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Book review: Bloom and Bust: Urban Landscapes in the East since German Reunification

Book review: Bloom and Bust: Urban Landscapes in the East since German Reunification

Gwyneth Cliver, Carrie Smith-Prei (eds), Bloom and Bust: Urban Landscapes in the East since German Reunification, Berghahn Books: New York and Oxford, 2015; 276 pp.: 978 1 78238 490 8, £60.00/US$95.00 (hbk)

Anne Volkmann
TU Dortmund University, Germany

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent reunification of Germany, the uniqueness of the East German experience has been the topic of discussion in many fields beyond urban studies. In social sciences, a research specialisation emerged under the name of Ostdeutschlandforschung (East German studies) that explored many different aspects of the structural change – or, as many may argue, the structural break (see Geißler, 1994). Herein, the economic, social, political, cultural, and spatial development in East Germany after reunification has been contextualised in a research tradition of transformation studies with the transformation process as its central research interest. Transformation also became a special interest in urban studies on East Germany with a strong bias towards the changes in the urban systems and landscapes. Initially driven by the housing market developments and the loss of inhabitants in the cities, contemporary spatial research tackles a variety of topics that emerge in East German cities and regions while eventually losing its explicit focus on East Germany. In their edited volume Bloom and Bust, German studies experts Gwyneth Cliver and Carrie Smith-Prei combine the angles of post-Wende transformation processes and urban phenomena in Eastern Germany from a cultural studies perspective. They argue that ‘the built landscape and spaces of the former GDR have become grounds on which the status of unified German identity, shared histories, and mythmaking can be negotiated’ (p. 2). From a cultural studies research tradition which is concerned with the construction of meaning in a variety of texts, the volume explores the narratives of Eastern German cities in order to read and interpret these urban ‘texts’ in the context of decline and stagnation, voids, transformation, resurrection and rejuvenation, as well as authenticity and nostalgia. Special attention is given to the smaller and second-order cities such as Quedlinburg, Frankfurt/Oder, Bad Sulza, Hoyerswerda, Erfurt and Eisenach which have been neglected so far by cultural studies scholars who, rather, focus on well-known places like Berlin and Dresden.


Urban development in Eastern Germany is characterised by different tendencies. One of the most notable and most pressing issues is the shrinkage of cities due to emigration of inhabitants to more affluent parts of Germany and a rapid demographic change. Since the Wende, the peaceful revolution in 1989, the population in East Germany decreased by 12% from 18.6 (including 2.1 million inhabitants of West Berlin) to 16.5 million people, making shrinkage the biggest challenge in the urban development of the East. Still, despite this dominant pattern of population loss, some cities in East Germany such as Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, and Potsdam are (re)gaining inhabitants. This leads to the close proximity of shrinkage and growth (Wiechmann et al., 2014). Despite the mere loss of population, the Wende also caused economic changes, deindustrialisation and high unemployment rates, as well as reorganisation and learning processes in administration and politics. On the urban development level, the selective renewal of historic urban structures encounters with a deterioration of the housing market with large-scale abandonment and blight.

Many of these aspects are examined in great detail in the different book chapters. While Bloom and Bust – its title refers to former chancellor Helmut Kohl’s optimistic promise of blooming landscapes in East Germany – suggests stories of resurrection and decline, the case studies described in the volume do not necessarily follow this storyline. If there is common ground in the book it is the search for identity and its repercussions for the urban landscape. The authors, coming from different academic backgrounds and disciplines such as German studies, anthropology, history and geography, use different sources for describing and interpreting urban changes, covering a wide range of narratives such as novels, movies, sounds, brochures, social networks, buildings, urban structures, and political statements. Several authors including Heiduschke, James, McFarland and Guthrie, highlight a strong feeling of identity disorientation in East Germany. They observe this sensibility in novels and movies when uncertainty is reflected by certain genres (i.e. crime fiction) or topics such as social misery, urban restructuring, right-wing extremism, Ostalgie (nostalgia for the GDR), or unemployment. Gwyneth Cliver argues in her chapter on Hoyerswerda-Neustadt – a socialist model city in the State of Saxony – that the basis for the current identity disorientation was already laid during Socialist times. She describes the urban development of Hoyerswerda as a history of voids in the urban building structure and function, as well as in identity and future orientation (pp. 142–165). Sebastian Heiduschke (pp. 67–87) analyses three movies situated in Frankfurt/Oder that connect the wider transformation process with the local urban landscape, displaying the city as a place of belonging and distance, of identity as well as cultural and political empowerment. For Heiduschke, Frankfurt/Oder exemplifies many problems of East Germany and can therefore be seen as a paradigm for transformation processes while at the same time being unique in its function as a town marked by its geo-political border to Poland. As such, Frankfurt not only experiences a shift of borders within Germany in the wake of German reunification in 1990, but also within Europe when Poland joined the EU in 2004. Susanna Miller et al. (pp. 114–141) follow a comparable approach to Heiduschke with a focus on Berlin. The group of authors sees Berlin as ‘uniquely luminous in the German constellation’ (p. 116) and describes a certain Dorfmentalität, a narrow-minded village mentality, displayed in local movies which they claim as symptomatic for the self-identity of Berlin and the Berliners. Miller et al. explain this Dorfmentalität of exclusiveness, familiarity, and limited access particularly with West German citizens who colonise parts of former East Berlin.

