Living in the path of destruction Mining: Horno, Germany, might be destined for the slag heap of history. It lies on the edge of a coal field, and 140 other villages have been razed to make way for strip mines.

Sun Journal

July 14, 1998|By James Drake | James Drake,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HORNO, Germany -- Erich Muller breaks off tilling his vegetable patch, fires up a cheap cigar and looks around at the sleepy hamlet that has been his home since childhood.

"Leave Horno?" the 70-year-old retired railway worker grunts. "They'll never shift me."

Time will tell. It could be that history is on their side. This tiny collection of brick cottages and timbered farmsteads on eastern Germany's border with Poland may have changed little in generations, but the countryside Muller roamed as a boy has long since gone up in smoke.

Horno lies on the edge of a 500-square-mile bed of lignite, or brown coal. Under successive imperial, Nazi and Communist regimes, marshland has been steadily poisoned by runoff, wildflower heathland has been smothered by slag heaps, forests have been felled. About 140 villages have been razed to make way for the strip mines that scar the area.

Now Horno, too, is slated for destruction, though only 12 families out of 150 have sold and moved out.

"They're not going to be led away like sheep," predicts youth worker Thorsten Mach. "I think there'll be violence."

It may not come to that. The land hereabouts is home to 60,000 Sorbs -- descendants, like Muller, of Slavic tribesmen who arrived in the sixth century, several hundred years before the Teutonic hordes showed up. Until World War II, ethnic Germans were the minority presence.

Even today the constitution of Brandenburg, the state that encompasses most of the coal field, guarantees "the preservation and upkeep of the Sorb national identity and its ancestral settlement area."

So after losing an appeal to the state supreme court last month, Horno leaders vowed to seek arbitration with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that by allowing in the diggers as scheduled in 2003, the government would be breaking its own law.

"This is a test case," insists Mayor Bernd Siegert. "If this goes through, all our other communities will eventually go the same way."

The Brandenburg government counters that the proposed resettlement of Horno's inhabitants to a purpose-built "eco-village" within the Sorb region is not a constitutional violation. Besides, points out Steffen Reiche, Brandenburg's minister for culture and science, the same constitution also guarantees the creation of jobs.

"We've promised to protect them, but not every single village," he sighs. "We need the coal, we need the work. I'm not interested in creating a museum."

Whether the Sorbs are indeed destined for the slag heap of history depends on which Sorbs you talk to.

The Roman Catholics of Upper Sorbia, grouped around the town of Bautzen in neighboring Saxony, speak a dialect akin to Czech and, until recently, had little to do with outsiders. Saxon law guarantees mother-tongue schooling until age 18. Those who go on to higher education traditionally attend Czech, rather than German, universities and typically return to the (ITAL) Domowina (END ITAL) (homeland) to live, work and marry.

As a result, says Nad'a Valaskova of the Prague Ethnological Institute, "their folklore customs and language are living culture -- they're not just going through the motions."

The Protestants of Horno, by contrast, whose language is closer to Polish, have had things tougher. Until Germany's frontier with Poland was shifted westward in 1945, the Lower Sorbs were culturally marooned. Brandenburg is part of historical Prussia, the militaristic kingdom that spearheaded the creation of the modern German nation in 1871.

"I'm afraid our Prussian brothers never had much time for people who want to do their own thing," Lower Sorb leader Harald Konzack comments wryly. "But to be fair, it was the Communists who really forced our backs to the wall."

Brandenburg was designated a powerhouse of Communist East Germany's military-industrial complex, and the resulting influx of outsiders into Lower Sorbia brought a dilution of the bloodline and a feeling that submersion in the German identity was a prerequisite of social advancement.

"Typically these days, only one parent is Sorb, or only the grandparents speak Sorbian -- the children learn it more as a hobby," mourns Potsdam University's Madlena Norberg, who trains Sorb-language grade school teachers. "Once the language stops being spoken around the hearth, it's hard to keep alive. But we have to try."

They will have their work cut out. The air may have gotten cleaner since a west German mining company, Laubag, bought up the old east German power network after reunification, shutting down two-thirds of Brandenburg collieries and power plants that flouted European Union health and safety regulations.

But with regional unemployment pushing 25 percent, practitioners of Realpolitik are urging the Sorbs to retreat. When German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited the town of Schwartze Pompe in March to open a futuristic electricity generating station built to process the lignite under Horno and three other threatened settlements, protesters were jostled and spat on.

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