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Saxony-Anhalt. The Central German Innovation Region

In the early 20th century the area now known as Saxony-Anhalt rose to become one of the most important industrial regions in Europe. The invention of artificial manure in Piesteritz, the innovative aircraft construction industry in the Junkers works in Dessau, and many other trailblazing technological achievements soon found international recognition. Sprawling opencast brown coal mines and huge power stations provided the necessary power for the factories and promoted the growth of a flourishing chemical industry. The process of structural transformation after the reunification of Germany laid bare the unbridled plundering of the natural environment and at the same time led to a new modernisation drive. Nowadays middle range businesses dominate the region instead of huge industrial concerns. In many places the old industrial landscape is being replaced by new man-made sites dedicated to cultural and recreational purposes.

From the very start mineral resources were the basis of industrial development. In some places people began to exploit them as early as the Middle Ages. Copper mining in the area around Mansfeld, for example, began more than 800 years ago. Here, in a shaft in the Harzvorland near Hettstedt, the first German steam engine (based on James Watt’s model) went into operation in 1785. Today a faithful replica of the original engine can be seen in the baroque Humboldt Castle in Hettstedt. And when visitors to the Röhrig shaft in Wettelrode (now in operation for demonstration purposes only), travel below ground to a depth of almost 300 metres, they can get a vivid idea of the harsh conditions under which copper miners had to work in the 19th century. A journey with the Mansfeld colliery railway, Germany's oldest narrow gauge line, takes passengers back to the time when there was a brisk transport of goods and people between the countless collieries and iron and steelmaking plants in the region.

Salt production from brine along the River Saale also goes back deep into the past. For centuries the "white gold" was a source of prosperity and power until it faded into insignificance in the 19th century in face of the competition from rock salt mining. Nonetheless the town of Bad Dürrenberg held fast to the old art of salting until as late as 1963. Here Europe's longest continuous graduation tower demonstrates how brine was once concentrated and purified on a grand scale. The social and technical history of local salt production is explained in the neighbouring Borlach Museum.

Salt was not the only "white gold" in Saxony-Anhalt. Well over 160 years ago a group of shrewd farmers in the Magdeburger Börde area discovered the syrupy potentials of sugar beet. In the following years the sugar industry developed to become one of the main driving forces behind the start of industrialisation. Another driving force was mechanical engineering, which established itself in Magdeburg, not least because of the favourable transport connections to and from what is now the regional capital. A highly modern water junction including Europe's longest canal bridge has improved these connections even further in the last few years. In addition Magdeburg’s reputation as a technology city can be traced back to the 17th century in the person of a politician and scientist by the name of Otto von Guericke. It was here that he carried out his pioneering experiments on the properties of the vacuum. The Magdeburg Technology Museum spans all the different stages of the mechanical age, and is itself a part of this history. It is housed in an exhibition hall where the Magdeburg industrialist Hermann Gruson erected a casting works in 1871. Its permanent mould products were in great demand by railway companies and the Prussian army. Significant innovations in the realm of mechanical engineering were also introduced elsewhere in the region. This is especially clear in the Hugo Junkers Technical Museum in Dessau, which documents the achievements of the most famous aircraft manufacturer in Germany. Indeed, in 1919, the workers at the Dessau Junkers works were responsible for making the first ever all-metal aircraft in the world. The most spectacular exhibit in the museum is one of the last Junkers JU 52 aircraft, which made aviation history as a passenger aircraft in the 1930s, and was in operation from places as a far away as Norway and South America.

Around this time the south eastern area of Saxony-Anhalt was already dominated by the chemical industry, whose vast range of outstanding developments and technologies soon gave it a worldwide reputation. These included the first German synthetic rubber, a number of synthetic materials and light metal alloys, the synthetic fibre Perlon, and a high-pressure hydration process for ammonia one of whose uses was as a primary material for the production of chemical fertilisers.