Other authors try to read and interpret the physical urban landscape in order to describe cultural and societal identity constructions. Several authors focus on historical preservation, restoration, and reconstruction. Geographer Heike Albers describes the dramatic changes in preservation approaches before and after Wende in Quedlinburg, a small town in the Harz Mountains in the State of Saxony-Anhalt characterised by half-timbered houses. She demonstrates how the neglect of urban structure and architecture in GDR offered a window of opportunity for preservation after 1989 with many original structures still in place (pp. 21–44). Anthropologist Jason James (pp. 195–224) widens the view on preservation in his study on Eisenach in Thuringia by arguing that preservation and renewal are ‘much larger and the sentiments involved deeper and more complex than historic preservation, local identity, or political power per se’ (p. 195). According to him, the cityscape is a symbolic arena for the staging of national belonging, local identity, citizenship and modernity (p. 197). In this context, the nostalgic longing for preservation and architectural ‘authenticity’ can be seen as the search for a renewed and united German identity after the unification and at the same time an approach for labelling the Socialist and Nazi regimes as merely outside intruders on the ‘real’ Germanness. A comparable standpoint from a German studies perspective is taken by Rob McFarland and Elizabeth Guthrie (pp. 225–248) with a special focus on architectural and urban reconstructions. Looking at Dresden’s reconstruction activities since the Wende they assess their political meaning as ‘ambiguous at best and reactionary at worst’ (p. 239). The authors show the influence of nostalgia, media, and global tourism as important drivers of rebuilding projects and describe the discussion about reconstruction as loaded by quasi-religious dogmas.

The chapters focusing on preservation and reconstruction are the most accessible for urban planners for their close connection to urban development processes and its consequences for respective stakeholders. These case studies have the potential to question and explain motives and underlying notions in urban planning and urban development. While other chapters have possibly less explanatory power to an urban studies audience they still broaden the understanding of symbols, cultural meanings, and emotions as part of urban development and therefore are of value for every scholar in urban planning, geography, urban sociology as well as urban cultural studies dealing with East Germany. Hence, from a spatial planning perspective the volume can be seen as an enriching interdisciplinary contribution to current urban development debates. One might wish for a more stringent and complementary connection between the chapters, cities, and scholarly positions as well as a consistent urban studies perspective. While some chapters do touch substantive aspects of urban transformations research and ‘landscapes’ in the East since German reunification, as the subtitle of the edited volume suggests, others give the impression of taking the East German city merely as an anchor for excursions into quite unrelated topics. Also, the propagated focus on smaller cities seems to be rather a marketing strategy by the editors than actually dealt with in the articles since three out of nine chapters deal either with Berlin or Dresden, the largest cities in Eastern Germany. Still, the volume provides its audience with enormously helpful insights in the question of how the transformation processes after the Wende affect different layers of the city and how these transformations can be interpreted from a variety of academic fields.


Geißler R (1994) Sozialer Umbruch in Ostdeutschland. Einleitende Bemerkungen. In: Geißler R (ed.) Sozialer Umbruch in Ostdeutschland. Opladen: Leske & Budrich, pp. 7–29.

Wiechmann T, Volkmann A, Schmitz S (2014) Making places in increasingly empty spaces: Dealing with shrinkage in post-socialist cities – the example of East Germany. In: Pallagst K, Wiechmann T, Martinez-Fernandez C (eds) Shrinking Cities: International Perspectives and Policy Implications. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 125–146.

Anne Volkmann (Januar 2016)

Quelle: Volkmann, Anne (2016): Book review: Bloom and Bust: Urban Landscapes in the East since German Reunification. In: Urban Studies Vol. 53, No. 1, 217-219