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.
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