In former East Germany, anxious residents resent paying for Europe’s problems


A car with a Polish and a German flag is driving by in front of a building with a sign which says "offices to rent" in Loecknitz, Germany. Since real estate prices went up on the Polish side, Poles are looking for cheap property on the German side of the border. (Florian Schuh/For The Washington Post)

Germany may be Europe’s most powerful economy. But its prosperity is so uneven that Poles just across the border see it differently: as a place where housing is a bargain.

Fueled by an economic boom in their own country, Poles have been attracted to the former East Germany, still one of the poorest parts of Germany two decades after reunification. In a region where jobs are scarce, the new arrivals have sparked a backlash among Germans who feel particularly vulnerable.

The uneasiness here helps to explain German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lack of enthusiasm about proposals that would require her country to dip further into its treasury to help address the rest of Europe’s economic problems.

“Work for us is everything,” said Colette Hoche, 46, a teacher at a local school. “If someone looks for work for a long time, and they see a Polish person take a job, then you see how you could feel about it.”

Poles have been able to visit the area easily since their country joined the European Union in 2004, but the pace has sped up since border controls were abandoned in 2007. Over the past eight years, the number of Polish residents in the region surrounding the small German border town of Loecknitz has increased by 13 times, to 1,103, according to the local registry office.


(The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

With unemployment higher in Loecknitz than anywhere else in Germany, a big house on a generous parcel of land runs just $90,000, real estate agents say. That is the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Szczecin, a burgeoning Polish city of 400,000 a half-hour away.

In the past, “it was always a one-way road,” with Germans moving to Poland because of the difference in prices, said Krzysztof Wojciechowski, a professor at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder, a city that abuts Poland. Now, he said, the situation is reversed.

German officials say the perception that Poles are taking away German jobs is not borne out by reality, and they note that the new arrivals also have created buyers for German homes. But that has not eased the anger in towns such as Loecknitz, where shops carry signs in both Polish and German, and cars with Polish license plates jostle for space in the grocery store parking lot.

On days when the Polish national soccer team is playing, Poland’s red-and-white flag flutters from cars and windows. But anti-immigrant neo-Nazis captured 22 percent of the vote in recent local elections. And although the German government has pumped almost $2­ trillion into the former East since 1990, many ambitious people have sought their fortunes elsewhere.

In the federal state that includes Loecknitz, 22 percent of residents are below the poverty line, the highest rate in the country and almost double that of the former West.

“The youth are moving away,” said H.J. Havekost, 69, a retired electrical engineer. “We old ones will turn off the lights.”

“Germans don’t see this part of their country as interesting,” said Radoslaw Popiela, a real estate agent in Germany who started a business catering to Polish clients after he bought and fixed up an old German farmhouse for himself.

“There are no jobs. There are no factories here. Polish people, they’re much more active. They’re starting businesses, they’re thinking about the future.”

In his son’s first-grade class, Popiela said, 10 of the 23 children are Polish.

In a Loecknitz city office building, an integration bureau with services for new Polish arrivals is housed two floors above Mayor Lothar Meistring’s quarters. Outside his office door, pamphlets explaining why the Polish influx is good for the region sit on a table.

“I can point to the businesses they’ve started,” Meistring said. “Where are the jobs the Poles have taken away?”

Anxiety in Germany’s poorer areas is part of the reason the country has been reluctant to contribute more toward European rescue programs. Many Germans in this region say the notion that they should give over more money to pay away Europe’s problems misjudges their own situation. And although the more urgent problems facing countries such as Greece and Spain have prompted other European leaders to call for greater German assistance, opinion polls show that most Germans approve of Merkel’s unwillingness to dip deeper into her country’s treasury.

Even now, many Germans see reunification as no more than a mixed success — a tremendously expensive undertaking that brought prosperity to a few cities but left the countryside and smaller towns such as Loecknitz depopulated and economically depressed.

“Yes, Germany is strong, Germany is an economic motor, and Germany is an anchor of stability in Europe,” Merkel told Parliament last week. “But we also know that Germany’s strength is not infinite. Germany’s powers, too, are not unlimited.”

Special correspondent Petra Krischok contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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