Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cycling through eastern Germany - Dessau

Dessau was once, in the 1920s, a major international industrial and intellectual center. It was superbly rich, as its many monuments and parks attest even today.

But if there is one word that describes Dessau today, it would be "empty." Since 1989, Dessau has lost some 25% of its population down to some 77,000 inhabitants - and that is after the conglomeration merged with neighboring Roßlau. The stately street leading up to city hall (see photo) had only two people on it aside from me, and the tourism office was closed - on a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon.

When you shrink by 25% in less than 20 years, you lose those who have a reason to go: young people with jobs elsewhere. The elderly, the unemployed, and families with reasons to stay are left behind. The effect is thus much worse than merely losing a quarter of your people.

Dessau's demise may have begun as early as 1932, when it became the first major city to put the Nazis in power. The silver lining to this is that the people at Bauhaus, which I will discuss tomorrow, had some advance notice of what was to come. Many emigrated in 1933 and had illustrious careers elsewhere, mainly in the US.

According to the tour guide, Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, apparently received a letter from the locals Nazis in 1932 (he was no longer the director at the time) saying Bauhaus could stay alive, but not with Jewish or women students. (Bauhaus was a forerunner in integrating women). Gropius responded by informing his colleagues and pupils of what was afoot in time for the changes that came in 1933.

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