Sacrifice towns: dispatches from Germany’s Energiewende frontlines

For most people, the transition away from coal and fossil fuels towards clean energy production is a remote idea. But for citizens living in a handful of towns located within Germany’s remaining brown coal mining districts, the Energiewende, or its increasingly slow progress, is anything but remote, L. Michael Buchsbaum explains.

The “All Villages Remain”movement protects cities that are to be sacrificed to coal mining. (Photy by Buchsbaum-Media)

Digging Through

Each day, the mammoth bucketwheel excavators on the horizon creep closer. Ahead of them comes a swarm of smaller chopping, digging, pumping and bulldozing machines, ripping through the landscape, removing trees, unearthing graves, flattening houses, destroying ancient churches, eviscerating communities—all to get at the coal buried deep beneath. For the thousands of people whose families have lived in these towns for generations, the pathway through Germany’s “Coal Exit” runs literally straight through their kitchens.

Since the end of World War II, dozens of centuries-old villages have fallen victim to expanding open-pit cast mining in Germany’s coal heartland. Without a change in energy planning, over the next decade even more will be first abandoned, then razed to the ground, and finally obliterated by the advancing excavators. Given how much of Germany was lost due to wars and fascism, how ironic that corporations like RWE Energy can now rain further destruction upon the countryside and wipe out villages that survived last century’s insanity.

Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Energiewende 

In the mining areas west of Cologne, a total of five more villages including Keyenberg, Kuckum, Berverath, Upper and Unterwestrich with almost 2,000 inhabitants face this threat. Though RWE is responsible for resettling citizens in new towns along the periphery of the mining region, there simply is no “one to one” replacement for the communities being lost, let alone the feeling of living in multi-century old homes and farmhouses alongside generations of family.

“It’s so bad for my parents that they really say that when these diggers come, they’d rather die,” said 52-year old Marita Dresem from Kuckum.

Britta Kox from nearby Berverath understands this feeling all too well. She was born and raised in Immerath, another ancient village recently sacrificed for the growing pit. Walking through doomed Keyenberg, she fondly remembers kissing her future husband for the first time behind its 12th century church. “When it is demolished, there will be no memory point left – every shovel of earth being dredged will tear your soul,” she says.

Though Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has agreed in principal to phase out lignite mining and coal burning by 2038, a growing number of citizen movements have come out swinging, offended by what they see as glacial progress (or, more appropriately, anti-glacial).

All Villages Remain Movement

Lately the student driven “Fridays for the Future” demonstrations have received tremendous media attention. And last year, massive actions against the destruction of the nearby Hambacher Forest lead, in part, to a temporary moratorium protecting the ancient woods from the mine’s expansion through 2020.

But still standing unprotected and now directly in the digging machine’s pathways are the sacrifice towns, destined for destruction unless enough public pressure can be brought to save them. Hence the birth of the new “Alle Doerfer Blieben” or “All Villages Remain” movement.

While the famous Coal Commission could only agree to recommend that preserving the Hambach would be “desirable,” a report from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) determined that within the already approved mining areas there’s sufficient coal reserves for the country’s energy needs, meaning the threatened villages could be actually preserved.

Indeed, given the planned reduction of energy production of the nearby lignite power plants, both “the Hambach forest as well as the threatened villages can be saved,” according to the study. And this is in addition to earlier DIW analyses which also showed that “no further villages need to be dredged in the Lusatia and Central German districts” as well.

Star Marching

A few weeks ago, the first of several planned marches and actions took place, directly inspired by the success of the Hambach fight but still rooted in efforts of local citizens.

In late March, eight demonstration trains and dozens of busses (including the one originating from Bonn that this author rode on) carried marchers to their assembly points near the expanding Garzweiler II Pit. Later that day, thousands of protestors converged on ancient Keyenberg after taking a star pattern of different routes through the other condemned towns.

Installation of graves with the names of the previously destroyed villages (Photy by Buchsbaum-Media)

With the massive excavators visible from behind a stage erected at the west end of the town, Keyenberg is now on the front lines of the Energiewende. In 2018, its last line of defense, the A61 Autobahn on its eastern edge fell—and is now slowly being chewed up by the advancing mine. Whether or not Keyenberg too is swallowed up depends on how politicians interpret the decision and suggestions of the Coal Commission.

While the struggle over coal’s future is only one front in the ongoing global energy transition, the over-riding battle is to win over the hearts and minds of policymakers as well as normal citizens. A way to measure our success is to see how far the trajectory of “business as usual” has shifted away from “traditional” ways of doing things. Given the fate of so many other sacrifice towns, the closer the mining machines come, the less robust our actual progress.

Nevertheless, “it’s amazing to see that people have come from everywhere to support us. We from the villages are totally thankful for that. Through such actions, more and more people are embracing the courage to fight for their homes,” said Helmut Kehrmann who lives in Keyenberg.

In town, marchers passed by an installation of graves and a funeral wreath erected in an orchard with the names of the previously destroyed villages in the Rhineland printed on yellow-X’s—a reference to the anti-Nuclear movement. Nearby, another family opened up their centuries-old farm, complete with a BBQ for marchers and a photo exhibition telling about more “stories of the resistance” against RWE, including the struggle to save the Hambacher Forrest.

Over the next few months, Alle Dorfer Bleiben and their allies are planning further protests in both Germany’s eastern and western surface mining regions. Building upon the success of this first march, the groups are hoping to create solidarity, network with other activists, and save their threatened communities from being sacrificed to make the dirtiest energy in Germany.



L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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