“The town is like a GDR Disneyland,” jokes Kathrin Henck, taking a breath from her breakneck speed German.
She’s the manager of the tourist office in Eisenhüttenstadt, a town with the selling point of being the “first socialist city” in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). “People can come here and see how we lived before the wall,” she explains. “Visually at least.”
On the town’s modest high street - which Henck refers to, with a touch of irony, as their “First Avenue” - the past has been preserved and packaged. There are no theme park crowds; the wide boulevard of this former east German town is remarkably quiet. But it is immaculate, kitsch and nostalgic.
The goods on sale have changed - “Hollywood style nails” and döner kebabs - but the shop signs haven’t. A large chunk of the town is a protected heritage site. However after receiving an extensive facelift it perhaps looks more like the past than the reality ever did. The facades are actually all new in the central housing complexes, Kathrin explains. “It’s like the past,” she says. “But more beautiful”.
History made brand new
When Eisenhüttenstadt, originally named Stalinstadt (literally “Stalin City”), was founded in the early 1950s it was a model city. On unused land between three towns beside the Oder river, the town sprang from the drawing board into being. It was to be a workers town; the steel works at its centre the thumping heart. While rubble from the war still lay across the country, it was a vision of a brave socialist future - shiny, modern and new.
The steel works still quietly hum over the town, and walking the ordered streets here still makes you feel like a moving dot on an urban planner's page. Much, of course, has changed - a fact the existence of a tourist office itself attests to. The raison d’etre of the planned town has been pulled from under its feet. Behind the renovated walls not so many people are home anymore: the population of 53,000 in 1988 almost halved to under 30,000 after the wall fell. The steel works which employed 11,000 at the beginning of the 90s now has a staff of 2,700. Political, social and economic shifts in the town have made it not only a relic but a porthole to understanding deeper currents in Germany today.
Kathrin admits, when she began the job 20 years ago, she was sceptical tourists would visit at all. The town, which lies over 100km southeast of Berlin, butts up against the Polish border, teetering so far over the edge of the country that “Welcome to Poland” mobile messages pop up. Aside from a fluke visit from Tom Hanks in 2011, international tourists are rare. The vast majority of visitors are German and often students interested in the architecture, says Henck. Some locals have a harder time looking this history in the eye, but outsiders come for the past: “They come for what makes the city unique.”
Celebrations of the anniversary of the founding of the GDR in Eisenhüttenstadt in 1961. Photo: Bundesarchiv
There is a palpable, and often understandable, hesitancy towards journalists here. Fear of being made into a crude case study to explain the correlation between the old east and the new, emboldens the far-right, perhaps. As Hartmut Preuss, director at the town museum puts it: “Reporters come from the big cities, spend a few hours, go back home and write the story they were always going to write anyway.”
Eisenhüttenstadt, like many other towns in east Germany, is today encased in a new narrative, simple and rigid: the wall fell, industry crumbled, and the young left. Then the refugees came and the neo-Nazis won. In last year’s general election the most popular party in Eisenhüttenstadt with 23.7% of the vote were the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), who rode on an anti-refugee, anti-Islam platform. At the train station, the “Refugees Welcome” graffiti has been sprayed over, as if to provide immediate fodder for confirmation bias.
As one of the original citizens of the town, Detlef Kirchhoff, remembers when Eisenhüttenstadt was synonymous with the promise of progress. He moved with his parents at the age of 11 in 1952 after their family home was bombed in Berlin. “It was not long after the war - we still had ration cards,” he remembers. “Suddenly there was this city with no rubble, where people could earn a decent wage and get a modern house with running water.”
Eisenhüttenstadt’s location was geographically strategic - the canal allowing smooth export - and its purpose one of economic necessity - the majority of heavy industry lay in the west. Yet, as early videos, news reports and photos illustrate, it also served a potent ideological purpose. “It was both proof and promise of the future of East German socialism,” says Andreas Ludwig, professor at Potsdam University.
“After the trauma of war people were ready to believe in something,” says Kirchhoff, who is now 76 years old. The new Eisenhüttenstadters came from across the GDR: Kirchhoff remembers the different accents you could hear on the streets. Although a sense of belonging - of home - could not be manufactured overnight, citizens were bound by a measure of purpose. Historian Andreas likens the atmosphere at this time to “pioneers” in the American West. The city became relatively privileged. “You didn’t have to wait so long for a house,” says Kirchhoff. “And you had access to better food and products.”
