25 years later, pockets of a vibrant east and decaying west

In the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former east-German city of Dresden has flourished while Dortmund, in the West, has crumbled

DRESDEN, Germany – In the German city of Dresden, trumpet player Ludwig Guettler takes pride in the soaring spires of the Baroque Frauenkirche church, rebuilt from the ruins of World War II, and sees them as a symbol of his city’s vibrant economic and cultural life.

Some 440 kilometres away in Dortmund, Ilse-Margarete Bonke tries to save her decaying city from a drug scourge by picking up heroin needles from the streets, but finds her work impeded by kids who sneak up on her, pulling off her curly wig and spitting in her face.

The two cities have met contrasting fates since the crumbling of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago – with Dresden becoming a magnet for high-tech firms and a cultural centre, and Dortmund sinking into deep economic depression. What may be surprising about this picture is that Dresden is in the former communist east and Dortmund was once a symbol of the economic might of the capitalist west.

Overall, the west still remains more prosperous than the east: Unemployment is higher in the east, disposable incomes are lower and populations are older as the young move west for better opportunities. But the east has been catching up, and in some key cases there has been a reversal of fortunes. That is largely due to the still mandatory “solidarity fees” instituted after reunification to help raise the former East Germany’s living standards – payments that are becoming increasingly controversial as swaths of western Germany fall into decline.

In Dresden, one of former East Germany’s biggest cities with about 530,000 inhabitants, the economy is humming and universities are attracting students, who often stay on after graduation to work in Dresden’s myriad research institutions and computer chip producers. Unemployment is at 8 per cent, compared to an average of 9 per cent over all of the former East Germany; the city has been out of debt since 2006.

“Dresden is a prime example of a structural transformation done well,” Deputy Mayor Dirk Hilbert told The Associated Press.

Some 75,000 jobs, about a third of the city’s workforce, were eliminated after the communist system collapsed in 1989. But the city managed to persuade new employers like Volkswagen and international chip manufacturers to open plants in Dresden. Since reunification, some 1.5 to 2 trillion euros (1.9 to 2.5 trillion dollars) were funneled into the former communist east to turn ailing collective farms and state-run factories into competitive capitalist businesses. The lion’s share of the money came from western Germany’s citizens, towns and states.

The millions in subsidies were important to the city’s revival, Hilbert said, but they weren’t everything.

“Here in the east, we made harder cuts than they were ever willing to make in the west,” he said. Hilbert referred to privatizations of former municipal property, staff cuts of more than 1,000 city employees and reductions in public assistance benefits.

One undeniable role of the solidarity money: helping to turn Dresden into an international tourist magnet.

In the old city, the Royal Palace of Saxony’s former rulers, Dresden’s majestic city hall and the Zwinger museum complex with its famous Rococo touches were given a complete makeover thanks to western funding. Also spruced up was the Semperoper opera house, which was rebuilt during communist times after being demolished in the Allied firebombing of 1945 chronicled in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Guettler, a prominent trumpet soloist, was a leading promoter of the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche church.

“I’m grateful and happy for what we have reached in the last 25 years,” he said. “That there are problems elsewhere is logical. … But we didn’t receive any of this as a present.”

That view is not widely shared in Dortmund. Once an industrial powerhouse in Germany’s western Ruhr Valley, its unemployment rate today is 12.4 per cent, nearly double the national average. The city is millions of euros in debt. It’s such a shocking contrast to Dresden that Dortmund Mayor Ulrich Sierau told the AP that he can no longer explain to his city’s residents why they must pay the solidarity fees.

“The ‘soli’ should no longer be given according to cardinal direction,” he said, referring to the fee by its slang term. “It should go to whoever needs it most.”

When the Berlin Wall came down, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl famously promised East Germans they would soon be living in “blooming landscapes.” But Dortmund’s urban sprawl has turned into a blighted landscape, as high unemployment fuels a drug and crime epidemic.

Bonke picks heroin needles out of sandboxes on public playgrounds, so children won’t be infected with HIV or other diseases. The kids have for years affectionately dubbed her “Oma Bonke” – or Granny Bonke. But lately, Bonke has come to fear for her safety as teenage gangs pester her during her rounds.

“I’m really scared,” Bonke said, but added defiantly: “I’ll never move away from here.”

Her city in a region once famous for coal mines, steel production and breweries has lost tens of thousands of jobs since the Wall came down, although the decline began before the end of communism. Unlike Dresden, it’s still struggling to replace lost industrial jobs by attracting new employers.

“In the beginning, the subsidies for eastern Germany were much needed and indeed they managed to make their cities very pretty with all that money,” said Sierau, the Dortmund mayor. “But it is unfair that they still keep getting money transfers while many cities in the west have much bigger problems and financial worries.”

In Dortmund’s Nordstadt neighbourhood, where Bonke collects needles, the lines in front of the Kana soup kitchen have been getting longer over the years. A recent influx of poor immigrants from the Balkans – drawn by the city’s low rents – has exacerbated problems, overcrowding dilapidated buildings and further straining city resources. About 83,000 of Dortmund’s 580,000 inhabitants receive some sort of social assistance. Street prostitution, substance abuse, homelessness and crime are rampant in many parts of the city.

“A lot is being done here to help, by all kinds of initiatives, but it is upsetting that people still have to subsist in such conditions,” said Ansgar Schocke, a Catholic priest who has been taking care of the poorest of the poor for years.

Some experts say that when the current subsidy program ends in 2019, it should be revamped to include all economically weak regions of Germany – not just the east. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, this week praised western German states for their support in rebuilding the east. And she painted a glowing picture of Germany 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Today, we have the blooming landscapes that Helmut Kohl promised at the time,” Merkel said. “Therefore I believe that finally what belongs together, grows together.”

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