German Village Refuses to Let Its Future Turn to Coal Dust

The sign on Bernd Siegert's office door sums up the feelings in this remote German hamlet only a mile from the Polish border: "The world is a madhouse, but the main office is here."

Mr. Siegert, Horno's mayor, is leading a last-ditch fight to save the 650-year-old village from destruction. Though the state legislature in Potsdam recently passed a law permitting Horno to be razed for strip mining, the 350 villagers are refusing to budge.

"They won't get rid of this village," Siegert says, his blue eyes blazing out of his sunburned face.

For Horno, the world stopped making sense 20 years ago, when Communist functionaries in the East German government decided to level the village to make way for mining. Lignite, or brown coal, was the main energy source in East Germany. Strip mines devastated whole landscapes, and in the process of burning low-grade coal, air pollution in many cities reached catastrophic levels.

German unification in 1990 promised to stop the ecological ravage - and halt the imminent resettling of Horno.

Three utility companies from West Germany bought up the East German power network, shutting the dirtiest plants and building new ones.

Tens of thousands of workers were laid off as mines were closed, and coal production in the region around Horno plummeted by 75 percent.

But the regional mining company, Laubag, argued that if the village is not sacrificed, thousands of additional jobs will be threatened.

For the economically hard-hit state of Brandenburg, where almost 1 out of 5 workers is jobless, the choice was clear: Three years ago the state government in Potsdam decreed that Horno must be leveled.

The villagers appealed to Brandenburg's constitutional court, which ruled that only the state legislature could make such a decision. Under immense pressure from the miners union and Laubag, the legislature passed the law last June, sanctioning the razing of the village in 2003.

"Politics is the dirtiest business," says Siegert, who is a locksmith by profession and mayor only after hours. After all, Manfred Stolpe, Brandenburg's prime minister, had visited Horno several times and promised to spare the village.

Despite the new law, the villagers have not yet given up the fight to save their homes.

For one, they reject the economic argument. A study prepared last year by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy concluded that Laubag's predictions for coal demand are inflated in light of the dismal performance of the eastern German economy.

Stefan Lechtenbhmer, a geographer who prepared the study, counters the charge that thousands of jobs would be at stake.

"They're lost anyway," Mr. Lechtenbhmer says. "[The utility companies] can't keep up the energy production they're aiming for. Horno doesn't have anything to do with this."

Miners: no compromise

Even with this study on his side, Mayor Siegert says he realizes the importance of mining to the region and has proposed a compromise that would allow Laubag to go around the village. The mining company claims that circumvention is impossible because its large machinery could not operate between the village and the outer boundary of the planned strip mine.

Horno sits on about 69 acres of land. The area around it, mostly forest and farmland, is roughly 2,470 acres. The total planned area for the strip mine is about 11,100 acres. The compromise proposed by Siegert would spare about 1,200 acres for the village and a surrounding band of forest.

But the mining company says Siegert's plan is impractical.

"Even if it would work out technically, Horno would become an island," says Laubag spokesman Klaus Dewes. "It's out of the question that people would want to live in such a situation."

Mr. Dewes says that Horno's mayor took an extreme position and now "has a psychological problem backing down from it."

Siegert claims that real reason for Laubag's inflexibility is that any concession to Horno would have created a precedent for two other German communities facing a similar threat.

Villagers' trump card

Now the villagers intend to take their case to Brandenburg's highest court for a second time, arguing that the recent law violates Horno's constitutional right to communal self-administration. While legal experts point out that this right is not equivalent to a guarantee of self-preservation, the villagers may hold a trump card: The village is home to one of Europe's tiniest ethnic minorities, the Sorbs.

Descendants of an ancient Slavic tribe that has miraculously survived the centuries, Sorbs number only 60,000 in Germany. Article 25 of the Brandenburg state Constitution ensures "the protection, preservation, and upkeep of [the Sorb] national identity and its ancestral settlement area," which encompasses Horno.

"This is the main argument for Horno," says Harald Konzack, vice president of the local branch of the Sorb organization Domowina.

Pointing at a map of the traditional Sorb region, Mr. Konzack traces the course of the strip mines, which he says caused the leveling of dozens of Sorb villages in the past century.

"If they continue, I don't know what will be left of us," Konzack says when his finger arrives at Horno. The minority is struggling to keep its language alive: Virtually all Sorbs speak German as a first language. Today, about one-third of Horno's population calls itself Sorb.

The Brandenburg government argues that the resettlement of a village within the Sorb region is not a constitutional violation. Furthermore, the Constitution also lists job creation as a state aim.

"I don't know if the [constitutional] court can rule objectively," Konzack says. "Should the government lose the case, it would have to pay Laubag compensation."

Such skepticism about an independent judiciary is not uncommon in eastern Germany, but in Horno, the disillusionment with imported West German ways is pronounced. Klaus Richter, a Horno native who runs the community affairs office in neighboring Jnschwalde, says that hope for a secure future fizzled soon after German unification.

"We quickly realized that the powerful people don't only sit in the Politburo, but also at the levers of the utility companies," Mr. Richter says. "It's understandable that they only want to make profits when their shareholders are all in western Germany."

While Richter and Siegert are critical of the mining lobby and the government's broken promises, they realize they would have had no legal recourse in the old, centrally controlled East Germany.

Siegert is so sure that the constitutional court will rule in favor of Horno that he refuses to talk about Laubag's proposal to establish "Europe's first eco-village" as compensation for the resettled villagers.

"I draw my strength from the conviction that justice will prevail," says the mayor, and it appears that the majority of villagers share his belief. Only 12 of 110 homeowners in the tightly knit community have sold their properties.

And though state funds have been cut off to Horno, the villagers are renovating their century-old farmsteads as if their future was assured.

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