East Germany’s ghost towns: youth moves west

Despite trillions of euros spent on reunification, unemployment in Eastern Germany is twice as high as in Western part of the country, and many communities are struggling to survive.

Since Germany re-united back in 1989, about 1.7 million fled the eastern part of the country, a disproportionate number of them young people, mostly women.

Ursula Wengler came to Hoyerswerda for love, following her husband in 1956.

“It was difficult after the war here, we hardly had enough for ourselves so we never had children. I regret that,” admitted Wengler.

She remembers that Haus Rosengaerten was a maternity ward but with a shrinking and aging population, it is now a nursing home.

This is symbolic not only of the challenges facing Hoyerswerda, but also most of former East Germany.

In its heyday, from the 1950s to the late 1980s, people flocked to this technology and mining town, which was a hub of industry in communist East Germany.

Fast-forward two decades, and Hoyerswerda’s population has halved since the reunification, to just 33,000.

For the town’s young people, home might be where the heart is, but what is missing is opportunity, so they are heading west.

Resident Anne Franka explained that “One has more of a future, more chances than here. That is why most of the young people have left. Hoyerswerda is slowly becoming a city for pensioners. There are so many older people.”

Reunification has done very little to revitalize Germany’s former east. In fact, once you are outside some of the major cities such as Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin, opportunities and populations are scarce. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1.7 million people have left to head west to look for a better way of life.

Few have returned, and since many of them have been young women, the birth rate is plummeting.

Despite getting $60 billion in state aid to revitalize hard-hit areas since 2006, unemployment in the former East Germany is double that of the western part of the country.

The huge investment has not solved most problems, even before the global economic crisis. Some say authorities failed to act quickly enough to stem population decline after reunification.

Dietmar Wolf, a Hoyerswerda official, admitted that “In 1996-1997 there was certainly a decrease in the population. But it really was not talked about. It was taboo. But in 1998 they noticed whole areas were not lived in anymore and that they had to seriously acknowledge it.”

Playing catch up, the federal, state, and local governments are pouring funds into Hoyerswerda and other eastern cities in Germany, hoping to revamp them. But this appears to be more than a money problem, as towns like Hoyerswerda fight to hold on to their young people and to improve the quality of life for those like Ursula who remain.