Exploring the Soviet-era Abandoned Buildings of Chemnitz, Former East Germany
If you visit the city of Chemnitz in the German Free State of Saxony, your first impression is going to be distinctly Soviet. You might regret you came, even wishing you went to one of Germany’s more alluring destinations like Munich, Hamburg or Berlin. But it’s important to persevere, because hidden under Chemnitz’s grey and gritty exterior, it’s possible to unearth a plethora of historical riches.
Not far away from the beautiful city of Dresden, Chemnitz was named Karl-Marx-Stadt between 1953 and 1990. German reunification tore the heart out of the city’s traditional industrial backbone. Struggling to compete in a new Germany driven by economic powerhouses in cities like Munich and Stuttgart, Chemnitz started to decline. Its factories and apartment blocks were torn down or abandoned as people flooded west in search of new opportunities.
Since those early days of reunification, Chemnitz has started to recover, as mechanical engineering, metal processing, and vehicle manufacturing have made a welcome comeback. Statistics show that more and more of Germany’s top brands, including Volkswagen, are seeing potential in Chemnitz’s highly educated and youthful population. In fact, Volkswagen’s plant in the city was rated “Factory of the Year 2009” in the “outstanding innovation management” category by management consultants A.T. Kearney and the German magazine “Produktion”.
Today, the city is growing steadily, posting some of Germany’s highest annual GDP growth rates. Unemployment is falling dramatically, while 16.3% of all inhabitants hold a university degree – twice the national average. However, old scars are difficult to heal and despite the city’s new found success, there is a lot of work to do. Chemnitz is still grey and bland, full of abandoned monuments to a more prosperous era.
I walked through the city with a friend back in 2009. Deeply familiar with Chemnitz and its history, he regaled me with stories of abandoned apartment blocks and business premises. Apparently, he used to enjoy champagne breakfasts with some friends on the roof of a deserted factory. For him, sunrise was the best time of the day in Chemnitz, and where better to enjoy it than the best vantage point in town. With a mouth full of croissant and champagne, he’d watch the sun slowly rising over the smokestacks, transforming the lifeless shades of grey into a vibrant mosaic of orange and red.
I was keen to see these forgotten locations for myself, and we duly arrived at some neglected apartments, their facades a mixture of old peeling paint interspersed with artistic graffiti. It was clear that the occupants had departed some time ago. The downstairs windows still had battered and flimsy wooden shutters, affording the building little protection. The upstairs windows, unprotected by shutters, were cracked and broken. With a little work, we managed to open the front door and stood in the hallway.
Of course, we certainly weren’t the first people to enter the building since its occupants left, and its state left much to be desired. It certainly wasn’t as well preserved as a well known East German flat discovered in Leipzig in 2009. Still, there was plenty of evidence of a happy former life. Even though the cooker was still in place, the kitchen furniture was probably long since looted. The living room had an old GDR-era television with a cracked screen and an old sofa. Some beer cans were scattered around, indicating the old flat was still being used by squatters.
In the bathroom, the pipes, sink, toilet and a long neglected bath were still in place, making me wonder why the squatters didn’t avail of them. Perhaps the plain of thought “it isn’t my house so I can do as I please” prevailed. Casting such notions aside, we went to the bedroom, catching glimpses of ourselves in an old dusty mirror perched on the night-stand There wasn’t too much left of the bed, just a basic square structure with some rusty springs. In places, the wooden floor felt unstable, so we decided to leave and move onto something even more interesting.
Out on the street, it was nice to breathe some fresh air. That was until an old Trabant rumbled by, belching smoke and fumes, adding an air of authenticity to the scene. We walked onwards to our next destination, passing countless buildings in a similar state. My friend promised me the next place would prove far more interesting than the apartment, and he wasn’t wrong. We arrived at his favourite breakfast venue, an old abandoned factory with a yellow “Chemnitzer Leuchten GmbH” logo adorning its façade.
My friend explained that the factory was one of the core locations for producing light fittings in East Germany. To gain access to the facility, we had to climb over a fence and cross a stream before warily crossing a mound of rubble. This was obviously the remains of a collapsed wall and once over it, we were at the side door to the workshop. Unlike the apartments, the metal door was wide open, almost inviting. So with flash-light in hand, on we went into the darkness. The redbrick walls of the factory had certainly seen better days and were crumbling, but inside the workshop itself, the scene was one of remarkable preservation.
As we entered the production hall, we could see a pale green machine, its silhouette resembling one of those eerie Moai figures from Easter Island. As we moved further into the massive room, the cracked windows illuminated the scene in its entirety. Even though the work benches were gone and that green machine is standing idle, there was ample evidence of the factory’s function.
Shelves packed with tools still lined the walls, as did pipes and electric wires. I was surprised the tools hadn’t been stolen over the years. You could still find handcarts, fire extinguishers and even some desks complete with old lamps. Aside from the absence of the work benches, the peeling paint and prevalence of invading ivy, it felt as if work stopped just the week before.
Moving on, we came to the most interesting part of the factory, a storage room for finished products on the second floor. Hundreds of cardboard boxes were stacked to the ceiling. On closer inspection, they still contained the lights produced all those years ago, untouched and as good as new. Even though they were horrendously ugly, the discovery was intriguing. If you want to set up a business selling retro East German light fittings, come to Chemnitz!
In the adjoining rooms, it was possible to find small electrical components, still sealed in their original plastic bags, complete with the company logo. It felt like a time capsule. And it wasn’t just the factory itself. Peering out through the broken glass, it was possible to make out multicoloured Trabants on the street, with more dilapidated apartments just beyond them. A passing BMW quickly destroyed the historic illusion, a symbol of the modern optimistic Chemnitz mixed with its depressed past.
Sadly, I didn’t have time to enjoy a sunrise breakfast on the roof of the Chemnitzer Leuchten factory. Like many people before him, my streetwise friend has left Chemnitz and moved on to greener pastures. He told me that in the years since 2009, the factory was torn down. Exploring that place and uncovering its secrets while it still stood was an amazing experience. Nevertheless, I’m sure to this day, there are many more urban ghosts around Chemnitz and other East German cities, just waiting to be explored.