Nachterstedt is a small and unremarkable village in the former-GDR, with nothing to it but a few hundred or so houses and a nearby aluminium plant. Or so I thought, until a little searching on the internet threw new light on this part of Saxony-Anhalt and its effect on the literary community of the old East Germany.
My home for the festive period would be a hotel that was a former miners recreation centre. A large rock outside bore a crossed hammers symbol and the miners greeting of “Glück Auf” (“Good luck”), and the interior’s predominantly brown colour scheme hinted at a more industrial and austere past, the type more easily imagined in grainy black and white.
Inside an echoey room with retro chandeliers, a large painting showed a colliery at full pelt, smoke belching from the surrounding chimneys. Brown is a recurring motif within the GDR; this area had been at the heart of the GDR’s lignite mining and lignite is also known as ‘brown’ coal. Rock samples in display cases showed other precious minerals that the ground here had also given up.
Now that mining had finished – like the hotel owner’s former job in a television factory it was no longer economically viable in the newly-united Germany – an aluminium factory was the main employer, carrying on the blue collar tradition.
Coming from a mining town in the North East myself, and being of an age where I could still remember the working collieries that dotted the region, it all felt strangely familiar. In Leipzig that November, it had occurred to me that my fascination with the GDR was in part due to memories I carried of the 70s in industrial northern England.
When I saw faded pictures of workers in dated garb, I saw in them something of my own family. For 1989 Leipzig, read Sunderland 1979. Standing in the grand function room, I imagined my grandmother hiding behind the curtain at a Durham miner’s gala slyly drinking the spirit slipped her by Manny Shinwell, the famous Labour MP and minister.
But Nachterstedt had also invegled its way into the annals of GDR popular culture, albeit in a very small way. Coming across a reference to The theater of Heiner Müller by Jonathan Kalb on the web, I discovered the “Nachterstedt Letter”. This was an articulate – perhaps too articulate – call from the workers of the People’s Brown Coal Factory of Nachterstedt to the authors of the young GDR in 1955. They called for the writing of the day to show what was happening in the factories; so that the workers could recognise themselves in art.
Since the Soviet heyday of socialist realism, the worker had symbolised the industrial future that was going to guarantee the well-being of all in communist states. Whilst accepting that factory work does not exclude an interest in the arts, it is not hard to imagine this letter having some sort of official inspiration in its call for writing for ‘the people’.
Muller had responded with Lohndrucker, known as The Scab in English. Taking its inspiration from the GDR’s first Stakhanovite, Eric Garbe, it looked at the different reactions inspired by the productivity record-setting ‘hero-worker’. Lauded by the state for their contribution to the collective’s economic output, they were loathed by some colleagues who saw them as making a rod for all their strained backs.
This revelation that the workers were apparently highly culturally engaged would have appealed not only to the SED and all its party members, but also the romantic in the artist. After all, it was a lack of ‘consciousness’ that permitted the bourgeoisie to flourish not so far away over the internal German border (Innerdeutsche Grenze).
According to Kalb, other writers had responded to the call by making ‘field trips’ to the factories to see how the ordinary man lived. The Bitterfelder Weg was the name given to the state cultural programme launched in 1959 that aimed to get workers writing themselves, as Sozialistischer Realismus was pushed towards its logical conclusion.
But although more than 50 years had passed since this letter and brown coal mining had finished in Nachterstedt, it had left a less abstract legacy that only recently came to light. Earlier this year, researching the role of Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche in the 1989 revolution, I discovered the celebrated church had attracted not just those who had filled in the Ausreiseantrag – the application for a prized travel permit to go abroad – but also environmentalists.
Brown coal is low in quality and high in sulphur, associated with the acid rain that blighted industrial centres of the GDR like Leipzig. Trees were bare, by all accounts, and fish struggled in poisoned lakes.
Today, Saxony-Anhalt makes its money from chemicals and any remaining brown coal is left where it lies. New lakes have been formed in some former mining areas by the flooding of opencast sites, providing recreation facilites for locals and tourists alike. ‘Remediation’ is estimated to have cost over €8bn in the ex-GDR. But this summer, a shadow hung over these lakes, a consequence of the scarring and pitting of the landscape and the spoil heaps created by so much dug out debris.
In July, three Nachterstedt locals died when their houses slid into the lake after a landslide (see analysis here from a professor based in England’s Durham, where the Miners Gala still runs every July). Mining was always a deadly game, but long after the the pit gates have closed this hazardous enterprise can still take life. As other villages with manmade lakes wonder how safe their houses are, little Nachterstedt has once again been in the spotlight in the former-East Germany.
See this New Statesman article by one of the Hidden Europe authors on the same subject.