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The lost country

Two decades after the fall of the wall in 1989, life in the German capital’s hinterland continues re

The first interchange on the long autobahn that heads south towards Bavaria from the Berliner Ring, the city's orbital answer to the M25, is signposted for Beelitz Heilstätten. The slip road leads deep into the forest until, at last, you come to a huge hospital complex. Only a small portion of it is still in use, caring for patients with neurological illnesses. It is a retreat for fractured minds, a ghetto for the traumatised, often people for whom life lost all meaning when the country they had loyally served was discredited with German unification in October 1990.

When the sanatorium first opened more than a hundred years ago, pulmonary patients from Berlin were packed off to Beelitz on the assumption that the fresh forest air would alleviate the symptoms of tuberculosis. But Beelitz was not to become a northern rival to Mediterranean Menton; in winter the region was bitterly cold, in summer it was afflicted by midges and ticks, some of which carried a particularly nasty viral encephalitis. Asparagus has replaced bacilli and bad lungs as the mainstay of the local economy; the area east of the sanatorium has found a niche with its pale white variety. But between tuberculosis and today's vegetable crop, Beelitz was home to the largest Russian military hospital outside the Soviet Union.

The Russians were not the first to appropriate the sanatorium for military medicine. During the First World War, thousands of troops wounded in the Battle of the Somme were sent to Beelitz for treatment and recuperation - among them a young Austrian soldier called Adolf Hitler. From the late 1940s until the withdrawal of the last Russian forces in 1995, Beelitz Heilstätten was a no-go area for ordinary East Germans. The Russians have gone, but the iconography of another age still embellishes the abandoned parts of the site. Red stars, hammers and sickles, fraternal slogans about service and sacrifice are now slowly being covered by ivy. Damp wallpaper peels from the crumbling walls to reveal Moscow newspapers, used as lining paper. One piece of newsprint records the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982; another shows scenes from the Soviet leader's elaborate funeral.

In a cellar at the corner of one of the abandoned sanatorium buildings, an old man with broken fingernails and dirty hands has a few blankets and a cheap bottle of schnapps. "I don't live here the whole time," he explains. "But it's a good place to escape to." He boasts that his part-time home has had many illustrious residents: "Erich and Margot Honecker lived just up there." The ousted leader of East Germany and his wife, who served for 26 years as the country's minister for education, were admitted into the seclusion of the old military hospital in 1990, and spent many months there while plotting a route out of the country.

A property development company from West Germany bought the entire hospital complex in the great post-unification sell-off. Russians out, West German investors in - a pattern repeated across East Germany. There were grand plans to develop a huge medical park at Beelitz Heilstätten, with promises of more than a thousand jobs. Although the neurological clinic was completed, the greater part of the site remains a deserted wasteland in the forest. As so often since unification, West German investors looking for quick pickings in the east found they had bitten off more than they could chew. The company that bought the complex went bankrupt, the forest began to take over the old Russian military hospital, and the locals turned to asparagus. The latest vision for the site is that it might host a huge garden festival in summer 2013. No one is wagering much money on the plan coming to fruition.

Just before flying out of Germany in March 1991, the Honeckers spent their last hours in the country closeted in the small terminal building at the Sperenberg military airfield. Today, Sperenberg is as derelict as Beelitz. For a while, the old airfield looked set to become a ­gigantic theme park called Euroworld. Proponents of the plan claimed that Euroworld would generate 36,000 jobs in rural Brandenburg, the sparsely populated state that surrounds Berlin. In the end, it created none, the scheme collapsing amid recriminations of financial mismanagement.

Out of sight, out of mind

While Berlin is the focus of the world's media this month, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, the communities around the capital that played bit-part roles in the events of late 1989 and immediately after have slipped into obscurity, the ghosts of a country that abruptly disappeared. Along with Beelitz and Sperenberg, few now remember Lobetal, the small village north-east of Berlin where the Honeckers were found lodging with a Lutheran pastor for some weeks before fleeing to Beelitz.

