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The Little Red Province


new internationalist
issue 213 - November 1990

[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] On a good day Fred loves it. But he needs to believe in what he teaches, and tries not to lie. So what is he to teach now about the post-war history of Europe? All change - and who knows where it will lead? Whatever happened to all those joyous people dancing on the Berlin Wall? Has the revolution of 1989 been lost already, or did it never really happen at all?

The Little Red Province
Curt Stauss records a tumultuous year in a small
East German industrial town engulfed by pollution.

Which way now? Young East Germans look west for wealth or turn to hatred of foreigners.
Photo: Julio Etchart

In the strangely dejected quiet of the morning of 7 October 1989 a young man came to see me. It was the official state holiday to celebrate 40 years of the German Democratic Republic. But the big processions of previous years were nowhere to be seen in our town.

The young man wanted to know whether I was responsible for the posters that appeared all over town the previous night. They were small handmade notes protesting against environmental pollution and complaining about how it endangered health - and they had thrown the security forces into a tizzy. Imagine: posters with no official permission! At last something was happening even here, deep in the provinces!

Sadly it wasn't I who had pasted them up. The posters were signed: 'The Little Green Province' - a name which captivated my imagination. Was a new movement being formed at last? Was there a change of mood, an ideological change of heart amongst the local population?

The district around Lauchhammer, an industrial area 30 miles north of Dresden, is more commonly known as 'The Little Red Province'. People passing through recognize it from afar, by the clouds of coal dust darkening the air. The smell is distinctive, too: chemicals and rotten eggs, the hydrogen sulphides produced by processing coal.

More than 30,000 people live off coal around here. But this industrial monoculture, producing secure and well-paid jobs as well as clouds of coal dust, is now on the verge of collapse.

Around 250 years ago the meadows in the northern part of this area near the Black Elster river used to have a tinge of red due to ironstone in the soil. This gave the 'The Little Red Province' its name. Metal castings were exported all over the world and an industrial proletariat developed very early.

More recently 'The Little Red Province' might have seemed like a positive reference to the ideological orientation of the area. There's hardly anyone nowadays who still remembers the true origin of the name. And since last October 'The Little Red Province' has become a pejorative term, like 'Reds'.

The first new group to appear in Lauchhammer called itself Environmental Forum. It grew out of the first demonstrations, towards the end of October 1989, and was composed of women and men who were outraged at the filth and the toxins in the air, water and soil. They'd had a gutful of official lies.

The Environmental Forum found some support amongst professionals in the water industry and in medicine, people who had known about the problems for years but kept quiet about them.

Smoke signals
Take the ferrous alloy plant. This is a factory, more than 100 years old, which produces silicone for steel production and computer chips. A thick, milky white cloud of smoke belches from this factory's chimneys day and night.

The smoke is totally harmless, claims the company director. So why have the people of Lauchhammer been complaining of headaches for years, whenever the wind carries a column of smoke over the town? It's psychological, says the director. Then why do the children in the school just 500 metres away from the plant get so aggressive every time the cloud envelops the school? Teachers find that the children become unteachable - those in the lower classes have to be fed sedatives to calm them down. But the director insists: the emissions are non-toxic!

The Environmental Forum tries to find out the results of tests on emissions from the plant. There aren't any, says the director. So how does he know the smoke is non-toxic? Some data is suddenly produced, but it is irrelevant.

Then, early in 1990, the Environmental Forum stumbles upon a secret analysis of the plant's emissions. At this point the director gives up his denials. The smoke contains levels of carcinogenic substances and heavy metals like cadmium, lead and berillium that are way in excess of permitted limits, some of which are much higher anyway than those in West Germany - lead 34 times, berillium 80 times and cadmium 166 times. The director then comes up with an interpretation which claims that the dust is so fine that when it enters the lungs it is exhaled again. The environmentalists don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Meanwhile a Round Table had been established in Lauchhammer. It is composed of women and men representing old and new political parties, movements and mass organizations. The intention is to take the town's fate in hand, until such time as democratic elections are held.

The Round Table sends for the director of the industrial combine responsible for the ferrous alloy factory. He comes, and after a heated discussion he commits himself to closing down the factory by 1992. Agreement is reached on monitoring emission levels precisely, calculating the factory's economic viability and evaluating how much people's health had been affected by the ferrous clouds.

