HOYERSWERDA, Germany — In this, the 20th year since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is preparing for a host of celebrations and commemorations leading to the November anniversary. The official story of an eastern revival was reinforced by President Obama’s recent visit to Dresden in all its reconstructed glory.
But outside big cities like Dresden, Leipzig or Berlin, in places like this former industrial mining town, the story of decline and departure has changed little in the former East Germany.
Not far beyond the few thriving urban centers, traffic is often spare on the freshly paved highways, and at night in parts of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in the northern part of the country, there is hardly a light to be seen to either side of the autobahns.
In a popular song a few years back, the performer Rainald Grebe described a feeling of solitude by singing, “I feel so empty today, I feel Brandenburg,” referring to the former East German state that surrounds Berlin.
Newspapers track the return of wolf packs to Saxony along the Polish border on the one hand, and the continued migration of the young and the educated to the greater opportunities in the west on the other.
When German government officials last week presented their annual report on the state of unification and the attempts of the former East Germany to catch up to the west, the picture they painted was overwhelmingly positive, but not exactly complete.
The government accurately reported that it had spent more than $60 billion supporting businesses and building infrastructure from 2006 to 2008 alone. And economic activity per person has risen to 71 percent of the former western sector’s from 67 percent over the course of this decade.
“Thanks to positive economic development, the east is on the best track to converge with the west,” said Wolfgang Tiefensee, the minister responsible for the development of the former East German states. “The gap is closing.”
It is closing partly because the export leaders taking the hardest hits in the economic downturn are in the west, a leveling down rather than up.
Unemployment in the former East Germany remains double what it is in the west, and in some regions the number of women between the ages of 20 and 30 has dropped by more than 30 percent.
In all, roughly 1.7 million people have left the former East Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall, around 12 percent of the population, a continuing process even in the few years before the economic crisis began to bite.
And the population decline is about to get much worse, as a result of a demographic time bomb known by the innocuous-sounding name “the kink,” which followed the end of Communism.
The birth rate collapsed in the former East Germany in those early, uncertain years so completely that the drop is comparable only to times of war, according to Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development.
“For a number of years East Germans just stopped having children,” Dr. Klingholz said.
The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported recently that although 14,000 young people would earn their high school diplomas this year in Saxony, only 7,500 would do so next year. Since 1989, about 2,000 schools have closed across the former East Germany because of a scarcity of children.
So in Hoyerswerda, once a model city of Communist East Germany with the highest birth rate in the country, the average age has increased, as it has in many small cities, to 48 today from 35 in 1989.
Emptiness is the reigning feeling when walking through the city, which has lost more than 40 percent of its residents since the fall of the wall, with the population dropping below 40,000 people from more than 70,000.
Franziska Kalkbrenner, 18, plans to work in New Zealand next year and then expects to go to college. She is not sure where, but not in Hoyerswerda, which does not have one. Like many residents, however, she does not describe herself as leaving happily, but going only because she has to.
“I’d really like to live here. I grew up here and I like the city,” she said.
Most people who leave, like Ms. Kalkbrenner, do so in search of work. According to the city government, the industrial complex at Schwarze Pumpe used to provide 13,000 jobs to Hoyerswerda residents in Communist times, but now provides just 3,500.
Employment at the nearby mines, once accounting for as many as 5,000 jobs, has fallen to 500 or fewer.
The city government is tearing down apartment buildings to try to keep up with the plunge in population. In a city that once had 21,000 apartments, 7,500 have been torn down and 2,000 more are scheduled for demolition.
On a recent visit home from where she now lives, in the western city of Karlsruhe, Judika Zirzow stood on a flat expanse of earth, ridged and rutted with bulldozer tracks.
The barren tract was once an apartment building, one of the pillars of the former East German Wohnkomplex, or housing project, not to mention the home where she grew up.
“Every time I visit my parents and I drive through Hoyerswerda, there’s every time a new house that’s torn down,” said Ms. Zirzow, 24, who works in a bank. “The face of Hoyerswerda is different.”
She said she was well aware that she enjoyed opportunities that she never would have had under Communism, having just returned from a trip to Thailand with her Australian-born boyfriend. But that does not change the feeling she gets when she goes back.
“It’s sad to think that if I have children, I could never tell them, ‘Here’s where I grew up,’ ” Ms. Zirzow said.
Her mother, Andrea Zirzow, is only 46, but has already seen a lifetime’s worth of change. “I saw as they built the apartment where the children grew up,” she said. “I was happy when we moved into the newest buildings in the city, as though we’d won the lottery.”
Now, she and her husband live in a small house in a village outside of town. Her son Felix, 22, followed his sister to Karlsruhe, where he works for Siemens.
“The people of the east have turned into nomads,” the elder Ms. Zirzow said.
New York Times