BERLIN // Germany's former communist east is suffering the most dramatic population decline of any region in Europe in what researchers are calling an unstoppable exodus that may eventually turn much of the area into a nature reserve. The fall, caused by the departure of skilled workers and a dwindling birth rate, has had a devastating impact on towns and villages with entire districts transformed into wastelands of closed shops, boarded-up houses and deserted apartment blocks.
"Eastern Germany is the biggest demographic crisis region in Europe according to our indicators," said Steffen Kröhnert, the author of a recent study on European population trends by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. As people move away, wolves have started migrating into the east from Poland and the Czech Republic, and neo-Nazis have found growing support among young, poorly educated men left behind with few job prospects. Since East Germany united with the west in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the region's population has fallen by 1.7 million people or 10 per cent, mainly because people migrated to the richer west in search of jobs as their inefficient economy collapsed.
Despite massive government subsidies, the decline is set to continue because of a sharp drop in births, and by 2030 as much as a third of the population may have deserted the east, the institute said. The region makes up about 30 per cent of Germany's surface area. "It's not just because of migration. The birth rate collapsed in the 1990s, and the number of children born then was only half the size of their parents' generation. The population will keep on declining as a result, and we can rule out that it will return to pre-1990 levels," Mr Kröhnert said.
The town of Wittenberge north-west of Berlin has seen its population shrink to 20,000 from 30,000 since 1990, and has been struggling to refurbish its crumbling city centre in the wake of the departure. Cities across the east have suffered a similar fate. Schwedt, an industrial town on the border with Poland, had to contend with whole districts of virtually empty, communist-era apartment blocks because 17,000 people left after 1990. It now has 35,000 inhabitants and expects to lose an additional 5,000 by 2025.
"After unification everyone was suddenly free to travel and wanted to see the world. And no one had time to have babies anymore so the birth rate plummeted," said Corina Müller, an official for the Schwedt city administration. "Before that, a woman giving birth at 23 was considered an old mother." Schwedt responded to the population decline by demolishing vacant apartment blocks in a downsizing programme that became a model for many towns.
"By the end of 2007, we had torn down blocks with a total of 5,000 apartments and built playgrounds, new streets and parks in their place," Ms Müller said. "We had to act quickly or people wouldn't have believed we were serious about improving the town, and the exodus would have worsened." Woods will be planted on some of the cleared areas, she said. "Our strategy is to scale the city back from the periphery inward, and to upgrade what's left."
But the downsizing alone cannot solve the town's problems. It has a jobless rate of about 20 per cent, even though there is a chronic shortage of skilled workers, Ms Müller said. The chancellor at the time of unification, Helmut Kohl, promised east Germans a bright economic future with the famous vow that the region would be turned into "blossoming landscapes". Successive governments made huge efforts to live up to the pledge. Since unification, Germany has pumped ?1.5 trillion (Dh8tn) in infrastructure investment, corporate subsidies and welfare benefits to the east. But unemployment remains twice as high as in the west, and economic growth is largely driven by the region's prosperous hubs, such as Leipzig and Dresden.
Another problem is the shortage of young women, who tend to have better qualifications and have found it easier to get jobs elsewhere. In some regions there are 20 per cent more men than women in the 20-to-25 age bracket. The suggested remedies sound desperate. Wolfgang Tiefensee, the minister responsible for eastern Germany, recommended offering more mobile libraries to prevent women from getting bored. One mayor proposed paying women ?2,000 if they moved to his town.
The absence of women and job opportunities has been driving young men into the arms of neo-Nazi groups in the east, which has seen a surge in racist violence since unification. "The male status has been sharply devalued in eastern Germany," Mr Kröhnert said. "It used to be a classic industrial society with typical men's jobs in mining and heavy industry. About 90 per cent of these jobs have gone, depriving poorly educated men of a sense of self. This has boosted support for far-right parties that still propagate classic role models for men and women."
In an attempt to reverse the brain drain, regional authorities have set up agencies to try and lure people back. "Many people miss their home region, and we send them newsletters telling them about job vacancies here and what's going on," said Solveig Streuer, project manager of agency mv4you. The agency, which caters for people who have moved away from the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, said it estimates that at least 600 people on its mailing list have returned home since it was set up in 2001.
"There's growing demand now for engineers, IT experts, teachers and doctors, but people are still moving away. It's mainly the young, dynamic people aged 20 to 35 who are leaving," Mr Streuer said. Major cities have managed to attract hi-tech industries, aided by government grants and subsidies that have given the east a new infrastructure with some of the country's best motorways and most modern factories.
Population levels in Leipzig, Dresden, Weimar and Erfurt have stabilised, partly because people have been moving there from the surrounding countryside. But Germany is set to remain a divided country in economic terms, analysts said. Its population decline is preprogrammed, its unemployment will remain higher than in the West, and its economic output per capita is set to decline to 60 per cent of western German levels by 2020 from 67 per cent now.
Even Berlin is failing to attract new business and had virtually no economic growth between 2000 and 2005, the institute said. Its economic output per inhabitant is less than a third of London's. But Mr Kröhnert said the trend has its positive sides. "East Germany's dilapidated, polluting industrial plants have disappeared, and one can now create some nice nature reserves in the region," he said.