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12 November 2009

The lost country

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

By Nicky Gardner

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.

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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

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