Go East: CCGES study tour takes students to eastern Germany

The significance of two important milestones in world history, the 20th anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 and the unification of Germany on Oct. 3, 1990, was the base of a real-world learning experience for a lucky group of students. Ten graduate students from York University had an opportunity to travel to the former East Germany to see first-hand how the country has fared since unification in an 11-day trip organized by the Canadian Centre for German & European Studies (CCGES) at York University.

Led by Professor Marcus Funck, the German Academic Exchange Service’s visiting professor at York, and CCGES Coordinator John Paul Kleiner, the trip offered students insight into the social, economic and cultural transformation which has taken place in eastern Germany over the past two decades. The students met with academics, politicians, professionals as well as civic leaders, activists and residents to learn first-hand how the country had been transformed. They also explored the ramifications of rapid de-industrialization, declining levels of social and democratic engagement, massive demographic changes (relocation from east to west and a rapidly aging population) and the disastrous ecological legacy of the former East Germany.

In addition to stops in the region’s major population centres of Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, the trip’s organizers included visits to a number of smaller towns and cities including Frankfurt/Oder, Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Görlitz. "If you want to get a real sense of the successes and costs of the transformation processes in the former east, you have to get off the beaten track, because the story of unification varies widely from place to place," explained Funck. "Going to the smaller towns helped provide the sort of differentiation that is essential to getting an accurate impression of a situation."

Left: The planned community of Hoyerswerda blends old, with new. A wind farm is faintly visible on the horizon.

The approach taken by the trip’s organizers to expose students to smaller towns was worthwhile said Evelyn Gere, a masters student in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. "The main thing I took from this experience is that there isn’t simply one east German experience, and not one memory of East Germany," said Gere. "The people we met, their stories and their memories reflected a plethora of opinions and perspectives that, together, begin to tell the story of how things were and are."

Highlights of the trip included being received by Wolfgang Tiefensee, Germany’s federal minister responsible for the reconstruction of the former east, and his ministry staff. After a short but frank talk from Tiefensee, who outlined the achievements and challenges facing the Construction East project, the group spent more than two hours discussing a number of facets of the transformation with the minister’s parliamentary secretary, Ulrich Kasparick, and other leading ministry staff.

Above: The CCGES student delegation with Wolfgang Tiefensee (centre, wearing the green striped tie) during their recent trip to the former East Germany

Additional high points included a multi-layered discussion on civic responsibility and engagement in Dresden with Hans-Joachim Jäger, one of the driving forces behind the successful efforts to rebuild the Frauenkirche, a Dresden landmark destroyed during the Second World War and Nora Goldenbogen, the chair of that city’s Jewish congregation. In Hoyerswerda and Eisenhüttenstadt, the group encountered two "socialist cities" – planned communities built in support of East German heavy industry. Both communities are struggling to cope with huge population losses, close to 50 per cent in both cases, to redefine their relevance in a new social and economic order. Also unforgettable for trip participants was a visit to a former open-pit mine in Großräschen where attempts are underway to transform a number of moonscape-like mine sites into a series of 19 artificial lakes intended to make the region an attractive tourist destination.

Left: The Frauenkirche, a Dresden landmark destroyed during the Second World War that was rebuilt

"Getting access to the people and places we did on this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Something unique happened here after 1989, and this trip has helped deepen my understanding of the forces at work shaping the new Germany," said trip participant Matt Bera, a York PhD candidate in history. 

For Kleiner, the tour was rewarding, but he finds it hard to draw conclusions from all the group’s experiences. "It was often hard to know whether to feel buoyed by what has been accomplished or daunted by the challenges which remain," said Kleiner. "There’s no question that, in material terms, the average eastern German is much better off today than was the case in 1989, but the threat posed by unfavourable demographic developments along with the continued battle to redefine the area’s economic base make it hard to be too optimistic about the future. In some ways, we often felt as if we were getting a glimpse into what the years ahead may hold for the western world and that was a sobering experience."

Above: CCGES students take in the destruction of a former open-pit mine in Großräschen

Financial support for the trip was provided by both the German Academic Exchange Service and Bombardier Canada.

Submitted to YFile by the Canadian Centre for German & European Studies