Today, outside the pristine creamscape of the centre, the paint starts to chip. Renovated facades are replaced by boarded up pubs, and windowless grocery stores. The steel works had been, as the current mayor Frank Balzer put it, the “lighthouse” of the town. Town and industry had a symbiotic relationship: they grew together, and when the industry started to wither, the city too shrank. Houses on the city’s outskirts were demolished. Many apartments still stand empty: pensioners nimbly ride bicycles down the quiet boulevards.
An old empty grocery store. Photo: Holly Young
Yet in the last few years, some new neighbours have arrived.
For Alexander Klotovski, 2015 was a pivotal year for Eisenhüttenstadt and for him personally.
“In 2015 the first ICE (high speed train) I had ever seen come to Eisenhüttenstadt turned up, with hundreds of refugees,” he remembers. “At that point the response in the country was very disorganized. It wasn’t so bad in Eisenhüttenstadt, as it was in, say, Berlin, but we did have people sleeping in tents.”
29-year-old Alexander is no Eisenhüttenstadt caricature: a young man in an ageing ex-socialist town, he grew up to train as a real estate agent. “As a teenager most people wanted to get out,” says Alexander. “But I like being near family, and most of my close friends are still here.”
In 2015 Alexander changed direction. He started to work with the Red Cross at the refugee shelter in town, where he had volunteered the year before. Back then there were around 80 volunteers which, he argues, is not bad for a small town.
Since then, something in the town has turned. “It is not like everyone in the town is racist - I don’t want to give that impression,” says Alexander, who is the deputy chairman of the town’s left-wing Die Linke party. “But the mood towards refugees has changed.”
It is not the town’s first experience with refugees: in fact a shelter has been there since the early 90s, where it hosted many fleeing from Yugoslavia. But Mayor Balzer admits refugee politics have been a political focal point since 2015, largely due to receiving large numbers without enough support or structure for integration.
Photo: Holly Young
The detention centre, which had received criticism from activists, is currently closed, and Alexander estimates there are now only 500 or so living in the refugee shelter. Most of the refugees Alexander works with have their eyes set on somewhere else. Some he knows have settled - but very few.
“When I see someone I think is a refugee in town, I try to smile or help them with directions when they need it,” he says. “So they don’t think everyone is unfriendly.”
Alexander has faced local backlash for his anti-fascist views. After receiving a leaflet through his door from the far-right group Der Dritte Weg, he decided along with a Syrian friend to tear it up and post a picture of it on social media swearing with his middle finger. This, he said, led to a verbal confrontation with the group’s leader.
Support and hostility in the community
Not far from the town refugee shelter, two of its residents are lost. Wandering the empty streets, they are relieved to get directions to the church they are looking for. There is a baby soon on the way, the men explain, and they are looking for advice.
The building they are searching for is a brown brick box, recognizable as a church only from a few visible crosses. The atheist model city had no church drawn into its urban plan: inside the building black and white pictures of priests and cramped congregations in trailer wagons hang on the wall. Inside the modern building, charity organization Caritas also has an office and the place has become a touch point for refugee support in the community.
There are engaged locals in Eisenhüttenstadt. The two men leave happy. Yet it seems unlikely the child will grow up to be a local. “No one in the shelter wanted to stay in the town,” says Anas Albasha, recalling his stay at the centre in 2014. The 26 year old from Syria is now studying at Berlin’s Technical University, but has continued to make trips back to the city after 2014 while his asylum application was being processed. “There was absolutely no chance to work, and we weren’t accepted by locals.”
“The problem in Eisenhüttenstadt was that the whole city had only a small number of citizens, and the shelter had about 500 - 700 (residents),” says Anas.“This is a big number in comparison to the city. You always had the feeling of sticking out when you went to the shops or into the supermarket.”
With the exception of migrant workers from countries such as Vietnam and Mozambique, Mayor Balzer explains that “internationalism in the GDR was preached, but in reality the country was cut off from the outside.” According to figures from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, today the percentage with a migration background in Brandenburg - the state Eisenhüttenstadt belongs to - sits at 6.5%, while the national average is 22.5%.
