Young women leave East Germany in droves. This creates the basis for radical propaganda that shatters social cohesion. In some places the surplus of men is 25 percent.
What do polar regions like Greenland and remote Greek islands have in common with eastern Germany? There is a shortage of women everywhere. After school, young women leave their homeland in droves because of a lack of prospects. But what has happened in the East German federal states over the past three decades is unique in Europe and even worldwide. Young, well-educated women are still packing their suitcases. In some particularly underdeveloped areas, the surplus of men is 25 percent. In addition, there is an increasingly old population, little migration and people fleeing to the cities.
“East Germany cannot stop the demographic problem on its own,” says Katja Salomo from the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). “A whole generation isn’t coming back. People will also be missing in ten or 20 years.”
27 percent of people in the east are older than 65 years (west: 22 percent). East Germany shares a top position here with Japan. While rural areas continue to thin out, cities like Dresden, Leipzig and Erfurt are growing.
However, the departure of young women is also a danger for an open society. Because where there are no women, social cohesion falls apart. Radical attitudes solidify faster. “In western Germany you can estimate the proportion of AfD voters based on the economic situation, in eastern Germany based on the demographic situation,” says Salomo.
More than a third of young people want to leave
As if under a magnifying glass, these problems become visible in Lusatia, on the Polish border. The region, characterized by lignite mining, is currently going through a major structural change. According to the Lausitz Monitor, which is published annually, 37 percent of young people (16 to 29 years) consider it likely that they will move away in the next two years.
Julia Gabler is a social scientist at the Zittau/Görlitz University of Applied Sciences. Active young women are the first to leave, says Gabler, who moved to Görlitz with her husband in 2013. The desire to stay is high. “Women are much less noticed with their qualifications, have fewer career options and it is more difficult for them to get involved with their commitment,” she says. Gabler speaks of a migration movement of highly qualified people and a “masculinization of the region”.
It is easier for young men to find a job in the former industrial region. In surveys, they also cite a higher connection with their homeland and maintaining friendships as reasons for staying.
A culture of migration has developed in the region. Young women are more likely to graduate from high school and go away to study. At the same time, many say they see a return as a “failure in a foreign country”. What could make young women stay or bring them back? Scientists are looking for explanations for this phenomenon, which has been known since reunification.
Found a creative niche in Görlitz
Fanny Bracke is one of the rare returnees to her homeland. Beaming with joy, she welcomes guests to her small gallery on the Obermarkt in the spruced-up center of Görlitz. The imposing baroque building is one of the best addresses in the historic old town. Napoleon, August the Strong and Tsar Alexander are said to have been here. This is indicated by a plaque in the building’s vaulted entrance. In contrast to Munich, Hamburg or Berlin, rents in Görlitz are still affordable. This is why the 37-year-old was able to fulfill her dream of having her own factory with a gallery. “Here I can combine my passion for art and craft,” she says with a smile. “I’ve definitely arrived.”
Bracke has found a creative niche and has specialized in intarsia, i.e. elaborate inlay work made of different types of wood. She points to an artistically crafted coffee table, a filigree chest of drawers, lamps and key rings with zodiac signs.
Fanny Bracke is a special statistical feature in more than one way. She grew up in the small Saxon town of Reichenbach in Upper Lusatia. After graduating from high school, she went to New Zealand for a year, studied in Greifswald and Dessau and trained as a carpenter in Berlin. In 2016 she returned and set up a workshop in her hometown of Reichenbach. She even trained: Her former trainee is now an employee in the intarsia factory.
Fanny Bracke also knows about the reputation of her home region. Above all, she sees the opportunities that Görlitz has in the border triangle with Poland and the Czech Republic. “I see the region as very positive,” she says. However, many of her classmates moved to southern Germany. None of them will return any time soon.
In Görlitz, the AfD got its best election results
The surplus of young men is above average in all East German federal states. The age groups up to the late 20s, in which stable partnerships are normally formed and children are born, are particularly affected. Most young women are missing in the Ilm district in Thuringia (140 men per 100 women) and in the Altmark district of Salzwedel in Saxony-Anhalt (126 men per 100 women), both structurally weak regions.
Görlitz was once considered a stronghold of social democracy, today the AfD. In the constituency of Görlitz, AfD boss Tino Chrupalla got the best result for his party nationwide with almost 36 percent a year ago. In the mayoral election, an AfD candidate won the first round, but without getting the necessary absolute majority. In the second round of voting he lost to the CDU challenger. The fear of a right-wing populist mayor even reached Hollywood. In an open letter, international filmmakers appealed to the tolerance of the people of Görlitz.
Because the old trading town of Görlitz, which remained almost undamaged in the Second World War, impresses with a unique historical city center that was the backdrop for many film productions. Blockbusters such as “Inglourious Basterds”, “The Reader” and “The Grand Hotel Budapest” were partly filmed in the city, of which the people of Görlitz are very proud.
Fight against everyday racism
When Corinna Speri from Berlin told her circle of friends that she was going to move to Görlitz, she was amazed and said: “You’ll be back soon”. That was three years ago. “I didn’t think I’d end up here either. Actually, I’m a big city plant », she admits with a laugh. The 34-year-old studied social work with a focus on migration and flight and did her master’s degree at the Zittau/Görlitz University of Applied Sciences.
In the socio-cultural center Rabryka, a former factory site, she has set up a meeting place for refugee women. “We live here with daily discrimination,” she says thoughtfully. Racist insults have been yelled across the street a few times when she was out with the women who had fled. A trained Syrian dentist does not even get an internship in a practice here, reports Speri. Even day care centers did not want to take in refugee children. “The women are always put off.” Görlitz certainly has a cosmopolitan side. There are numerous initiatives and associations that are visible with their activities. “The problem is that it only reaches those who are already open-minded,” Speri admits.
Vacancies create a feeling of exclusion
When driving through the villages along the Polish border, the gender imbalance is hardly noticeable at first glance. What is striking, however, is the vacancy – deserted grocery stores, the windows of a former village restaurant covered with newspapers and a bus stop that hasn’t been served by a bus for a long time. The inverted German flag in gold, red and black also flies from properties, a symbol often used in the Reichsbourgeois and lateral thinker scene.
“Decay leads to fear of loss, people feel disadvantaged and are afraid of being on the losing side. This leads to a loss of trust in the political system,” says social scientist Salomo. Men are more receptive to propaganda from far-right parties. Although prosperity has increased, there is a sense of being left behind, of being deprived. The demographic situation has a negative impact on the quality of life, says Solomon.
Due to the move, the purchasing power in the villages was not sufficient to keep a bakery, grocery store and post office alive. Solomon recommends communities to subsidize schools and day-care centers and not to close them immediately. Because then no young families would move in. Leisure activities such as swimming pools must be kept open, if possible with the commitment of the residents. Access to public transport is also important. Projects such as on-demand buses must be given time and not be discontinued after six months.