Europe

The changing face of Germany's industrial core

Frank Switala - tour guide of Essen's former Zollverein coal mine where his grandfather used to work
Image caption Frank Switala proudly guides tours at the mine where his grandfather once worked

Essen's proud industrial heritage looms large across the acres of land occupied by Zollverein mining museum.

There were once hundreds of coal mines in Germany's Ruhr valley. Zollverein's vast steel and brick coal processing facilities have been preserved as a reminder of that sooty, grimy past.

Tour guide Frank Switala is passionate about this place. His grandfather worked underground here for more than 40 years and, at its height, the mine employed some 8,000 people.

"It produced 12,000 tonnes of ready-to-sell coal every day," he explains.

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Image caption The winding tower of shaft 12 has become a well-known symbol of Essen and the whole Ruhr area.

But by the time Frank was ready to begin work, in the 1980s, the mine and many others in the area had closed down and jobs and opportunities were scarce.

The legacy of that decline has left Essen divided.

The south of the city has swapped industry for glass and steel office blocks and conference centres. The north remains poorer, unemployment is higher and rents are lower, making its traditional working class neighbourhoods a magnet for migrants and refugees.

The government-funded BFZ vocational training centre in Essen was set up in response to the closure of the mines.

Image caption Kassam, a Syrian refugee living in Essen, is grateful for the support he has received but says the language is difficult to learn

Today refugees are among those who attend classes teaching everything from German language to catering and car mechanics.

Kassam, a 29-year-old from Syria, is learning German at the centre. He was among the hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in Germany last summer and he is grateful for the support he is receiving and conscious of the challenges.

"When I came to Germany, I just wanted to live in peace," he says.

"We need a long time to connect with German people, we have another culture. I'm an engineer. I hope to find a job here. Our problem is with German language - it's very difficult to learn this language."

New limits

Essen has a problem too. The city has received 16,000 refugees, double the number it was officially allocated by the German government, which had tried to distribute the new arrivals across the country. Last year, simply housing and health care for the refugees cost the city 130m euros.

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Image caption Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party has set up a residency restriction law which means refugees have to stay in the city to which they were originally assigned

Silke Lens is spokesperson for Essen's mayor, who is from Chancellor Merkel's right of centre CDU party.

She says only half the actual costs have been paid by the national government. And now, the authorities are limiting the number of refugees who can stay in the city.

"The government in Berlin has set up a new integration law. With this, we have a new residency restriction;" she tells me.

"If refugees come from other communities and they have no job, they have to move back to the city [they were originally] assigned."

Image caption The Syrian German Association which helps newly arrived refugees and objects to the relocation law

There is a long-established Arab community in north Essen and Ahmed Mehdi from the Syrian German Association says they have helped around 500 of the newest arrivals.

He objects to the relocation law, arguing that it is cruel to force people, especially refugees, to live in particular places.

"They have backgrounds of trauma, especially from the conflict in Syria, they seek security and a safe place and the law's doing the total opposite...making them travel around the country again."

Impact of Islam

German compassion has been tested by the refugee crisis. The costs and public fears about integration and security, have left politicians with little choice but to take a harder line.

There is also a growing political factor. The far right, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been winning votes in regional elections across Germany.

Stefan Keuter leads the party in Essen. He rejects the idea that most of the people who have come to Germany are refugees, he simply calls them migrants.

The party taps into voters' fears about the refugees and the impact of Islam on Germany.

Image caption Stefan Keuter, from the AfD party, which taps into voters fears about refugees and the impact of Islam

"Angela Merkel and parties like the CDU, didn't ask the population if they are willing to make these changes and they didn't ask people if they want to help or to change (what it's like) to live in Germany," Mr Keuter tells me.

Germans will not say what they really think because of their history, he argues.

"If you talk about these problems, people probably describe you as a Nazi - but this is not true.

"We have a very big problem with political correctness in Germany. There's a big difference between national pride and nationalism and I think it's very important that you have a cultural identity and that you feel hope in a country, this has nothing to do with nationalism."

Test for populism

Until now, Germany's history has made any dalliance with nationalism a toxic political idea. But that may be changing.

In a city like Essen, which has experienced industrial decline, the AfD hopes to win votes from the left and right. It has already persuaded one local politician to change parties.

The real test will come next year, with elections for Germany's parliament.

Fear of globalisation and immigration has galvanised voters in America and in European countries to switch political allegiance.

Will Germany, ever mindful of its past, be immune from the allure of the populists?

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