LAUCHHAMMER, Germany — Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification that followed, more Germans are returning home to the East.
Now, small towns in the former Communist half of the country are trying to lure new residents to counter an aging population, a shortage of skilled workers and stagnant economic growth.
One of those to return is Sebastian Herz, who at the age of 16 followed what became a well-trodden path east to west. It was 1996, and opportunities in what had until recently been the Communist state of East Germany were drying up and he did not see a future.
For the next 23 years he trained and worked as a carpenter in the West — marrying and prospering in some of Germany’s manufacturing hubs.
In February, Herz decided to go home, and together with his wife and three children returned to this small town some 50 miles from the border with Poland. They moved into his grandparents’ former house, built in 1908.
Herz is one of thousands of former East Germans who had left for the West and are now returning to their roots. It’s the reverse of a decadeslong trend that saw tens of thousands of workers leave in search of greater economic opportunity after the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, 1989.
Indeed, 2017 was the first year after reunification that the East had more people arriving from the West than leaving, according to Germany’s Federal Institute for Population Research.
It’s not like the place is flourishing, but Herz is OK with that.
“The economy is really bad here, I have to say,” he said. “There are no craftsmen. And that's where we saw our chance.”
The return of “Ossies” or easterners, as they were often referred to, couldn’t come at a better time. With an aging population, few skilled workers and slower economic growth than similar towns in the country’s west, small towns in the east of Germany are facing challenges.
According to a study by the Institute for Economic Research, the population in what was once West Germany is 60 percent larger than it was before World War II, while East Germany’s is 15 percent smaller. What’s more, the East’s population of 13.9 million is roughly the same as it was in 1905 and is predicted to drop by 12 percent more in the next 15 years.
Wages and productivity still lag behind the West, unemployment is 2 percent higher, and none of the companies on the DAX 30 German stock market index have their headquarters in the East.
“It all takes too long. If I think about it, 30 years and we are still not where we should have been. That’s the problem, that’s why the people are frustrated,” said Hans-Georg Klaue, 71, whose three children all left Calau — some 25 miles southwest of Lauchhammer — to find work in the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I always said it will take as long as the wall stood, 40 years, for real reunification to happen,” added Klaue, who lost his job after the wall came down and the region’s biggest employer, the mining industry, collapsed.
The difference in fortunes between the East and the West has been one of the drivers behind a rise in popularity of the far-right political parties and movements in the East, experts say. Last month, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD, won nearly a quarter of the vote in regional elections in the state of Thuringia, in what was East Germany. The party is polling around 14 percent nationally.
“Democracy in the East after 1990 came for the vast majority of people with de-industrialization, job losses and deep existential insecurities in their lives,” explained Frank Richter, a member of the local state Parliament in the eastern state of Saxony, who demonstrated against the regime in East Germany before the fall of the wall.
“The new right has succeeded in taking these experiences of loss, which can and must be described unemotionally, and constructing a great victim narrative,” he added.
In an attempt to reverse their fortunes, many of the East’s small towns like Lauchhammer are actively recruiting returnees, as well as new residents from around Germany.
Görlitz is offering prospective residents a free trial stay, while Cottbus offers consultations on the job market, support in finding schools and introductions to businesses in need of skilled workers.
In Lauchhammer alone, recruitment efforts, including “returnee days” to show off the city to potential residents, have helped bring in more than 2,000 new residents since 2016. The motivations of these returnees are varied and include a lower cost of living and the desire to be near family.
That was indeed one of Herz’s reasons for moving back to quiet Lauchhammer, around 90 miles south of Berlin, a sleepy city where there is little industry.
But family wasn’t his only reason.
“We specifically made the decision to set up a company here because we also wanted to create jobs,” added Herz, who said that two thirds of his class left for the West around the same time that he did.
In Calau, around 65 miles southeast of Berlin, the collapse of the area’s major industry, coal mining, along with greater opportunity in the West, resulted in a 28 percent drop in population from 1989 to 2019. At the same time, the average age of the town increased to 49 from 35.
“While the older workers are retiring, younger workers are not sufficiently available,” said Calau Mayor Werner Suchner. “We have too few trainees, too few skilled workers in various branches of the economy. So, what do we do? How can we support our economy? Where do we get workers from? That is the big question now.”
A walk along the town’s cobblestoned sidewalks reveals how the city has gone to great lengths to become more attractive, and to attract young people. Most of the buildings and houses in this quaint town have been refurbished, and the town now puts on cultural events to interest younger residents.
It set up a program offering people who want to return to the region help in finding jobs, housing and schools. A truck with the ad “Back to Calau” drives around Germany, hoping to attract new residents. The town was not able to provide information on the number of people who have returned as a result.
Even with a strong will to improve their situation, these small eastern towns still face large structural problems. The lack of skilled workers has meant that businesses haven’t been able to grow as big or as fast as they would like. Herz, for example, had only one person respond to an employment ad. He hired him and said he’s a “perfect fit.” He also hopes to hire two apprentices soon.
Despite the lingering problems, Herz said that unlike his parents’ generation, he feels like time has helped bridge the divide between those born in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and those from the West.
“I simply feel like a German,” he said. “I do not say that I come from the East.”
Endy Eckardt reported from Lauchhammer, and Rachel Elbaum from London.