The Former East Germany: Is It Time for Red Nostalgia?


2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany into one country. Germany was divided into two separate nations with competing economic and political ideologies. Now it’s time to reassess the results of this melding of two very different systems and the impact on the urban environment.

Emerging from the ashes as one of the world’s most powerful economies, Germany may be the quintessential example of the triumph of capitalism over communism. Yet now with Frankfurt’s powerful banking sector reeling from the global economic meltdown, reticent Marxists may well be coming out of the woods to proclaim the death of capitalism.

The sentiment for a bygone communist dream still exists for a small minority of those living in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), where the unemployment rate has hovered around 18% since reunification. After a recent trip, it seems clear economic growth has stagnated. Job opportunities remain very limited. Rather than attract people with its lower costs and new opportunities, the region continues to see a strong outflow, particularly among the young.

Yet all is not hopeless in the area comprising the former GDR. The crumbling of the wall and subsequent mass exodus of East Berliners to the west may remain the most vivid symbol of reunification, but the story remains decidedly mixed in Leipzig – the second largest city in the former GDR after Berlin.

Leipzig can be considered the birthplace of the anti-communist revolution. On October 9th, 1989, in what is known as the “Monday Demonstrations”, protests in Leipzig (pronounced lipe-tsig) came to a head. In what some feared at the time would become another Tiananmen Square nightmare, 70,000 demonstrators peacefully took to the streets chanting, “We are the people”. The Monday Demonstrations served as a turning point in the quest towards reunification. Having witnessed the courage of the citizens of Leipzig, others trapped in the GDR came out and made their voices heard. One month after the Monday Demonstrations, the Berlin Wall came down.

With just over 500,000 residents, Leipzig is the largest city in the German state of Saxony. Roughly 90 miles south of Berlin, the city lives in the shadow of the much more “sexy” and culturally apt German capital.

The city has a considerable history, even prior to the events following World War II. Leipzig residents included such notable individuals as the mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn. The playwright Goethe attended the University of Leipzig and referred to the city as ‘little Paris’ in his seminal work Faust. In 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops were dealt a strategic defeat there in what became known as ‘The Battle of Nations’. More recently, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, the Mayor of Leipzig from 1930 to 1937, is remembered as being one of the staunchest opponents of the Nazi regime.

It is difficult to imagine the breadth of this history while traversing the streets of Leipzig today. The city still certainly has its share of old and beautiful architecture, but much of this is now abandoned, with many structures adjacent to the central core covered in graffiti. In this regard, Leipzig looks like the German equivalent of a decaying American rust-belt city.

The derelict atmosphere that a new visitor may sense upon arriving in Leipzig is at least partly due to the fact that many long-time residents still live in Soviet-style communist housing blocks at the peripheral edges of the city. Known as Plattenbau, or “plate buildings”, these ubiquitous and dehumanizing structures were communism’s answer to the issue of quickly re-housing East German citizens displaced by the ravages of war. Building these massive housing structures far outside the center also had the advantage of locating workers closer to places of industry.

Taking into account Leipzig’s urban planning policies under communism, it is no wonder that neighborhoods near the city center appear neglected. Yet, stepping into the pedestrian-only heart of the city also tells a much more encouraging story. Unlike the often failed policies of many American cities to spur a “downtown renaissance”, Leipzig has had considerably more success at revitalizing its once thriving core.

This is apparent by the number of construction sites around Leipzig’s central core. The city still has the advantage of possessing a significant stock of aesthetically appealing buildings, ranging in style from Baroque to Neoclassical. Furthermore, the University of Leipzig, one of Germany’s oldest, has taken the lead in making the city center a destination by consolidating its operations there. Currently, the University is constructing a new main building off of the city’s main square, Augustusplatz (formerly known as Karl-Marx-platz during the GDR).

Public transportation is also a bright spot for Leipzig. Modern streetcars ride above ground to the outer limits of this concentrically laid out city. The efficiency of the streetcar system would turn any American public-transportation proponent green with envy. Moreover, the construction of an ambitious underground metro system is slated to be completed next year, further easing mobility for Leipzigers.

Leipzig’s location in the central-north portion of continental Europe also has its advantages. As a node for the transport of goods and people through central Europe, the city serves as a bridge between Germany and the once burgeoning but now suffering Eastern European nations. Even so, over time it would be in the city’s best interest to further capitalize on this asset.

Adding clout to Leipzig’s location as a transportation hub is the city’s central train station – one of Europe’s largest and most historically significant. Grand in scale, Leipzig’s Hauptbahnhof not only sees a great deal of rail traffic from all over Germany, the station doubles as a shopping center for those living in the city. Practically a second “downtown”, the central station boasts everything from a constantly busy grocery store to clothing boutiques, numerous cafes and even two McDonald’s franchises.

Despite its inspiring history, famous university and state-of-the-art transportation, Leipzig still faces tremendous challenges ahead. The city is not only struggling to attract newcomers but to retain a new generation of Germans born to parents who still remember what it was like to live in the GDR. Economically speaking, Leipzig stands little chance competing with other German cities in the west such as Frankfurt, Cologne or Munich where there are many more job opportunities. Aside from a plant that assembles Porsche’s struggling Cayenne line of SUVs – itself now threatened for both economic and environmental reason – industrial activity in Leipzig is limited. And with the Bohemian behemoth of Berlin not far away, Leipzig would be hard pressed to realize a full renaissance of its status as a prime destination for arts and culture.

What does this mean for the future? In a sense, Leipzig’s problem is the same problem facing the entire region that comprises the former German Democratic Republic. The issues have been hotly debated in Germany since reunification. Some in the western parts of the country regard cities in the east as a lost cause. Contributing to the contentiousness of the debate is the ‘Solidarity Tax’ instituted to aid in the reunification process. At a rate of 5.5% of annual income tax, many Germans feel their tax dollars are being squandered on frivolous projects in the former GDR – projects that will have little to no impact on those living in the west.

The renovation of the city center and the construction of the new Leipzig underground metro are examples of projects that benefit from funding from the Solidarity Tax. The key issue now is to see if the eastern cities themselves can use the generous government support and newfound infrastructure to stimulate economic activity and create jobs that will keep people from leaving for good. If this is not addressed immediately, the future of the former GDR looks bleak. The last thing Germany needs, especially in these times of global economic turmoil, is for those living in the east to become nostalgic for the days before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. Raised in the town of Los Gatos, on the edge of Silicon Valley, Adam developed a keen interest in the importance of place within the framework of a highly globalized economy. He currently lives in San Francisco where he works in the architecture profession.

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