The east German town of Löcknitz, about fifty kilometres inland from the Baltic Sea, has witnessed a minor miracle in recent years, as one of the few cities of East Germany to halt the decline in population a few years ago; to the contrary, people have started to move in. What’s quite unusual about this is that the local kindergarten and school classes have begun to fill up. There is one “fly in the ointment”, though: the new residents are not Germans, but Poles, coming mainly from the Polish port city of Szczecin, a city of more than 400,000 inhabitants some 20 kilometres from Löcknitz.

“Houses and building lots are cheaper here than they are around Szczecin, and we even pay lower taxes here for services that are at a much higher level,” says the Polish owner of a pension. “A house that I would have paid 250,000 euros for in Szczecin I bought here for 35 thousand,” said another Pole, who dropped by the pension for a chat. “It wasn’t a problem. Germans here are fleeing to the West,” he added.

The population of Poles in the town is already at 15 percent, and every fifth child in a local kindergarten has Polish nationality. Even the local Germans are happy for the Poles. “Without them the town would die out,” says the German owner of a local upmarket restaurant. Most of the former East Germany, however, hasn’t had the same luck as Löcknitz. When the East German Communists put up the Berlin Wall fifty years ago they were trying to stem, among other things, the exodus of their citizens to the West. Each year before the Wall was built over a hundred thousand people abandoned the East for the West, and the Communist GDR was facing the threat of a country with no people in it.

About three million people fewer

The fact that after the fall of the Berlin Wall German reunification followed with lightning speed is seen by experts as the cause of the great flood of Germans who began to move from East to West. Neither the reunification nor the huge transfer of money to ‘level’ the East with the West (over one billion euros), however, failed to stop the exodus, but merely slowed it down to about 150,000 a year. The causes are economic: lower wages and high unemployment.

Of the seventeen million former East Germans, only about fourteen million are now left. Berlin and its surroundings have been rescued somewhat by its location, and the relocation of the capital from Bonn to Berlin over the last ten years has seen its population increase. In many places, development has been dramatically reversed, like in the Saxon town of Zwickau, site of a large VW factory, whose population of almost 120,000 in 1989 has since fallen to 90,000. The future looks to be even more catastrophic. As the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung confirms, a demographic shock lies just a few years ahead for East Germany. At present, it appears, there are only 0.77 children per woman, and single men significantly outnumber women. The tempo of the decline in the population of the former East Germany over the last twenty years has parallels only in the poorest countries of Europe.

Together with that depopulation, the massive transfer of resources from West to East Germany coupled with the building of high-tech infrastructure is opening the door wide to “colonisation” by Czechs and Poles. It’s above all the Poles who have already begun to seize this opportunity, which often works out to “living in Germany but working in Poland”.

Quietly, the Central Europe of yore is tiptoeing back, where national borders have often been very hazy. And it’s entirely differently from what we feared – which is another reason why we could and should overcome our national inferiority complexes towards Germans and Germany.

Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer