As Germany marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this week, many older people in the country’s East will once again recall the newly won freedoms they enjoyed as the ground was prepared for German reunification.
But they may also recall the hardships many endured when their planned economy was replaced with a free market system basically overnight. It meant that hundreds of thousands lost their jobs in the ensuing years as they were told their firms were not competitive enough in the new market environment.
Back in 2013, Der Spiegel magazine ran a story headlined “Rust in peace.” It drew attention to the many large factories across Eastern Germany that were shut in the early 1990s and had been falling into disrepair ever since.
Saxony is a case in point. Once a huge hub of the textile industry, the German state still shows the scars of post-unification upheaval. You don’t have to drive far to spot large industrial ruins, especially in and around the towns of Chemnitz and Plauen, where thousands of textile workers used to be employed in state-owned conglomerates sprawling dozens of hectares.
The legacy of an industry in post-reunification upheaval is still visible in many places in Eastern Germany. The picture shows the ramshackle remains of Plauen’s former dyeworks and bleach plant
Old markets for Eastern Germany gone
When economic and monetary union was completed between the two Germanys in 1990, the most important Eastern European markets for the Saxon textile industry broke away. The bloodletting was so massive in the years to come that some commentators at the time spoke of the demise of an entire industry in the state — a belief that’s still rooted deeply in many Easterners’ minds. After all, the number of people employed in the Eastern German textile industry used to be around 320,000 in 1990 and is now down to roughly 16,000.
“I’d call it a success story nonetheless,” Jenz Otto told DW. He heads vti, a Chemnitz-based group representing the interests of the Eastern German textile industry. “Hardly any industry in the East managed to emerge from reunification as strong as it was before. Industrial factories experienced a steep drop in production and employment,” he added.
“But look, Saxony now accounts for some 80% of all textile production in the Eastern German states. Factories here have managed to move away from conventional garment production and focus on highly specialized technical fabrics for the chemical industry, the car industry, the engineering sector and many more recipients,” Otto emphasized, adding that this fundamental shift had happened largely unnoticed by the general public.
Fashion no longer a primary focus
Thanks to the resourcefulness of local entrepreneurs and capital injections from the West, the industry is still very much alive in Saxony. It’s even produced a number of hidden or not-so-hidden market champions.
Heinsdorfergrund near the A72 highway between the Saxon towns of Plauen and Chemnitz is home to C.H. Müller (see top picture), a company that in the past few decades has managed to become Europe’s market leader in the production segment of laminations and coatings for car interiors, says Thomas Porst, who heads the company together with Philipp Porst.
He tells DW that up to 90% of the firm’s output is destined for the auto industry — a sector currently facing enormous uncertainty and restructuring. But Thomas Porst looks on the bright side of things:
“It’s a temporary threat as the US-China trade spat, Brexit and the e-mobility focus sees the automotive industry suffering a setback in terms of sales,” he noted.
“But since we produce car interiors and not engines or transmission technology in general, we are less affected since even electric cars need fabrics for interiors. Smart textiles with entertainment and other functions will also increasingly play a bigger role as self-driving technology advances,” Porst explained.
C.H. Müller has meanwhile expanded to the US, building a production facility in Greer, South Carolina.
“We went to the US to secure another big market for us,” Porst said. “We may also expand to Asia one day, but at the moment that would be biting off more than we can chew in terms of finances and manpower — so, at least we’re present in the world’s second-largest car market.”
As it happens, C.H. Müller’s site in South Carolina is just a stone’s throw away from BMW’s plant in Spartanburg.
“Our being so close to BMW’s compound is accidental, but has certainly turned out to be a location advantage, no doubt about that,” Porst acknowledged. We started our full production cycle in the US about a year ago, and we produce solely for the North American market there, with carmakers active in Mexico also being among our clients.”
Equally well-positioned at home and in the US is a Saxon company called Norafin. It specializes in a wide range of protective materials and clothing, producing among other things heat-resistant wear for firemen and high-tech filters for a number of industries.
Specialization in a number of areas involving nonwovens plus hydroentangled as well as needle-entangled fibers has been the secret behind Norafin’s steady success, CEO Andre Lang told DW.
Norafin (headquartered in Mildenau, Saxony) has a strong focus on specialty nonwovens, innovative material structures and composites
“As far as I know, there’s no other company in Germany and beyond with that breadth of solutions that we can offer in our specialized fields of production,” Lang said.
In fact, operations have been going so smoothly that conquering a new market was but a logical consequence.
“Some 30% of our business is meanwhile generated in the US [Mills River, North Carolina], and counting,” Lang noted. “We’re not yet directly invested in Asia which has a lot to do with how much importance societies attach to people’s safety — safety standards are very high in the US for fireworkers and others, so there’s great demand for high-tech protective clothing,” Lang added, stressing that the same can be said about Europe, but to a lesser degree about Asia right now.
But attitudes are bound to change over time, so Norafin has no reason to fear a lack of markets in the future.
Norafin and C.H. Müller are just two of many examples showing that a high degree of specialization has helped the Saxon textile and garment industry stand its ground, and sometimes do so against all odds.
According to figures provided by the vti industry group, Eastern German textile companies as a whole produced goods worth €1.87 billion ($2.08 billion) in 2018. Roughly 44% of them were exported to fellow European nations and overseas clients.