Europe's Revolution: Living Complex 10: a monument to the failures of reunification

Its name is prosaic, but this housing estate was the pride of a town that flourished under Communist rule. Hoyerswerda, says Tony Paterson, is a very different place now

Twenty years ago, the prosaically named Living Complex 10 was the pride and joy of the East German mining town of Hoyerswerda. Now Wolfgang Kietschke is one of the last people still living there, huddled away in his small ground-floor flat with just a small dog for company.

The view from his kitchen offers a foretaste of the fate that awaits his home. Through the window, the 63-year-old can see an identical grey, six-storey concrete block, built in the summer of 1989, just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

All the windows of the block opposite have been smashed, the apartments gutted. A few nylon net curtains, left behind in haste, billow aimlessly in the wind, the only sign that until recently the block was inhabited. "There used to be life around here; there was a real community" Mr Kietschke explained. "But now the whole area is being put under the sledge-hammer. Our block is the next to go. We've been ordered to move out early next year, but we've no idea where we are going to be re-housed."

The school in Living Complex 10 closed down two years ago. The Exchange, the district's entertainment club, closed a year before. Block after block in the district stands empty, gutted, graffiti-smeared and awaiting the wrecker's ball.

Mr Kietschke and many of his elderly neighbours eke out an existence on pensions or social security. Mostly they only leave the building to visit the Penny-Markt discount supermarket a couple of streets away. They spend the rest of the day watching television. "They used to call this a model district," Mr Kietschke said with a sigh.

In what was then East Germany, Hoyerswerda was considered an exemplary socialist city. Much of it was purpose-built to accommodate the 72,000 people who worked excavating lignite – the soft, brown coal used to heat homes – from the vast open-cast mines that mark the surrounding countryside like gaping wounds. The city was considered so vital to East Germany's industrial needs that the ratio of Stasi spies to inhabitant was upped from the national norm of one informant per 20 residents to one per six. Hoyerswerda also laid claim to being East Germany's youngest city, with an average age of 27.

But the lignite-mining industry and the gas-processing plants linked to it collapsed in the wake of Germany's reunification in 1990. Today, Hoyerswerda has come to symbolise everything that has gone wrong in the process of bringing the two Germanys back together. It is dying on its feet.

Such a reputation is bad enough, but in 1991 the town's image was further blackened by race riots instigated by groups of neo-Nazi skinheads who attacked Vietnamese and Mozambican immigrant workers with petrol bombs. Some residents looked on and applauded, and the immigrants had to be re-located for their own safety

Since then, the population of Hoyerswerda, which lies 160 miles south-east of Berlin, has nearly halved. More than 150,000 jobs were lost after reunification and thousands of young people have left for the more prosperous west. Unemployment, at 23.5 per cent, is more than twice the national average, and the population is ageing rapidly.

To save on maintenance costs, local authorities have begun an extensive home demolition programme. About 6,500 of Hoyerswerda's Communist-era apartments have been razed over the past decade, and another 3,500 are set to follow.

Andrea Schmidt used to run a dance bar in Living Complex 10. Nowadays she is in charge of a huge flea market there. It is stuffed full of the detritus of a city under demolition: rows of discarded armchairs, sofas, television sets, tables and crate-loads of plastic flowers that used to adorn the balconies of the workers' flats in the complex. A handful of elderly shoppers combs the market for pots and pans on offer for €2 (£2) a piece.

Ms Schmidt remembers moving to Hoyerswerda as a child in the 1970s. "Back then it was considered pure luxury to move in here. All the flats had central heating and hot water. That was something unthinkable where we lived before," she said.

The plattenbau – the prefabricated concrete slabs that were mass-produced and enthusiastically used in the construction of new homes in Communist East Germany – actually originated in Hoyerswerda. Ms Schmidt served an apprenticeship as a builder and was taught how to twist the steel rods that reinforced the concrete slabs.

Does she regret reunification? "I like the idea of being able to travel where I want," she says, "but I haven't had a holiday since 1989. I have always had to work. Now that I run this flea market, I sometimes miss the old East Germany. At least then you knew that you were going to get some time off, even if you could only travel to places like Bulgaria."

Hoyerswerda's early 19th-century old town has been carefully renovated since the fall of the Berlin Wall and many of the house facades now gleam in bright, new colours. The city also boasts a number of fashionable boutiques.

But around 11am on a weekday, the old centre is eerily empty and it is possible to count the number of people on the streets on one hand.

Twenty years on, east Germany is proud of its boom towns like Leipzig, Dresden, and even east Berlin, which have been restored almost to their pre-Second World War glory. But there are also many towns and villages like Hoyerswerda, and well over 250,000 homes have been unceremoniously demolished in the former Communist east. Helmut Kohl, Germany's "Unification Chancellor" promised in 1990 that east Germany would soon be a "blossoming landscape". In reality, much of the region has suffered a human haemorrhage.

Nearly 2 million east Germans have emigrated to the west over the past 20 years. Yet the exodus is set to continue. Despite massive injections of taxpayers' money, some observers maintain that east Germany is fast becoming a Teutonic Mezzogiorno – the term for the low-income south of Italy.

Ironically, it is Hoyerwerda's former open-cast mines that may promise a brighter future.

At least a score of them are dotted around the surrounding wooded countryside; all are being turned into large, interconnected and potentially beautiful lakes by a process of gradual natural flooding. The local tourist board is hopeful that with patience, and a lot of rainfall, a thriving tourist industry will develop.

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt

Life and Style

The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Ceiling and Flooring - £26,000 OTE

£26000 per annum + pension + career progression: h2 Recruit Ltd: An excellent ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - Credit Reports - £100,000 OTE

£50000 - £100000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager -Business Intelligence Software- £100,000 OTE

£50000 - £100000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game