Goslar is a gem of a town in central Germany, nestled in the slopes of the Harz mountains. It is popular with tourists, some of whom come to enjoy its cobbled streets and half-timbered architecture, others to ski or mountain bike, or to trace the footsteps of William Wordsworth who penned the beginnings of The Prelude here while homesick during a visit in the freezing winter of 1798.
Now it is becoming famous for another reason. Behind the rich culture is a town with huge problems. It is in one of the weakest economic areas of western Germany and — like much of the country, which for years has had one of the lowest birthrates in the world — it is facing a demographic crisis.
Goslar, a town of 50,000, has shrunk by 4,000 in the last decade and is currently losing as many as 1,500 to 2,000 people a year. In some parts of the town, which once thrived on silver mining and smelting as well as a spa, whole housing blocks stand empty while others have been torn down.
Illustration: Mountain People
Its problems were only exacerbated by the end of the Cold War, when it lost its status as a major garrison town close to the border with East Germany.
Goslar Mayor Oliver Junk is determined to reverse the trend. He has sparked a debate that has spread across Germany by saying he wants more immigrants to settle in the town.
While other parts of Europe are shunning refugees, sometimes with great brutality, Junk is delivering an alternative message: bring on the immigrants. There cannot be enough of them, he says.
At a recent gathering in Jurgenohl, a suburb of Goslar, Junk tapped his feet to a song-and-dance routine being performed for him in Russian by immigrants dressed in the colorful costumes of the former Soviet bloc countries they arrived from around two decades ago.
Praising their efforts at integration and thanking them for their contribution to his city, Junk recalled how Jurgenohl only exists thanks to refugees who built it up after the war.
The 39-year-old lawyer, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, has triggered controversy across Germany by insisting that an influx of immigrants is the best thing that could happen to his shrinking town, which took only 48 refugees last year and, so far this year, 41.
“We have plenty of empty housing and rather than see it decay we could give new homes to immigrants, helping them and so give our town a future,” Junk said.
Some German commentators say he is a self-publicist, others that he is naive, but it is hard to ignore a man who was elected with almost 94 percent of the vote in 2011 and for an eight-year term.
Junk says he is merely being pragmatic. This, after all, is a man who was nicknamed “Duke of Darkness” for ordering street lamps to be turned off after midnight to save money.
The far right is furious and plans to descend on Goslar on Saturday next week for an anti-Junk rally under the slogan: “Perspectives, not mass immigration.”
This year Germany is set to receive some half a million asylum seekers, although the figure is being revised all the time as the numbers arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East continue to soar. That is far more than any other EU country and more than twice the number Germany took last year.
According to an allocation formula known as the Konigsteiner Schlussel, towns are allocated refugees based on population and per head tax revenues: the bigger and richer a town, the more refugees it is obliged to take, for which it is in part supported by state money.
“This system is crazy, because in big cities there is often a lack of housing, while in Goslar we have the space,” Junk said, dressed in jeans, bespectacled and with salt-and-pepper hair.
A one-hour drive from Goslar lies Gottingen, the region’s economic powerhouse. There, officials are struggling to cope with the thousands of refugees it is obliged to house based on its economic strength.
As elsewhere in Germany, tent cities and container villages have been springing up overnight to cope with demand. Leisure centers and schools have been converted into shelters, but when the new term starts they will no longer be available, intensifying the problem. And as winter approaches, tent cities will no longer be viable.
“It’s mad that in Gottingen they are having to build new accommodation and are tearing their hair out as to where to put everyone, while we have empty properties and employers who are desperate for skilled workers,” Junk said.
His appeals for politicians to adopt the “Goslar Model” have so far fallen on deaf ears.
“They say to me ‘rules are rules,’” Junk said.
“It’s typically rigid and German, always having to work with finished concepts rather than allowing for new ideas. Anyone who tells me Germany is full up, or that we can’t afford them, I say think of our past and of the future. Of course we can afford them — we’re a rich country, and we have a duty to help those in need,” he said.
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