Loss of Pride: Post-Communism in the DDR

‘People are proud of their mining history’, she said.

‘Mining?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But lately, the mines have been closing and the economy is much worse’.

We had stepped off a single carriage rail-motor at the bustling station of Oberröblingen, in Thuringia, Germany. Apart from a couple of women, the platform was deserted. We pondered the faded lettering on the dilapidated station building – a wonderfully strong brick structure that had once been the glory of the village. Now the bricks were cracked, the window frames rotted, the guttering rusted.

But we were not to stay in Oberrblingen, for our destination was Allstedt, the next village but one. We were following the trail of Thomas Müntzer, the theologian of the revolution from the sixteenth century. He had been hereabouts, in Allstedt, and we were keen to get a feel of the place. But now our trail seemed to run cold. A bus? We meandered onto the road by the station building, vainly seeking a bus stop. How about we ask a local? The two women, whom we had seen briefly on the station, disappeared around the corner.

At a loss, we turned this way and that, seeking someone, anyone who might be able to help us. I heard a noise, a scrape of shovel in soil. Turning, I noticed a woman in dirty jeans, bent over in the corner by the station building. Tentatively, I walked over and asked in broken German, ‘Excuse me, do you know how to get to Allstedt’.

‘A bus’, she said in equally broken English, as she put down the shovel and wiped her hands. ‘Ah, that is a little difficult’.

A three year old child came out of the side door of the station building, eager to see what the excitement was about.

‘I know’. She pointed to a beaten up car, full of junk. ‘I’ll drive you’.

‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘That would be wonderful’.

‘You’ll have to wait a moment while I clear some space’, she said.

After a veritable truckload of gardening tools, boxes, children’s playthings, and intriguing objects one could only speculate concerning the use thereof, enough space had been cleared. We jammed in, tugging protesting doors closed. After endless attempts, she managed to get the machine running and we were off.

As we backfired our way through the village and out along the country road, she said, ‘I am sorry for my poor English. We learnt English at school for many years, but I have little opportunity to practice it here’.

‘It’s far, far better than my German’, I said, smiling.

She was obviously keen for the company, relishing the chance to meet and talk with some visitors.

I asked. ‘Do you own the station building?’

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But it has many problems’.

‘Was it expensive?” I said.

She smiled. ‘€5,000. Places are not expensive in East Germany’.

‘Do you mind me asking, but were you born here?’ I said.

‘No’, she said. ‘I’m from Hamburg. I came here with some friends to set up a small hotel, hoping some tourists would come. But it didn’t work, so I bought the station’.

‘Are your friends still here?’ I said.

‘They all left’, she said, ‘Looking for work elsewhere. There are no jobs here’.

‘What about you?’ I said.

‘I’m a biologist’, she said. ‘But there are too many biologists in Germany, so it is difficult to find work. I stay here because it is cheap. If I find work somewhere, I will move. But I would love to find work here, since it is so interesting from a biological point of view’.

‘Oh’, I said. ‘I thought that Germany was the economic powerhouse of Europe’.

‘For a few, perhaps’, she said. ‘But most people find it very difficult. There is not so much work, and the pay is usually quite low. Wages have been kept low for more than twenty years now’.

On the way to the next village, we passed a copper mine, its presence marked by a massive mountain of tailings.

‘People are proud of their mining history’, she said.

‘Mining?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But since the end of the DDR, the mines have been closing and the economy is much worse’.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘The official propaganda is that the reunification of Germany has been an endless good for those in the former East Germany’.

She laughed. ‘Hardly! People here are proud of their mining history. It goes a long way back, and provided the economic strength of the area. It’s part of their identity as Ossies. I never thought much about the Wessie-Ossie divide until I came here. I thought they were all keen for the reunification. But the differences are still very strong – among Wessies as well as Ossies.’

I looked out over the mines dotting the rolling hills and fields, and thought of the miners and peasants that had been keen on Thomas Müntzer’s message some 500 hundred years ago. He spoke with them in a language they understood, of oppressive lords and bosses, of hard labour and rough treatment. No wonder he was sought after in these parts, firing people up with his preaching and writing.

‘And now?’ I said.

‘They are losing their pride’, she said. ‘It was bad enough in the 1990s, when one industry after another was closed down in East Germany. At least then the mines kept working. But not now. The young people leave and there is no work. So they are depressed and losing their pride’.

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