Anas says he experienced only angry words and the occasional middle finger, but stories of violence floated around the camp. “The locals didn’t trust us for a second,” says Omar, 17, from Syria, who spent time there in 2016 and is now living closer to Berlin. “One time we needed someone to help us get to the hospital but nobody would.”
Geographies of populism
Photo: Holly Young
Populism does not look the same in every town. Alexander contrasts Eisenhüttenstadt to nearby Brandenburg town Cottbus, which has seen a recent increase in violence between refugees and locals, culminating in the city temporarily banning new arrivals. In Eisenhüttenstadt, he says, the far right presence is more perplexing: support is there, but it is quiet. There’s no clear organization: “It’s like people don’t want to say it out loud.”
The geography of populism in Germany is stark. Maps from last year’s election show clear AfD support in areas belonging to the old east and only pockets of support in the West. The catalyst is less clear. The AfD’s anti-refugee, anti- Muslim rhetoric clearly struck a chord at a particular moment. Yet Andreas Ludwig from Potsdam University argues that their platform had particular traction in areas that see themselves as deprived, or have suffered significant de-industrialization, like those in the east. Eisenhüttenstadt on the edge of the country seems almost to physically echo a community economically on the outside looking in.
“Eisenhuttenstadt is one of those lost places in the east,” says Andreas, “although the economic situation is comparatively good as long as the steel mill is running. But it’s an empty place as almost half of the population left town and perspectives for the future aren’t developed. There is no college or university, no new industries, no bridge to cross the river to Poland - no pretty plans whatsoever.”
Christoph Bernhardt, professor of history at Humboldt-University of Berlin, warns against generalizations: there are places in the east such as Leipzig and Jena that are booming, and places doing much worse economically than Eisenhüttenstadt. “That said, it is possible to see the town as typical of those towns that suffered unemployment in the industrial sector, didn’t prosper, and lost many young people.”
The future of the town
As the newly appointed mayor in a town where both the AfD and the centre-right CDU received a bigger vote share in last year’s elections than his own party, Social Democrat Frank Balzer doesn’t have an easy job.
Yet his appeal is not so surprising. He worked at the steel works before getting into politics, and jobs and the economy are his top priorities. He wants to halt the population drain by securing old jobs and creating new ones: increasing training opportunities, developing tourism and expanding internet connection were all points on his manifesto. His vision, he says, is to create a new “zeitgeist”: to get people communicating and understanding each other again. And yes, he says, people voted AfD here: “But almost 80% didn’t.”
At the tourist office on the high street, they work to sell what is unique about the town. Yet perhaps what makes it so interesting today is what makes it unexceptional. “In East Germany capitalism destroyed more than real-existing socialism did,” argues Ludwig. “West German politicians promised better times that didn’t come - both economically and socially.” He draws parallels to de-industrialized areas of Britain and the Brexit vote - a parallel that can no doubt be stretched to what is happening in many pockets of developed countries today.
Photo: Holly Young
Long-time resident Kirchhoff has seen the impact of both socialism and capitalism in Eisenhüttenstadt. Indeed the ebbs and flows of the last century of Germany’s history are inked in his personal biography: a father who fought at Stalingrad, a childhood spent in a city named after Stalin and a career with the CDU after the wall fell. He’s content with the life he made here: “I have everything I need.”
Yet he laments that the city is ageing with him. “Before there were many more play parks,” he says. “Eisenhüttenstadt was full of young families. We used to have paddling pools in the middle of the estates: most of them have been filled in now.”
It’s easy to see the story of Eisenhüttenstadt as the classic rise and fall of a town: from the socialist parades to the right-wing protests, a place gone full circle in ideology and yet lacking any direction, and ultimately in terminal decline.
But this would be too neat. The steel work is more “compact” as the mayor puts it, and privatized, but it is not yet a rusty memorial to past grandeur. It is still the biggest employer in town. Kathrin at the tourist office believes the town’s image is improving. Hartmut at the museum has seen the heavy pessimism of the 90s lift. Alexander is open minded - he might move for work, he might not. With a better transport connection it’s not absurd to see the empty flats become occupied by commuters pushed out by the rising Berlin rents. There are messy threads of optimism. Eisenhüttenstadt was built to be bigger than the sum of its parts, and its next historical chapter is not a foregone conclusion.
Kirchhoff has seen it all in this town. Where does he see it in ten years?
He pauses. “It will be a smaller city. But it will be finer.”