Germany's 1989 Generation Go West, Children of the Revolution
One half of Germany is dying. Prospects for a younger generation in eastern Germany are pretty grim. Even many of those who want to stay in their hometowns are being forced to drift westwards. Born in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, Sarah Stötzner, is a prime example. And she's packing her bags.
It's August, 1989 and soon Sarah Stötzner will see her first revolution -- the fall of the Berlin Wall -- at the age of just a few weeks old. But for now, her mother, like the other young mothers in the hospital where Sarah has just arrived, is threatening a different sort of revolution. There's a diaper shortage here, at the women's hospital in Hoyerswerda, Saxony, a city once considered a model of Communist industry and the proud owner of the highest birth rate in the country. But here in the maternity unit, people are starting to get angry -- and it's not just the babies who are bawling.
Sarah's mother, Romy Stötzner, holds her newborn daughter in her arms and marvels at all the young women complaining so loudly. "A year ago they wouldn't have dared," the 23-year-old mother thinks to herself. But in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) a fresh wind has begun to blow. Softly at first, but now it has begun to whip up a storm that threatens to blow the Communist regime out of power. The people of East Germany have started their "peaceful revolution" and, day by day, they are coming closer to their dream of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, democracy and German reunification.
Unbeknownst to the Communist regime of East German leader Erich Honecker, the sabre-rattling, tank-clattering military parade organized to mark the 40th anniversary of the GDR in October 1989 was actually a funeral procession, the last showy gasp of a regime heading for history's graveyard -- without too many detours.
Meanwhile, Romy Stötzner and her husband Delf are embarking on a very different and private sort of adventure. The young couple have just had their first child. Blue eyes, blonde hair and chubby cheeks -- the young parents can't get enough of Sarah. And, although a whole country is in an uproar around them, what is going on in their daughter's pushchair is the most important thing to them. The two student teachers celebrate their bundle of joy in Apartment Block 10. Their home comprises a 45-square-meter flat with a kitchenette, in a stock, standard Communist-era pre-fabricated apartment block with thick, gray concrete walls and a stairwell that the wind whistles through on stormy days.
Demolition and Closure: Everything Feels Abandoned
In the GDR people married young -- not least because it put them at the top of the waiting list for housing. Likewise, it didn't take long for most young couples to become parents. After all, everything was taken care of: daycare for the children, a job for the parents, and it was all guaranteed by the state.
And the job? In Hoyerswerda, it was most likely at the Black Pump. Up until 1989 the biggest business in town was the lignite power plant. The plant, which involved steam-electric power generation using lignite (brown coal), transformed the sleepy 1950s town, with a population of 6,000, into a Soviet-era industrial dream. In 1989, there were exactly 67,881 inhabitants. There on the green meadow, a model socialist city had risen, cast in concrete.
Fast forward 20 years to Hoyerswerda, July 2009. The sky is gray and overcast and clouds threaten rain. In fact, everything is gray including the concrete apartment blocks that, floor upon floor, rise ever higher. Sarah Stötzner, now 19 years old, stands on the edge of Apartment Block 10. For years now, she has lived with her parents in a tidy house in Schwarzkollm, a village outside of Hoyerswerda with old farmhouses, front gardens complete with flower beds and a new estate in which detached houses stand on crescent roads. Schwarzkollm is well tended to. And although it might be a little conservative for some, it was also the winner of the gold medal in the nation-wide "Top Town" competition.
Back here, in Apartment Block 10, there's little that would win medals. Still, on one of the buildings, laughing aliens decorate the walls and the colors of graffiti brighten the washed-out concrete. This is an art project she and her friends worked on, Stötzner explains, not without some pride. The idea was to draw a labyrinth on the walls, with all paths then leading back to Hoyerswerda. Unfortunately they never got to finish their project. "It's a shame. It still annoys me a bit," Stötzner notes. "Stay A While" was supposed to be the message of the painting. But as it turns out that would have been a futile wish because this particular building is about to be demolished. And possibly the one next door too. In the playground behind the buildings, it's only the wind playing on the swings now and the nearby supermarket has long since been closed. Everything feels abandoned. "Later on we lived in Apartment Block 9" Stötzner recalls. But that block has long since been demolished, too -- another memory of East Germany erased.
