent cities" into national centers of excellence. It has called for cash injections into these "clusters" and less for outlying areas.

Indeed, the council says that "business as usual" is no longer an option. "Special regions" -- that is, those experiencing financial hardship -- should start "orienting" themselves toward alliances with other nearby regions. According to this vision, Upper Franconia should work together with Saxony, Passau with Austria, and Würzburg with Frankfurt. The "special regions" have got the message -- and, not surprisingly, they feel abandoned.

These sentiments are shared by many other regions across Germany. The decline of entire swaths of countryside -- long a phenomenon confined to eastern Germany -- has slowly but surely crept into the western part of the country. Prognos estimates that future risks outweigh opportunities in 38 of the 324 regions in western Germany -- or more than twice as many as three years ago.

Outlying areas of Hesse, Lower Saxony and Bavaria are falling further and further behind, and former industrial heartlands -- like the northern Ruhr Valley -- will have difficulty getting back on their feet. Empty houses make communities already struggling with ageing populations less attractive.

The situation is not helped by the fact that Germany's population as a whole is shrinking. In fact, in just the last eight years, the population fell by 770,000. Some studies even suggest that, 50 years from now, there could be 17 million fewer Germans and that one in seven of them could be 80 or over.

In the past, immigrants made up for declining birth rates among Germans. But the influx has dwindled to a trickle. Indeed, since 2008, more people have been leaving the country than moving in.

Draining the Countryside of Money

These developments are dealing a death blow to structurally weak regions. Granted, young people have always been attracted to big cities, but now the country is witnessing a genuine cultural shift. The citizens of the information society are being sucked into cities more strongly than ever -- and, with them, many of the companies that fight bitter battles to attract the brightest minds. Well-educated young people want to have an opera house nearby, a first-division soccer club, theaters, fashion boutiques, sushi and top chefs. That leaves, at best, only vacation homes in the countryside.

Under these circumstances, cities can rejoice about higher tax revenues, but rural areas have to watch their finances dry up. Even the ever-swelling numbers of elderly can't turn the tide. Active retirees may cherish their walks in the countryside, but more and more of them would still like to have pharmacies, doctors and stores within reach. And only small towns can survive on pensioners alone.

The effects of this process of re-urbanization can also be seen in income-distribution figures. Three-quarters of the regions gaining more than 1 percent of the population can be found in major cities. As they expand, so do their wealthy suburbs. In Starnberg, for example, just outside Munich, disposable income is now 157 percent of the national average. By contrast, that of Uecker-Randow, a rural district in the far northeastern corner of the country, has dropped to only 73 percent of the national average.

Fewer People in Fewer Places

In the 20th century, mining, steel, shipbuilding and the traditional manufacturing industries made up the backbone of Germany's economy. Their decline marked the beginning of the end -- and primarily in rural areas. First a factory shuts down, then local stores close for good, then the first houses are abandoned, and then young people move away. Sooner or later, the only people left are seniors.

Indeed, politicians in western Germany are now having to deal with a tough question that their eastern counterparts have been facing for decades: whether to pump money into hopeless regions or to leave them to their own fate. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development has concluded that, for "financial and environmental reasons," there is no sense in maintaining the infrastructure of sparsely populated regions. It even suggests that there should be a targeted encouragement of rural exodus in certain regions "because, in the future, fewer people will live in fewer places." According to this scenario, small, isolated villages without links to transport arteries would eventually be abandoned.

Consequences of the Rural Exodus

Rambach, in northern Hesse, would probably be one of these places. The village is close to what was once the no-man's land separating East and West Germany. As can be seen from the old wooden sign near its entrance, the village even won Germany's "Let's Make Our Village More Beautiful" competition in 1995. Rambach proved that success was possible so close to the former border. When the barbed wire fences and automatic firing devices disappeared, the locals spruced up the half-timbered houses along the former border, put up street lamps and built a community center. Almost overnight, it found itself at the heart of Germany and at the geographic center of Europe. It felt like the focal point of the entire world.

Rambach belongs to the municipality of Weissenborn. While on a tour with Mayor Friedhelm Kerl in his car, he points to his left and his right, saying: "That house is empty, and so is that one. That one back there is empty, as is that one." Kerl makes a sharp left and slams on the squeaky brakes before adding: "And this road will soon have nobody living on it at all."

Kerl is in his mid-50s. In 1993, in a moment of exuberance, he built a new house on a green meadow. "I wouldn't get much for it today," he grumbles. Sixteen years after being crowned Germany's prettiest village, only one thing needs sprucing up in Weissenborn: its finances.

As a nod to the lack of funds, Kerl works as the last unpaid mayor in all of Hesse. The papers on his desk contain dire statistics: There are 404 residential units in Weissenborn. One in ten of them are unoccupied. The number of inhabitants has shrunk by 15 percent over the last 15 years, and now it stands at just 1,215.