The precondition for the swift growth in the central German chemical industry from the end of the 19th century was the rich reserves of brown coal, rock salt and potash in the area. Brown coal was a cheap source of energy. However, the fact that it only had a low calorific value in comparison to fossil coal, made it impossible from the very start for the region to develop along the lines of the Ruhrgebiet, for example. Sugar factories in particular resorted to the new form of power, and bought in brown coal from small pits in the neighbourhood to process it on site. The sole relic of this early phase of industrialisation is the historic briquette-making works – now the Herrmannschacht Industrial Museum – in Zeitz. Most of the equipment in its machinery park has been retained in its original state. As such it is a source of rare technological treasures. The works were built in 1889 directly next to a sugar factory. The geographical proximity between the production site and its power source only proved superfluous when it became technically possible to deliver electricity over large distances. From then on, instead of purchasing heavy dirty coal and heating it up on their own sites, factories preferred to take advantage of "clean" energy via electricity cables.

At the start of the 20th century brown coal was the power basis behind all the industries in central Germany. The abundant mineral resources on the north-west edge of the Düben Heath were soon transformed into huge areas of opencast mines. Central power stations processed the inferior brown coal into highly valuable electrical power. In 1915 the then largest steam power station in the world in Zschornewitz near Bitterfeld began delivering electricity to the grid. Further north a major power station in Vockerode began operations in 1938. Most of the plant on both industrial sites was, however, dismantled after the Second World War and sent to Soviet Russia as war reparations. But later the two plants were once more built up and activated by the East German government to supply power to an industrial conurbation which, for many years, set new standards for the chemical industry both in terms of production processes and amounts. The German Chemistry Museum in Merseburg pays tribute to this achievement, as does the Industrial and Film Museum in Wolfen, whose historic processing machines enabled the first multi-layer colour film in the world to be produced here in 1936.

In 1939 no less than one in four of all employees in the German chemical industry was working in the region between Wittenberg and Zeitz. At the same time tens of thousands of mineworkers were digging out brown coal from opencast mines. In order to cater adequately for the housing requirements of their workforce, many companies decided to build their own housing estates. A particularly good extant example is the "garden city" built between 1916 and 1918 by the former Reich Nitrogen Works in Piesteritz. Social housing estates also received a new boost in the period between the two World Wars. Between 1926 and 1928, Walter Gropius, the director of the Bauhaus Dessau Design Academy was commissioned to build the an experimental housing estate – the Törten estate - in the up-and-coming industrial town of Dessau. The houses were not only notable for their industrial design but also for their aesthetic appearance, as might be expected from the high standards of the Bauhaus architects. Seen from the point of view of an art historian the Bauhaus movement marks the start of the classical Modern.

The swift development of industry in Saxony-Anhalt over the last hundred years has not only left us with a rich and unique industrial heritage. It also bequeathed us massive environmental damage, the extent of which only became clear after German reunification. Current structural changes are particularly apparent in the mining topographies which have been cleaned up and greened over. Here water plays a significant role in transforming the deep cavities left by opencast mining into attractive areas of lakes. Areas which were once dominated by huge excavators and mining equipment are now being re-created into recreational areas and biotopes.

A palpable example here is the central workshop in Pfännerhall which was once used to repair pit railway equipment, and is now a historical industrial building used not only for cultural events and to mark the history and modernisation of the Geisel Valley, but to ensure that the surrounding landscape is redesigned in an intelligent manner. In the meantime the old opencast brown coal mining site at Goitzsche has become the site of the world's largest land art project. Furthermore a nationally famous project by the name of Ferropolis has been established on an island in the middle of a lake in the flooded opencast mine at Golpa-Nord. The "Town of Iron" is many things at the same time: a museum, an industrial monument, a steel sculpture, a concert venue and a theme park. In addition it is one of the anchor points along the European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH) and simultaneously the starting point Of the Central German Innovation Route which links 17 industrial monuments between Magdeburg and Zeitz. Together they portray a multifaceted picture of the industrial past in Saxony-Anhalt and are living proof that viable perspectives for the future can be developed from past industrial history.