At a glance, Frankfurt (Oder), a gray industrial city along Germany’s Oder River border with Poland, embodies everything that’s wrong with post-communist eastern Germany: decaying, empty buildings; skilled labor fleeing to the west; and unemployment rates well into the double digits—the precise opposite of its better known namesake in western Germany. Many visitors are just passing through on their way to Poland.
But looks can be deceiving. In recent years, behind the dingy buildings and unemployment lines, Frankfurt (Oder) has become a magnet for high-tech, high-skilled manufacturing and research. First Solar, a Phoenix-based photovoltaic-module maker, opened a 500-person plant there in 2007 to take advantage of Germany’s burgeoning clean-energy market and eastern Germany’s reputation for inexpensive, high-skilled labor. They haven’t been disappointed: originally designed to produce 100 megawatts of capacity a year, the plant and its workers are so efficient that, three years later, they are producing nearly twice that amount with the same equipment.
It’s a story repeated by foreign investors across the region. “Eastern Germany combines the best advantages of western Germany and Eastern Europe,” says David Wortmann, vice president for policy and communications at First Solar. “You have a very flexible and talented workforce, like in Eastern Europe, but on the other hand you have a superb infrastructure.”
The Berlin Wall: A Lesson in Change
"Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany is still struggling to fulfill the promise of that event." By Lane Wallace
Monday marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Germany is taking stock of its track-record in bringing former East Germany up to parity with the west. By many accounts, it’s been a failure. Eastern Germans make only 71 percent of western German incomes, up merely four percent since 2000, leading many young, talented people to move west. Once-derided reunification skeptics like writer Günter Grass are now hailed as prescient forecasters. And record-high numbers of eastern Germans, known as "Ossis" in shorthand, say they feel alienated from their western countrymen and nostalgic for the economic security of the communist era. The New York Times, profiling the near-ghost town of Hoyerswerda, wrote, “In places like this former industrial mining town, the story of decline and departure has changed little in the former East Germany.” The result is dangerously high support for both left- and right-wing fringe parties, some of which hold seats in eastern state assemblies. For many, Eastern Germany is a lost cause.