In cities and municipalities, a society's transformation manifests itself in the immediate reality of people's lives. Seemingly abstract issues regarding transformation are being dealt with on a local level, visibly and tangibly for individuals. Neither do people resign or radicalise themselves on an abstract level, but directly and locally. In Border Studies and European Studies, border regions, such as the twin city of Frankfurt (Oder)/Słubice, are described as a "laboratory of European integration" or a "European microcosm" (Opiłowska 2019). In the context of German-German and German-Polish relations, they are indeed places that reflect national and international politics – and where local history retells the entangled transformation histories of East Germany and Poland. This article focuses on the history of the Frankfurt (Oder)/Słubice region and how it dealt with two long-term transformation processes: the Wende and European East-West relations.
The ambivalence of simultaneity
The first transformation history in Frankfurt's recent urban history tells of the upheavals of 1989/90, the origins of which reach far back into the 1980s or late 1970s and beyond the city's and the German-Polish border. Thirty years after the upheavals of 1989/90, it is therefore correct to speak of a "long history of transition" or a "long period of transformation" (Brückweh, Villinger, Zöller 2020).
Initially, for Frankfurt (Oder) the transition period meant an economic crisis. During socialism, Frankfurt (Oder) had been known as the "city of microelectronics" and had thus represented scientific and technological progress. Next to semiconductor products, instruments from the VEB Orgelbau W. Sauer, bedrooms from the VEB Möbelwerke, timber and agricultural products were shipped from Frankfurt (Oder) and the surrounding area to "capitalist foreign countries" in exchange for foreign currency (Kusch 2003, p. 289).
The semiconductor plant (HFO) was the largest microelectronics manufacturer in the GDR and the largest enterprise in the city with roughly 8,100 employees in 1989 (Schwarz, Valerius 2003, p. 266). With the expansion of the factory, the city population had grown by 15,000 to about 88,000 between 1960 and 1989. By 1989/1990, every third family in Frankfurt was linked to the factory. Its history "reflects [...] the rise and fall of the GDR en miniature, the hopes of socialist industrialisation since the 1960s as well as the frustrations of the new, competition-driven deindustrialisation in the 1990s" (Schwarz, Valerius 2003, p. 263).
The conflicts surrounding the HFO affected all levels of life in the city and its people, because like all the larger socialist enterprises and combines in the GDR, the HFO combined work with the social, societal and cultural life of its employees. After the bankruptcy of the HFO, the monetary union in July 1990 and the transition to D-Mark, thousands of employees, including 1,000 Polish women from Słubice and the surrounding area, were laid off. Furthermore, this meant the loss of previousl existing social contacts and social integration (Schwarz, Valerius 2003, p. 272). The eastern sister city of Frankfurt (Oder), Słubice, saw similar experiences with the "Komes" company, the "Przyjaźń" food cooperative and the local furniture factory (Rutkowska 1996, p. 140).
At the same time, the city’s status changed. Thousands of Soviet soldiers had been stationed in Frankfurt (Oder) and had lived there with their civilian employees and family members. For the Soviet army, Frankfurt (Oder) had been the gateway to Germany, but also back to the homeland (Wołoszyn 2016, p. 64). In 1993 and 1994, the Soviet troops were withdrawn, but the after-effects of the occupation of the region remained palpable until well after 1994: To date, both cities are struggling with the ecological damage and necessary redevelopment of the barracks left behind. When the GDR joined the Federal Republic, this part of the country automatically became a member of NATO, while Poland followed six years later.
In comparison to other regions of the GDR, political change came relatively late in Frankfurt (Oder), although opposition movements had existed since the early 1970s and, in the summer of 1989, a small group of people initiated the New Forum (Kusch 2003, pp. 283-286). On November 1st, only eight days before the fall of the Berlin wall, 35,000 citizens demonstrated in Frankfurt (Oder). This "belated revolution" is ever more striking when juxtaposed with Poland – where a non-communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, had already ruled the country since the summer of 1989.
This simultaneity led to insecurity and tensions – at the same time, the post-transformation order was everything but uncontended. A "third way", the reformation of the GDR, but not (yet) a transformation of the system itself, was being called for, similar to what Ota Šik did for Czechoslovakia and Włodzimierz Brus and Kazimierz Łaski designed for Poland since the 1960s (Šik 1972; Brus, Łaski 1989). In this transition period, "market socialism" as a hybrid form of planned and market economy was the envisioned goal. The hope extended to reforms that would then take effect in East and West Germany, leading to great disappointment in the East when that hope was not fulfilled after the GDR joined the Federal Republic. The situation was aggravated by the fact that, traditionally (since the beginning of the 19th century), many citizens had worked in municipal, state and military administration – thus proximity to the system was inevitable, entrepreneurship rather an exception. The results of the first election after the 1989 November uprising confirmed this: In the first free election to the Volkskammer of the GDR on March 18th, 1990, the PDS (the successor party to the SED) came in third in the district of Frankfurt (Oder) behind the CDU and the SPD. At 22.1 %, their share of the vote was significantly higher than the average for the GDR as a whole (16.4 %). With the exception of 1998, the PDS or the Left have been the strongest force in the city parliament since 1990.
