Leaping Leipzig: An East German City Rises From Ruins - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Leaping Leipzig: An East German City Rises From Ruins

Leaping Leipzig: An East German City Rises From Ruins

By Sean Williams

Shopping district in Leipzig, Germany


Because a great old German city is rebuilding and becoming a center of culture and education once again.

By Sean Williams

It couldn’t have been a sharper contrast. In 1991, Burkhard Jung was nicely nestled in the sleepy West German town of Siegen, a successful schoolteacher with a big house and garden and a comfortable career. Then one day he was asked to give a speech about education in the former East Germany, only a couple years after the Berlin Wall had fallen, in the crumbling city of Leipzig.

He remembers the place well — once Germany’s richest city, stripped of any heavy industry after East Germany disappeared. It was “totally the other way around” from his home. “Nearly everything was gray and dull,” he says. 

But by 2006, Jung was not only living in Leipzig but had become its mayor. And this proud place of about 500,000 residents hasn’t been the same since. Under his leadership, the city has become Germany’s fastest-growing, rising from a sawtoothed mausoleum of fallen graft to a place that has rediscovered its cultural and academic roots. Once home to Bach, Wagner and more recently Angela Merkel, Leipzig now is home to outfits like Porsche and DHL, just one of many signs of a revival that Jung has played no small role in.

… rising from a sawtoothed mausoleum of fallen graft to a place that has rediscovered its cultural and academic roots.

He decided to move here, he says, because of the energy he felt from Leipzig’s people. It was his first time in East Germany. But from the start, he says, he thought the city, once the richest in Germany, had a shot at a comeback. “You could feel the spirit,” he says. “You could see behind the facades.” 

a German politician is surrounded by members of the media

Burkhard Jung, the mayor of Leipzig, Germany, is interviewed.

He says he took charge of a Protestant school in Leipzig’s city center, a cobbled, cafe-lined warren of classical German architecture that somehow evaded serious damage during World War II. However, 41 years of East German rule had left it eviscerated. “In the times of the (German Democratic Republic), more buildings were destroyed than in the Second World War,” says Jung. Homes lay roofless. Streets resembled Swiss cheese. 

Today that center has been transformed thanks to 12 billion euros ($15 billion) of public and private funds. Jung, affable and imposingly tall with a foppish swoop of gray-blond hair, runs to a bookcase to show off a before-and-after of the city. He looks like a more athletic Jeremy Irons. 

By 1999 Jung’s school had 760 pupils, from 121 when he began. But he wanted to change things more directly, so when friend Wolfgang Tiefensee, then mayor of the city, offered him a spot as the City Council’s head of youth, sports and education, Jung jumped at the chance. 

In 2005 Tiefensee was called up to the government. “I said, ‘I haven’t any fear. I want the responsibility,’ ” Jung says. He campaigned on a Social Democratic Party ticket, Germany’s center-left opposition. Within a year he was mayor. 

 I said, ‘I haven’t any fear. I want the responsibility.’

— Wolfgang Tiefensee, former mayor of Leipzig

Even before Jung became mayor, Leipzig had started attracting companies that brought thousands of jobs. Porsche moved important parts of its business there and last year produced two-thirds of new cars in Leipzig, recently investing an additional 500 million euros. In 2013, BMW produced all of its electric cars in Leipzig. DHL moved all of its air cargo operations from Brussels to Leipzig, delivering goods to more than 60 destinations in more than 30 countries on four continents.

“The most important thing is to get the companies, entrepreneurs, to strengthen startups,” says Jung.

Then Austrian Red Bull billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz funded Leipzig’s soccer team, blessing the city with an additional cool factor, hence its nickname, Hypezig.

But the city is still in many places a ghost town. Entering the city via bus, two hours from Berlin, that difficult past is still very clear: Hundreds of containers sit idle on rusted rail tracks. Beside them lay rows of dirty, Gestetnered tenements, their roofs long having eloped. On a gray day it looks like the war just happened. 

It is one of these scrubby districts, however, that’s Leipzig’s coolest. Plagwitz is a short tram ride from town, a web of old factories and canals that once housed a booming textiles and manufacturing industry. Grungy bars line its main streets, and artists are flocking to shabby-chic warehouse spaces costing just 3 euros ($3.80) per square meter. 

Jung spends 10 percent of his yearly budget, around 100 million euros ($126 million), on the creative scene. “We have tried to fetch back the young people and families who left to come back to the city,” he says. 

There are still, however, major problems. Leipzig has the highest rate of urban poverty in the country, 25 percent. By the end of 2005, 21.3 percent of Leipzig’s working-age population was jobless. That figure is now 9.6 percent, lower than the average in former East German states, which in November last year sank to its lowest rate — 10.7 percent — in 20 years. In Germany as a whole it was 4.9 percent in August, half that of the European Union. 

Infrastructure, too, lags behind that of neighbors. “The mayor is good overall, but he could help entrepreneurs more,” says Michal Jirasek, a startup consultant in Plagwitz. “Most talent still goes to Berlin.” The local government gave 400 euros ($500) to a hackathon Jirasek organized last month. But the venue had to be moved because the Internet gave out. 

But there are signs of growth. The population has risen to 531,562 — 2 percent in just one year. The number of visitors to Leipzig has also jumped, from 1.6 million in 2006 to 2.8 million last year. Admissions to the city’s 605-year-old university, which once taught Brahe, Nietzsche and Leibniz, are up to 47,000 from 12,000 in 1989.

“The living costs are an important issue for a vibrant metropolis like Leipzig,” says Beate Schücking, rector of the university, echoing worries that Leipzig will price out locals similarly to Berlin. Jung agrees: “One of the biggest challenges is to have a balance between the well-developed areas, the people who will be richer in the future, and those who are unemployed, not well-educated and not involved in politics.”

But despite a growing lacuna between rich and poor, Jung has lifted his adopted home in a prosperity it hasn’t enjoyed since before Allied bombs arrived. He balks at the comparison with Berlin’s debonair former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who coined the capital’s “poor but sexy” title. But he has the experience (and the hair). 

And, like Wowereit, Jung isn’t afraid to look beyond Germany’s borders for inspiration. A light festival he has organized for the past six years to commemorate Leipzig’s role in the fall of the Berlin Wall was inspired by a similar event in the French city of Lyon. 

As we say goodbye, Jung hands me his business card. It’s translated into Korean on one side. “We have a lot of ties there,” he says cheerfully. “I really enjoy their ideas.” 

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories