Last update: 26 January, 2012.
When the German Democratic Republic opened its Western borders in 1989, its industry went into steep decline. This had multiple causes, among them the populations's appetite for Western goods, the effects of the currency conversion of June 1990, the privatization policies enacted after the GDR's accession to the Federal Republic of Germany in October of 1990, and not least the sorry financial as well as physical state of many of the factories, especially in the energy and chemical sectors, which were crumbling, inefficient, and extremely pollutant. Unemployment soon rose to well above 20%, and many people went to the West in search of work. Out of seventeen large coal mines in the Lausitz, only three survived. Ironically, seventeen was (in 2011) the number of magazines at a local supermarket checkout with the word Freizeit (leisure) in the title. I counted.
It is against this backdrop of deindustrialisation and depopulation that the reclamation work in the region must be seen. The scale of the task is daunting.
Reclamation in the Lausitz embraces industrial history as a cultural asset rather than a toxic liability. Initially, this approach was a hard sell. For instance, when the idea was first floated in the 1990s to convert a large mining machine into a tourism site, it met widespread resistance. After years of complex and arduous negotiations, the F60 conveyor bridge opened to the public in 2002 and has since become a tremendous success. More than half a million visitors have toured it already. The walk to the top is guided by former mining engineers who are eager to share their technical expertise as well as their views on labor, industrial, and political history. Visitors thus benefit twice by getting an exciting tour and, in addition, a snippet of oral GDR history free of charge.
Most visitors to the F60 appear to enjoy themselves. One exception was an elderly Swiss lady with whom I shared a lunch table. She had refused to go on the tour and was waiting for her travel companions to return. The bridge, in her estimation, was a frightful, monstrous abomination, a disgrace, a farce, and a ripoff. To my relief, she heaped similar scorn on wind turbines, the flat landscape, local food and accommodation, and travelling by bus with a group of Swiss retirees.
When it opened in 1926, the Plessa power plant was the first large-scale facility to turn lignite into electricity. It was taken off line in 1992 and now serves as an industrial museum and event location. My wife and I went there on our anniversary to watch the U.S.-England 2010 world cup soccer game. Everybody (falsely) expected England to cream the U.S. The turnout was accordingly low, which was a little disappointing, but it gave the bar and kitchen staff more time for conversation. We thus got our first private tour of the facility and were introduced to the finer points of turbine operation by the cook Ms. Werner in whose charge, it turned out, the one remaining turbine once had been.
Until 1989, the sprawling town of Lauchhammer was an important (and extremely polluted) industrial site. Most prominent among its factories was one that converted lignite into coke for steel production. The phenol-rich waste water from the process was treated biologically in a unique ensemble of brick towers. After the collapse of the industry, the plant was dismantled like most others, but the towers were allowed to survive because they reminded the German president at the time of Apulia's Castel del Monte. Thank God for the italophilia among the German elite. With money from the European Union and other sources, the towers have since been renovated and made accessible. On weekends, the former plant manager gives tours and generously explains the technology and history.
Contemporary architectural accents in a historic preservation project like the waste water towers are more familiar to European than to American eyes (no, I do not mean the pink accents). They betoken the kind of innovative spirit that is needed in approaching our industrial legacy, the assets as well as the liabilities. The problems are site-specific, and so are the solutions. But the attitudes and strategies required to envision the solutions are not. It is at this general level that lessons for other places may emerge.
Most residential heating in the GDR was done with briquettes made from compressed coal dust. The factories producing these briquettes have been mostly torn down, but two of them could be rescued and turned into industrial museums. The one featured here is the Energy Factory Knappenrode. On self-guided tours, the visitor can explore the entire production chain from mining through transportation to briquette fabrication. Several times a day, the old presses are brought back to life.