Furthermore, the city’s transformation history includes a massive demographic turn. The exodus towards the West in the context of the first great emigration movement in August 1961 had spared Frankfurt (Oder), although the population figures were significantly below GDR average. This appears to be a "parallel to the relatively 'positive' election results [...], resulting from regulated migration by party politics in connection with the establishment, strength and effectiveness of the administration, the so-called armed organs and large-scale enterprises" (Kusch 2003, p. 300). In the 1990s, migration from the city hit with full force, resulting in a loss of 35 % of the population: a blow that the city still struggles with today.
Against the backdrop of those multiple crises, (re)founding the European University Viadrina in 1991 was an important but also ambivalent sign of the city’s development after 1989/1990, especially since it resulted directly from the citizen’s enormous engagement. The decision of the state of Brandenburg to not provide the Viadrina with a science faculty – against the broad will of the city’s population – was primarily due to Brandenburg's tight budget, but at the same time sealed the demise of the semiconductor industry in the city, which, ultimately could do little to counter the competition in Dresden.
The transformation of East-West relations in Europe
A specific feature of Frankfurt’s transformation history is its character as a (double) city and its gradual integration with its Eastern European neighbours. In the negotiations preceding the Two Plus Four Agreement, the reunification of Germany was linked to the condition of recognising the eastern border. It also shows how the global and European levels directly affected the regional, local level. Visa-free travel between the Republic of Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany followed as early as April 1991. For Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice, the opening of the border meant that several million people passed the city bridge every year, and cross-border shopping tourism and smuggling flourished. On the German side, there were demonstrations against the opening of the border and attacks by neo-Nazis on Polish citizens. For the city bridge, the 1990s turned out to be “a late wedding, but also a test of endurance” (Ackermann 2003, p. 318).
2004, with Poland’s accession to the EU – symbolising its "return to Europe" (Wagener 1999), was a key year of transformation for the country, but did not yet entail the removal of all barriers: Border controls were only abolished in December 2007 when Poland joined the Schengen Area, and the twin city had to wait until May 1st, 2011 for freedom of employment and freedom of establishment. Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice growing together to form the twin city of "Slubfurt" (a term coined by the Frankfurt artist Michael Kurzwelly) is considered a small "miracle on the Oder", but it did not – and does not – proceed in a linear fashion. The asymmetry in economic power has become less pronounced in the last 30 years, but it is still noticeable. In 1990, Germany's GDP per capita was about $ 18,600, while Poland’s was $ 1,800. Today, Poland's GDP per capita of $ 15,600 is about the same as Germany's in 1990; for Germany, the GDP per capita in 2020 was about $ 45,700. In 2019, Frankfurt (Oder) had a GDP per capita of almost $ 44,000, the region of Gorzów Wielkopolski, which Słubice belongs to, of just under $ 13,000.
With regards to population development, Frankfurt (Oder) had 86,000 inhabitants in 1990, Słubice 16,000 (Brencz, Rutowska 1996, p. 108). In 2020, Słubice's population is almost constant at 16,600, while that of Frankfurt (Oder) has shrunk to 57,000. A relatively new aspect is migration. After 45 years with a rather homogeneous population on both sides (apart from Soviet troops – about 16,000 people – and some contract workers from Vietnam and Mozambique), the urban society has become more multicultural since 1989/90. It includes Russian Germans, who make up part of a Jewish community, Polish residents of Frankfurt (now 10 % of the city's population), and refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon. Many Ukrainians and Belarusians live in Słubice; more than 10 % of the city’s population are immigrants from abroad. Its appearance has become multicultural, symbolised by the magnificent golden dome of the Orthodox church in the otherwise mainly Catholic city.
The German-Polish language border is one of the toughest language borders in the world (Kimura 2017, p. 52). Language skills are a foundation for the region’s common development, but to date, language education has fallen short of the opportunities available to a border region – such as initiatives for a bilingual school system. Differences in administration and infrastructure have also hindered a coalescence of the twin cities, eg. in the emergency services, the police, health care, education and environment protection. Given as Poland's centralised structure is not very compatible with Germany's federal structure, the agreement on cooperation between the police, border and customs authorities in 2015 was a success. In environmental protection, however, differences again become evident: Poland's planned expansion of the Oder river led to fierce protests from the German side, as spheres of nature conservation, economy and regional development collide. At a purely municipal decision-making level, solutions do succeed, as can be seen in the joint bus line between Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice as well as the joint heat supply for the twin city.
The common transformation history of Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice illustrates the ambivalences of simultaneity, but also the paradox of integration with intensified conflicts against the backdrop of increasing integration.
Translation: Anna Labentz
A German-language, revised and unabridged version of this blog post appeared as part of this article: Dagmara Jajeśniak-Quast, Lars Kirchhoff, René Wilke, Susann Worschech: Wandel, Ambivalenz und Resilienz. Zusammendenken von Transformations- und Konfliktforschung im Lichte der Fallstudie Frankfurt (Oder)/Słubice, in: Konfliktdynamik 11 (2022) 2, pp. 82–96 (doi.org/10.5771/2193-0147-2022-2-82).