In the coming years, this depopulation looks set to snowball. In what Kerl calls a "scary" prediction, the state's auditing office estimates that, by 2050, the number of potential taxpayers of working age in Weissenborn will decrease by more than 50 percent.

Kerl is already having to deal with unforeseen consequences of the rural exodus. For example, the local wastewater pipes could block up completely because not enough people are running their taps, and the sewage plant has broken down repeatedly because the bacteria don't have enough to feed on. What's more, although the elementary school is still open, its teachers are having to merge grades just to fill their classrooms.

Ironically, the fear now spreading through rural areas of western Germany is primarily the result of years of official denial. Steffen Kröhnert, from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, says that politicians in western Germany refused to take the problem seriously for far too long. For decades, they ignored dire warnings about demographic change. Nobody noticed it at first because many former East Germans settled in places like Weissenborn after the fall of the Wall. On balance, almost 2 million people moved from the East to the West, but the trend is declining.

But now the politicians have finally realized the gravity of the situation. By next year, the German government wants to draw up a "demographic strategy," a sort of emergency program to tackle the issue of declining populations. The Interior Ministry has until the fall to present a plan for tempering this rural exodus.

'More Village for Fewer People'

In some regions of Germany, experts can already tell from a handful of gravel what the future holds for individual villages. Otmar Weber is one of these experts. He's been a civil servant in the small southwestern state of Saarland for the past 30 years, and his business card gives his title as "Head of the Rural Areas Agency."

Standing in front of a house, Weber points to some gravel in the yard. "The people who live here are probably over 60 and won't be able to look after their garden for much longer," he says. He explains that the owners have already scattered gravel because it looks tidy while being very easy to maintain. The prevalence of gravel in a village is a good indicator of the average age of its inhabitants -- and a harbinger of its incipient decline.

Weber, 56, now delivers lectures on rural decline around the country. He has even developed a special vocabulary to make this death by a thousand cuts sound less daunting. He speaks of "creative demolition" and the somewhat grandiose slogan "More village for fewer people."

The Gravel Factor

These days, there is a lot of demand for someone with Weber's expertise. For years, more and more gravel has been turning up in front gardens across the Saarland. For example, in the village of Neuweiler, near Sulzbach, an increase in gravel has been accompanied by the disappearance of a number of other things. "We used to have a shoe shop, a grocery store and two gas stations," says Michael Kleinz. "The elementary school was closed down many years ago. Over there, we even had a carpet store."

Kleinz chairs a residents' association that has asked Weber to inspect their town. It is cold on the day of the inspection. The drizzle slowly soaks through their jackets as Weber and Kleinz stand with upturned lapels on an overgrown bowling green that hasn't seen a bowling ball in years. The abandoned former fairground now serves as a car park.

Kleinz mumbles into the cold about how there used to be a lot of major festivals in Neuweiler. Now there's not much to celebrate anymore. "What do you think your village is missing?" Weber asks. Kleinz shrugs his shoulders and answers: "We're just getting old."

Making the Inevitable Less Painful

Similar situations can be found all across rural Germany. Since there aren't enough local jobs, people are forced to commute. Since they buy their groceries on the way home from work, the village stores are eventually forced to close. When clubs and associations start to dissolve, solidarity disappears. Then people move away, and a vicious cycle -- with an inevitable end -- is set in motion.

Weber knows that Neuweiler is a classic case. By 2030, the population of Saarland is predicted to shrink by 130,000, to just 890,000, which is faster than any other German state. Even Weber can't work miracles. All he can do is apply for a €3000 grant from the state's economics ministry. The only condition for the funds is that the villagers provide ideas and the manpower to put this "emergency relief" to good use. For example, they can set up a café for seniors, a village store, a rose garden or a new park -- as long as the benches have comfortable backrests for elderly walkers. In reality, the funds probably only make an unavoidable death less painful.

Unequal Treatment and Celebrating Destruction

In an ironic twist, after being among those complaining about all the subsidies being pumped into hopeless regions of eastern Germany, Bavaria is now seeing its own rural areas experience a similar fate. Indeed, according to the predictions of Governor Seehofer's Future Council, Bavaria "will eventually become Munich." The council, headed by former McKinsey & Company executive Herbert Henzler, estimates that 23 percent of Bavaria's GDP will be generated in the state capital alone. The council also believes that these metropolitan regions should be given targeted support.

Meanwhile, the lights are going out in the countryside. Berlin-based demographer Kröhnert predicts that "expensive sewage pipelines are financially untenable in communities of 20 pensioners." He also believes that, for too long, politicians have being giving people the unreasonable impression that identical standards can be maintained in every part of the country.

