Once upon a time in Lütten Klein…

15 August 2021

A while ago I made a documentary film about the Ukrainian sleeping district Troeshchyna. Originally envisioned as a prototypical socialist neighbourhood, Troeshchyna soon became a social hotspot characterized by poverty, vandalism, and isolation. While neighbourhoods like Troeshchyna are most frequently seen in post-Soviet states such as Ukraine and Russia, these socialist model districts were also built in East Germany during the 1960s and 70s – and still exist today.

One of them is Lütten Klein in Rostock, which I recently had the chance to visit. Similar to Toeshchyna, Lütten Klein was once a village dating back to the Middle Ages.

The area, however, swiftly changes after World War II. As part of the East German Communist Party’s housing programme, the government errects 10,000 new flats for more than 60,000 workers – within less than ten years. Just like Troeshchyna, the new Lütten Klein sets the standard for modern, comfortable living, especially for young families with children: From the earliest planning stages onwards, schools, parks and playgrounds make up an integral part of the neighbourhood. The more children a family has, the greater is their chance of getting one of the very sought-after flats.

This all reverses with the fall of Communism and the reunification of Germany in the 1990s. “Neubau” (“new building”) suddenly becomes “Plattenbau” (“slab building”). Architecture which used to look futuristic, is now considered grotesque. With East Germany’s integration into the Western market economy, the majority of the 6,000 workers of the nearby Warnow shipyard lose their jobs. Stability gives way to uncertainty.

Fast forward to 2019, when 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the German sociologist Steffen Mau, who himself grew up in Lütten Klein, releases the book „Lütten Klein – Leben in der ostdeutschen Transformationsgesellschaft“, „Lütten Klein – Life in the East German Transformation Society”. Mau uses Lütten Klein as a microcosm – a “shop window” as he describes it – to explore, amongst other things, how social structures have changed following the German reunification and the reasons for the continuing political alienation of many former East Germans. One of Mau’s main observations is that East Germany was a society of the “little people” – a people of simple professions, lacking a civic culture and an educated elite.

It is no overstatement to say that since the reunification of Germany, Lütten Klein has come a long way from a Socialist satellite town. The neighbourhood was connected to Rostock’s tram network in the early 2000s and most of its concrete apartment blocks are now hidden behind tall, lush green trees.

But, in many ways, it has also not.

The average age of Lütten Klein’s 16,000 residents is one of the highest in Rostock. Every fourth inhabitant is 75 years or older. Unemployment is twice as high as in the rest of Germany. Those who could afford it, have moved away.

The day of writing this (13 August 2021) coincidentally marks 60 years since construction began on the Berlin Wall, which divided Germany for almost 30 years to come. Today and thousands of Billions of Euros of investments later, Lütten Klein and East Germany as a whole appear to be at a crossroads. In my age group (I was born 11 years after the German reunification) the differentiation between East and West is virtually irrelevant and a matter for the history books. Among older age groups, however, the legacy of East Germany’s decade-long social and cultural seclusion remains visible.

Lütten Klein, 1960s & 70s

Lütten Klein, 2021

Sources & further reading

Steffen Mau on Lütten Klein:

Lütten Klein, Steffen Mau, 2019, Suhrkamp, 284 pp. (Language: German)

“Phänomen “Platte”: Von der Boom-Town zum Problemviertel?”, Steffen Schneider, 01 October 2020, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (Language: German)

“Lütten Klein als Schaufenster der DDR”, Interview with Steffen Mau, 12 August 2019, Deutschlandfunk Kultur (Language: German)

“Im Land der kleinen Leute”, Interview with Steffen Mau, 03 October 2019, DER SPIEGEL (Language: German)

Statistics on Lütten Klein:

Statistische Nachrichten Lütten Klein, 2019, Rathaus Rostock (Language: German)

East German emigration to West Germany:

“Der Zug nach Westen – Jahrzehntelange Abwanderung, die allmälich nachlässt”, Bernd Martens, 07 May 2020, Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) (Language: German)

Shipbuilding in East Germany and after the reunification:

“Gezeitenwechsel an der Ostsee. Die Privatisierung des DDR-Schiffbaus”, Eva Lütkemeyer, 05 June 2020, bpb (Language: German)

“Werftenkrise”, Simon Frost & Ulrike Thiele, 25 March 2010, Der Tagesspiegel (Language: German)

The continuing division of Germany:

“A Nation Divided”, Christian Bangel, 29 October 2014, ZEIT ONLINE (Language: English)

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