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A new era, lost in the landslide

Early in July, people gathered in the village of Nachterstedt in eastern Germany to cut a ribbon to inaugurate the brand new town of Seeland, formed by merging Nachterstedt with other villages around Lake Concordia. Seeland: a new name for a place with hopes of a bright new future, in a region blighted by the legacy of opencast mining for low-grade brown coal (often called lignite).

Just three days later, an area the size of six football pitches slid into old mine workings on the edge of Lake Concordia, taking three Nachterstedt residents to their deaths. It was not a major news story, yet the reverberations of the landslip are being felt across eastern Germany. In the days of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and also since German unification, dozens of villages have been wiped from the map, sacrificed to mining. Lignite was a GDR staple, but modern Germany is still by far the world's largest producer of the fuel, the demand for it driven by the German government's current but wavering commitment to a non-nuclear energy policy.

Haidemühl, a village in southern Brandenburg, was a recent victim. On selling out to a Swedish energy consortium, the entire village was relocated to a new site a dozen miles away. But folk in the next village along, Proschim, are defiantly staying put.

Communities that avoid being devoured stand to reap dividends 20 or 30 years later. Many of eastern Germany's old opencast mines are eventually turned into new lakes, often with beaches and forest areas around them. So communities that endure years of noise and dust could later benefit from new amenities rich in tourism potential.

Nearby Lichterfeld is one of many such villages playing the coal-to-tourism card. Its mayor, Ditmar Gurk, persuaded the residents to buy the F60, a huge excavator that stands on the edge of the village. In its heyday, the F60 was the largest movable object on earth. Now it is a stalled giant, a potent symbol of the lignite legacy and a major tourist attraction. Daytime tours of the structure and night-time son et lumières bring visitors from Berlin and beyond.

Meanwhile, as old mining areas slowly fill with water, villages are being encouraged to imagine new futures modelled around tourism, water sports and service industries. Großräschen, in the same area, already styles itself "The Town on the Lake", anticipating a time when the waters of Lake Ilse will reach the southern fringes of the town.

A pier has been built, ready for the day, in ten years'time, when the lake is high enough for tourist boats to serve Großräschen. After years of waiting, Nachterstedt and other Seeland villages saw summer 2009 as the moment to exploit the recreational potential of their now nearly full lake. The promise of a lakeside location in a rehabilitated post-mining landscape secured the compliance of a generation that looked to the mines for work. Now, many of them are looking at the wreckage of homes, wondering if the deal was quite so good after all.

In Lichterfeld, Gurk is doing his best to reassure citizens that nothing similar could happen there. There are plans for new holiday cottages on the bluffs above the area's lake, and Gurk insists that life should proceed as normal. Meanwhile, in Haidemühl, villagers are relieved that they accepted the offer to relocate to a newly built location, well removed from any old mine workings.

Nicky Gardner is the editor of hidden europe magazine (