Letter from Europe

The German Manchester

Issue no. 2019/4

Picture above: A road in the Lusatian town of Forst. The derelict mill building serves as a reminder that this area once had a thriving textile industry (photo © hidden europe).


This week we travelled slowly through Lusatia, exploring communities once sustained by extensive vineyards and a thriving textile industry. The modestly sized town of Forst on the west bank of the River Neisse once styled itself as the German Manchester because of its many textile mills.

Dear fellow travellers

The River Neisse has since 1945 defined Poland's western border in the area south of Gubin. It's one of Europe's newer frontiers, bisecting a region that historically was a single entity known as Lusatia (Lausitz in German). It was for a spell a Bohemian Crownland and later belonged to the Electorate of Saxony.

A Sorbian-speaking minority in the German part of Lusatia, on the west side of the River Neisse, gives the region a distinctive cultural feel - a territory that is Germany with a Slavic twist. For us Berliners, Lusatia is just over an hour away by train and a popular place for day trips and longer excursions.

So this week we travelled slowly through Lusatia, exploring communities once sustained by extensive vineyards and a thriving textile industry. Friedrich Engels is better known for his understanding of textile mills than for his appreciation of wine. But in August 1842 he wrote to his sister Maria about just how unpalatable were the wines made on the sandy soils of the Lausitz. "A mixture of nitric acid and wine-vinegar comes closest in taste to this noble wine," Engels confided.

In Engels' day there were over 200 vineyards in Lusatia and, although wine production all but disappeared in the last century, recent years have seen a modest revival with a dozen vintners now producing wines on the German side of the border and a remarkable increase in the amount of land under vines in western Poland (particular around Zielona Góra in Polish Silesia).

But it wasn't the vineyards that made the modestly sized town of Forst on the west bank of the River Neisse style itself as the German Manchester. It was the cotton mills. From Cottbus and Spremberg, moving east through Forst to Sorau (now Zary in Poland), there were hundreds of mills working all hours to satisfy the growing demands for twill and the worsted fabrics of Lusatia. And nowhere more so than in the little town of Forst, located by the River Neisse at a point where the river bifurcates in two branches so giving easier access to water power. The town centre is actually on an island in the river, although most visitors would barely notice that today, so small and overgrown is the western branch of the Neisse.

Even in 1800, the textile and clothing sectors accounted for over half of all paid employment in the region. But with the reopening of European trade in the post-Napoleonic period, there was a huge expansion in production. And the impetus for that came mainly from England where a great raft of entrepreneurial innovation was transforming the production of woollen and cotton fabrics. It's no surprise perhaps that Friedrich Engel's parents, anxious that their son should join the family mill business, despatched him off to Manchester to learn how things were done in England.

English entrepreneurs, such as the Cockerill family, brought finance, skills and equipment to transform mills across Prussia and Lusatia. Forst boomed and from the mid-19th century the town's textile products were found across the world. A narrow-gauge railway, which eventually developed into a network of 24 km, ran through the town's streets connecting more than four dozen mills.

In 1925 over 15,000 Forst residents worked in textiles. By 1989 that number had shrunk to 1,900. Within a year of German unification, all the mills in this erstwhile part of the German Democratic Republic had closed.

About one third of the population has moved away over the last 30 years, leaving an ageing community that is struggling to find a role in the new service economy. An engaging museum, housed in a former mill, gives an upbeat account of Forst in better times, reminding visitors that there once was a day when Forst fabrics were sought after in Paris and Pittsburgh.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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