In the Saarland town of Illingen, near the French border, people are already celebrating the demise of their towns. "Whenever we pull down an eyesore, we turn it into an event," says Mayor Armin König. Indeed, each time a building is razed, the town throws a party -- complete with free beer -- and all the neighbors lend a hand.

König said he got his wake-up call when a student counted the empty houses in the town as part of her thesis. After she found almost 100, König decided to "stop glossing over the ugly truth." Since then, his office has drawn up maps dotted with red and purple stickers. Red dots denote houses with inhabitants older than 70; purple squares indicate empty houses. Likewise, the town now emphasizes tearing things down instead of building new things.

König figures that, by 2030, his town of 20,000 will have 4,000 -- or 20 percent -- fewer inhabitants. He now employs a person just to manage Illingen's unoccupied real estate. She negotiates with owners and settles the necessary legal matters so that the bulldozers can start knocking down the walls. Sixteen buildings have already been leveled.

A Time for Realistic Alternatives

This hands-on approach to the problem is also backed by experts who take a broader view of the situation. Former McKinsey executive Henzler was harshly criticized by all political parties and most regional authorities for the suggestions that his Future Council put forward. Such criticism even prompted Governor Seehofer to roll back some of his plans, and he now even claims he wants to have equitable living conditions for all Bavarians written into the state's constitution.

But Henzler won't be deterred. In fact, he has warned about the dangers of "letting things drag on." Since people are already "voting with their feet," he thinks that the time has come for the state to really focus on the most important issues.

While some believe such attitudes are needlessly tough, others consider them realistic. Karl-Heinz Petzinka likes this sort of tough, rigorous approach. The architect works out of an office in part of an inactive coal mine in the western city of Gelsenkirchen. He wears a monogrammed shirt and philosophizes about the future of the northern Ruhr Valley area.

This former mining region is full of cities that Prognos has described as "at risk." Indeed, to a large extent, the northern part of Germany's biggest conurbation survives off government handouts. In the 1950s, coal mining was a booming industry and, in 1957, there were about 140 active coal mines in the Ruhr Valley.

The 1960s brought competition in the form of cheaper coal out of China, Eastern Europe and the United States, as well as natural gas and oil. But instead of trying to create jobs in the service industry, the region opted to live off coal subsidies. Now, 30 years later, more than half a million industrial jobs have disappeared in the region.

Hidden Opportunities

Petzinka is a lecturer in architecture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art and the CEO of two residential construction firms in the Ruhr Valley. He is adamant that "no more subsidies should flow to where there is very little."

Petzinka doesn't like talking about high unemployment, the industries that have moved away or decaying neighborhoods. Instead, he prefers to talk about opportunities. He primarily sees the economically sidelined northern edge of the Ruhr Valley as a valuable residential area, a kind of leisure park all but unperturbed by the distraction of work.

Petzinka already views the area, which was once the birthplace of Germany's economic miracle, as a "paradise for affordable living in a natural setting," with lakes for sailing and replanted woodlands for marathon training just round the corner. A similar project is being tried out in the Lausitz, a region straddling the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, which has many lakes and open spaces -- but very few inhabitants.

Other areas have gone out looking to attract foreigners. For example, in mid-February, representatives from the towns of Einbeck, Uslar and Dassel, in Lower Saxony, went to the International Emigration Fair in the Dutch city of Utrecht. There, they presented their municipalities as attractive retirement destinations, stressing the low real-estate prices, the proximity to low mountain ranges and the area's relative immunity to the effects of climate change. They advertised themselves with the slogan: "Unlike Holland, we're not going to sink." And it's apparently convinced at least one couple to move there.

What's more, if they can't attract enough people, they can simply expand artificially. In Lower Saxony, for example, local communities are being merged into "combined communities," which are then being bundled into "unified communities." An assessor has even been hired to look into the potential advantages of a massive merger of the rural districts of Göttingen, Osterode, Holzminden and Northeim. This might not stop rural exodus, but at least it cuts down on administrative costs.

Resisting Change

While all of these troubled areas of the former West Germany are still hoping for big political solutions, official are reverting to tried-and-tested tactics from the good old days. For example, the mayor of the northern Bavarian town of Kronach recently sent an urgent appeal to Governor Seehofer. In response to the proposals of the Future Council, he demanded precisely what the council had rejected: financial aid, subsidized commercial zones and new infrastructure.

The mayor complained that it seemed like "all the demands of the region's politicians are falling on deaf ears." And he added that he was shocked about how he and his colleagues were being treated. After all, he said, in contrast to the claims by the Future Council, the Kronach region was extremely keen to "avoid having to eventually join the state of Saxony," which lies just to the northeast.

Politicians in Dresden, the capital of Saxony, must undoubtedly have breathed a sigh of relief at the news.

Written by Matthias Bartsch, Andrea Brandt, Simone Kaiser, Maximilian Popp, Antje Windmann and Steffen Winter. Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt.

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