In these places, the local people's views on unification are often negative. Unemployment and uncertainty about the future dog the lives of many of those who, until 1990, had steady and secure jobs. Twenty years ago, this was a region full of promise. New ideas from Russia, notably demokratizatsiya and perestroika, gave authority to the quiet revolution that was developing on the streets of East Germany, as people debated possible futures for their country. Then came West Germany's conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl and his promises of "blossoming landscapes".

“Don't talk to me about blossoming landscapes," says Brigitte, whose mobile hairdressing business relies on a cohort of ageing customers living in small villages. "These are places where the factories, shops and train station were all closed soon after West Germany took over. Yes, the government has built new roads and invested in fast new rail routes. They carry sleek expresses non-stop from Berlin to western Germany. That does nothing for us in rural Brandenburg." Brigitte adds: "Our country just disappeared far too quickly. There was not even time to mourn its passing."

Lauchhammer, Trebbin, Beeskow, Luckau - one by one, they have all been bypassed by the new main roads on which BMWs and Mercedes cruise past. Driving through the countryside south of Berlin today, you see plenty of new industrial estates, with their platoons of low-slung sheds pushing out over green fields. The decaying town centres are out of sight, out of mind. Their fading façades and businesses on the brink of closure are nowhere to be seen in the glossy brochures put out by the marketing men whose job it is to sell Berlin's hinterland to potential investors.

The state planners are based in Brandenburg's capital city, Potsdam, 20 miles south-west of Berlin. They talk of logistics, biotechnology, R&D and industrial parks, and wield their red pens on maps to designate areas of forest and heathland that are to become new freight villages - a euphemism for giant container parks. But off the smooth tarmac, down rutted cobbled streets, is another kind of Germany: abandoned housing estates, boarded-up shops, and even the occasional Trabbi - the car that became an East German icon - still spluttering through the landscape of memory. East Germany was full of small communities that clustered around factories which, for four decades, gave a decent living to local inhabitants. Most of those factories were closed soon after unification in the name of efficiency.

Almost 20 years on, many communities in eastern Germany are still awaiting Kohl's nirvana. True, new names now populate the economic wilderness left by the state-owned companies of the German Democratic Republic. But the incomers - multinationals such as Oracle, eBay, DHL, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier and Daimler AG - are attracted by greenfield opportunities. They like concrete and glass offices rimmed by virgin forest. Or aluminium sheds in green meadows. In the move to Brandenburg's business corridor, many companies have pocketed fiscal incentives from a government that claims not to have the resources to attend to the dereliction of the region's towns.

Covering over the cracks

Lichterfeld is another small Brandenburg village that lies off the main road. In the days of the GDR, it had an opencast mine where lignite was quarried. Locals worked at the mine, in a nearby power station or at the glassworks. Over the past 20 years, unemployment has soared and the younger generation have forsaken their roots, moving west in search of jobs. Men who mined now gather mushrooms in the forest. The local mayor hopes that a relic of local mining history, a huge excavator abandoned at the edge of the village, might become a tourist attraction.

In a similar spirit, a few miles away at Plessa, Hans-Joachim Schubert is restoring an old power station abandoned in 1992. "We have a history of which we should be proud. It is not something to be ashamed of," he says. It is a view echoed by Carola Werner in nearby Lauchhammer. For her, the towers of the town's old coking plant are part of the roots of those who lived and worked here in the coal industry. "If you pull out your roots, life stops," she says. "These towers simply must be kept for future generations."

Berlin, too, is covering over the cracks of 1989. Some even suggest rebuilding short stretches of the wall, the German capital's principal visitor attraction, to appease the tourists who come in search of cold-war history. Visitors also flock to the DDR Museum, to catch a glimpse of what life was once like in eastern Germany. They queue at the museum to sit in a Trabbi, or watch films about everyday life in small communities in the Berlin hinterland. There are shots of the slow train pausing at a country station, returning dozens of workers home after a day shift at the factory.
The museum was the brainchild of investors from western Germany who thought there might be money to be made out of the experiences of Ossies, the Germans who had lived in the east. What the visitors don't realise, as they queue at the museum, is that, just a few miles away in rural Brandenburg, life continues relatively unchanged from 1989. The only difference is that the slow train no longer stops. It was axed a few months after East and West Germany merged.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin. She is editor of hidden europe

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood