It is the silence that hits you first. On one side of the center of Hoyerswerda is a stereotypically east German high-rise estate, whose car park is no more than a quarter full. Concrete brutalism apart, the atmosphere is weirdly akin to that perfect stillness you get in the countryside.
Eventually, the silence is punctured by the sound of a domestic argument in a nearby apartment. They are actually rowing up on the 10th or 11th floor, but in a town this quiet even the faintest noise carries.
Hoyerswerda is about 145km south of Berlin and 65km from the Polish border. About one in five of the local population are Sorbs, who speak a language related to Polish and Czech which is used on bilingual road signs.
This was once the communist equivalent of a boomtown, with the highest birth rate in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and more than 70,000 inhabitants. However, in the great bonfire of east German industry that followed reunification, the local economy — centered on the mining and processing of lignite, the soft brown fuel halfway between coal and peat — was devastated. On the face of it, this is a case study in deindustrialization familiar to anyone from the more blighted parts of Britain — but here, there are very German peculiarities that take things into the realm of the surreal.
Hoyerswerda’s peak population has dropped by about 40 percent, emptying out vast residential leviathans that are still being demolished. In the short-term, the results of the town’s decline were in keeping with that time-honored symbiosis between shrinking prospects and the politics of hate: Hoyerswerda remains a byword for a deeply ugly episode in 1991 when local neo-Nazis besieged a hostel for refugees, cheered on by hundreds of locals.
Meanwhile, one of the most sobering aspects of Germany’s recent history was drastically altering life here. In the east, as the uncertainty that followed reunification spread at speed, a huge drop in births created what is known as “the kink,” whereby the number of children fell to an extent only usually seen during wartime. Walking around former East German towns, you instantly see the result: a striking lack of teens and twentysomethings, compounded by the fact that as they have come of age, thousands of the comparatively few newborns have either got out, or are preparing to do so.
Those who remain are faced with one cast-iron legacy of the east-west split. Of late, Germany has been praised for comparatively low youth unemployment, put at only 6.5 percent. However, in the east, in keeping with the unemployment figure for the workforce as a whole — 10.8 percent, twice the rate in the west — it’s reckoned to be at least double that number.
This, then, is hardly the greatest place to be young. Ask anyone under 30 to describe life in Hoyerswerda, and out it all comes: It’s a “pensioner town” where young people are too often sidelined.
“If there are youth clubs, teenagers hang around there, but at the weekend they just walk around town mucking about and getting pissed,” says Falko Ebeling, 25. “There’s just less and less stuff being provided for kids.”
Ebeling is an embodiment of Hoyerswerda’s predicament: He has been through two traineeships in the retail trade, but remains unemployed, with vague plans to go to either Dresden or Leipzig, east German cities held up as examples of post-reunification success.