Berlin resorts to 'Ostalgia' to stem exodus from east

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The Independent Online

Nifty fridge magnets recalling the splendour of cities such as Dresden and Magdeburg and jars of gherkins pickled east of the Elbe are the German government's latest attempt to stem an exodus of young people from the country's poor and increasingly de-populated east.

The project is the brainchild of Wolfgang Tiefensee, Berlin's minister for rebuilding the east, who will order the distribution of "homeland packets" next week to hundreds of young east Germans who have either left home for the west or are planning to do so.

The packets, containing gift samples of east German food products, free subscriptions to provincial eastern newspapers, drink coupons for eastern bars and fridge magnets, are an attempt to "arouse positive memories of the homeland" among departing east Germans and ultimately to lure them back.

The pilot project's launch comes amid dire warnings from demographic institutes which this week revealed that Germany's birth rate had sunk to its lowest level since the Second World War and was now bottom of the European league table with only 8.5 births per 1,000 inhabitants in 2005. Equally alarming were the institutes' predictions that eastern regionscould turn into wasteland because of an unstoppable haemorrhage of young people.

Official statistics show that since reunification in 1990, more than 1.5 million east Germans have left their homes and moved west in search of jobs. With unemployment in the region at around 20 per cent, the problem is worsening. "The negative demographic trend in Germany is accelerating and becoming even more dramatic," warned Hans Fleisch, the head of the Berlin-based Institute for Demographic Development.

"The number of people living in a particular place is not only dependent on the birth rate," said Rainer Klingholz, one of the authors of the demographic study. "The reason for the gaping emptiness in many regions is the fact that young people are emigrating en masse. Worst hit are the structurally weak areas in eastern Germany - we can expect whole towns and villages to become depopulated in the long term."

Any visitor to eastern Germany can witness the effects of the region's depopulation at first hand. In response to the problem, the German government is carrying out a euphemistically named "City redevelopment programme east" which aims to demolish more than a million uninhabited homes over the next four years.

Eastern towns like Eisenhüttenstadt, on the border with Poland, are typical cases. The town, which in 1990 had a population of 50,000, has lost 20,000 people over the past 15 years. Its suburbs echo to the sound of pneumatic drills and bulldozers busy demolishing vacant high-rise homes built during the Communist era.

Villages in the east German countryside have suffered on a different scale, with schools, post offices and pubs closing and doctors moving away. The population drain has already prompted comparisons with Italy's Mezzogiorno - the name given to the poor south of the country. Hans Werner Sinn, a Munich economist, has suggested that Germany adopt the term "Ossogiorno" to describe the phenomenon.

Christine Dienel, the specialist on depopulation who is organising the government's "homeland package" programme, said yesterday: "We are fed up with these eternal warnings from demographic institutes. We need to go a step further and develop concrete policies to address the problem."

However, her project seems destined to be viewed sceptically by specialists on the region's economic problems. "When it comes to rebuilding the east, there is nothing but collective helplessness in Germany's main parties," said Joachim Ragnitz, of the Institute of Economic Research in the east German city of Halle.