No Job Security: 'Freedom Comes At A Price'
To be honest, for Stötzner, East Germany is just another chapter in a history book. The communist system imploded the year she was born and her knowledge of it stems from lessons at school and parental anecdotes. "When I think of the GDR, I first think of the Stasi (the secret police)," she says. That's negative -- but somehow she still finds it difficult to label the fallen state illegitimate. "It can't have been all bad," she muses. "After all, there were social benefits. And then there was the idea that was behind it all: the idea that all people are equal."
The underside of socialism -- a depressed economy, the Iron Curtain, a surveilled society and political party bigwigs -- makes for stories for Stötzner. But some of the stories do get to her. "One time we had a school trip to the Stasi headquarters in Hohenschönhausen (in Berlin)," she recalls. "And while we were there we spoke to a former prisoner of the Stasi. That was pretty scary."
Stötzner's reality, howver, is the market economy -- and the problems it can bring. "The security that my parents had during the GDR days -- such as guaranteed employment -- we just don't know that sort of security anymore," she says. "But our lives are a lot less locked down. I guess freedom comes at a price."
Could Tourism Be The Answer?
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 also meant the end of the Black Pump and Hoyerswerda's industrial life blood. In 2008, the city only had 39,214 inhabitants and it's predicted that the population will decrease even further.
"It's hard to believe now that my parents felt so lucky to be allocated a tiny apartment," Sarah says. In Hoyerswerda today there is a glut of apartments, which is why the wrecking balls are kept busy. Between 1990 and 2008, city administration figures suggest that 7,150 apartments were torn down. This year there's another 830 to go, and by 2010 another 500 will be destroyed. Hoyerswerda just keeps on shrinking, Stötzner says.
And this hurts her. Stötzner leads the way through the small, historic downtown. Everything here has been nicely renovated. In one alley, craftsmens' cottages snuggle next to one another in colouful rows. The blonde teenager still loves her hometown, even the prefabricated Communist-era apartment blocks. And then there's the surrounding nature. "The Lusatian lakeland, the beautiful old villages, the forests -- I believe the region can really offer visitors a lot. And I'm hoping that tourism might be an answer for the city," Stötzner says.
But of course she also longs for the unknown. She was an exchange student in Norway for a year and this September she is going to do volunteer work in the Dominican Republic, as part of the World Outreach program run by the German Ministry for Development and Economic Relations. Stötzner thinks like a European, to whom the borders are open. Those stupid jokes about East Germans that still do the rounds are really just embarrassing. "And sometimes its hurtful to hear too," she admits. "I was at a seminar and someone said to me, "oh, you come from the Dark Ages." Whatever that's supposed to mean." Her parents -- open minded teachers who have just returned from three years working in Istanbul -- never dealt in east-west stereotypes.
'Young People Don't Have Much Of A Chance Here'
After her year in the Caribbean, Stötzner wants to study some more and then, if possible, return to Hoyerswerda. The last part will be the most challenging. There aren't too many jobs in Hoyerswerda these days, particularly for young graduates. In May of this year, the city had an unemployment rate of around 19.3 percent and the average age of inhabitants has risen from 35 to 48. The younger generation is worst off. "It's terrible," Stötzner says. "Hoyerswerda just gets older and older. We young people don't have much of a chance here."
In the meantime, it's been getting darker. Stötzner now leads the way across an almost-empty market place to the Ambiente, a chilled out little pub with red walls. Stötzner is here to bid adieu to her friend Susi. In two days Susi will be flying to Latvia. A little later, another friend Candy is heading for Chile and yet another, Christina, will be off to Canada. The pain of parting is sweetened by a few cocktails and some karaoke. The students sing along to Jennifer Lopez and some of the cheesy old German pop hits that were popular here even when the Berlin Wall still stood.
It's hard for these girls to give up on Hoyerswerda. Even if the bland apartment blocks make for dreary architecture, the recreational activities are forgettable and many of their friends have run into problems with an ever growing number of skinhead groups, Hoyerswerda is still their hometown. "I grew up here. I am going to miss it. This place, and these people, are the best part of this town -- and that more than makes up for the other things," Stötzner says. "And it's not all bad news," she counters. "There is development here. It's just a pity that the city doesn't get more similar opportunities."
So will the girls be drinking and singing together again anytime soon? Well, maybe at some class reunion in the distant future, in their old hometown. Because realistically their new hometowns are more than likely to be Munich or Stuttgart. Anywhere, in fact, where the unemployment figures don't climb quite as high as they do in Hoyerswerda.