Now the director like most people in East Germany - is so busy adapting to the transition to a market economy and to the West German Deutsch Mark that none of his undertakings has been honoured. The factory still smokes and stinks into the town, day and night.

Political shifts
Meanwhile, the national New Forum political movement - founded in September 1989 - begins to sprout offshoots in the provinces, including Lauchhammer. Word gets around fast that you can join by going to see the local protestant minister, despite intimidation from the 'Stasi' state police.

But within a very short period of time the ideological balance of power in the town shifts dramatically. A 46-year-old woman shop assistant, who was initially very active in the Forum and wanted to get involved in the politics of education, very quickly leaves the group again. The reason: New Forum is sceptical about too hasty a unification of the two German states, and about market economies. It attempts to define not only what needs changing in East Germany but also what is worth retaining.

All of this is totally incomprehensible to the woman, who wants unification as soon as possible. She supports the Christian Democrats (CDU), who until recently have been of no consequence at all in Lauchhammer. In the March 1990 elections the Christian Democrats get 50 per cent of the vote, and the local elections produce very similar results. Where is the Left? What has become of the proletarian consciousness of this working-class town in 'The Little Red Province'?

New 'businesses' are being set up almost daily. But they produce virtually nothing and create precious few jobs. Taxi companies, video shops (which didn't exist before) and used car dealers - all of a sudden the town is full of Western scrap metal. The price of second-hand Western cars has almost doubled. It is being paid by people whose money, as of 1 July, has been halved in value.

Money is a subject in itself. The queue in front of the bank hasn't budged since the beginning of June, and it's a very long queue. Western currency, which had a mystical aura for many years, has suddenly become the ordinary, everyday legal tender. The entire price structure has changed completely - some prices are now higher even than in West Germany.

The West Germans, known as 'Westies', treat the 'Easties' as if we are were illiterate idiots. They forget that we paid the higher price for the partition of Germany as a precondition for peace in Europe. They have dumped their rubbish on the cheap in the East for years. Their own chemical industry is cost-effective because it buys products at knock-down prices from places like Lauchhammer, where the incidence of cancer keeps increasing.

And a new kind of anger is growing. The Wall symbolized the physical division of Germany, but the post-Wall scene is the setting for new and equivalent social divisions. True enough, there used to be some hidden unemployment in East Germany. But the level of social welfare was so high that poverty was unthinkable.

Now, just a short time after the 'Currency, Economic and Social Union', almost 20 per cent of the workforce is unemployed or in a desperate situation as a result of the imposition of short-time working. The trend is on the increase.

What are unemployed people to do? For the moment they are still enjoying their newly-won freedom to travel - if they feel like it, that is. And they can travel down to the job centre - in vain. Some work in the West during weekdays to earn money there, providing a new pool of cheap labour for West Germany.

Many are developing a hatred of those foreigners who still have jobs in Lauchhammer. There aren't many of them, a few hundred from Vietnam and Mozambique. But that's enough, it seems, in this small town in the eastern part of Germany, unaccustomed as it is to dealing with foreigners. And wherever you turn in 'The Little Red Province', you find a growing number of people who sympathize with the radical right-wing Republican Party - especially among the young.

Change of heart?
Is this an ideological change of heart? Hardly. Amongst those who seem to be 'changing' the most rapidly are people who deserve to be called nothing short of unprincipled opportunists. They are the ex-Communist bosses and party officials who are managing to fix up jobs for each other while pushing others out of jobs they have held for years and onto the streets.

No. It's not an ideological change of heart. Left-wing attitudes were never more than skin-deep, at least in the majority of the population. This is because the revolution in East Germany after 1945 changed the structures of power and ownership - but did not go on to change the structure of social relationships.

When Erich Honecker gave his last big speech many people regretted the fact that there wasn't a hint of sadness about all the things that had gone wrong in the past 40 years, all the changes that should have happened and never did - nor, finally, any regrets about the many people who fled the country.

Now, the much-repeated phrase is: 'The past 40 years have all been for nought'. But this response is counter-productive. Of course it is not true for anyone that they lived the past 40 years in vain. And if the past is given an exclusively negative interpretation, if positive memories are forbidden, then it won't be possible to mourn either, to take leave from what has been lost.

Curt Stauss is a prominent Protestant minister and critic of the East German regime. This article was translated by Barbara Einhorn.

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New Internationalist issue 213 magazine cover This article is from the November 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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