An Ancient Factory Outlasts Kaisers and Commissars


Meissen, Germany. -- Kings and princes, dukes and bishops, barons and electors, kaisers and dictators, Communist bosses and democrats. They come and go through decades and centuries in this historic town on the Elbe, but some things stay the same:

The soaring Gothic fortress-cathedral atop the Albrechtsburg, the Medieval patchwork of red roofs and winding alleyways in the town below and, most notably, the porcelain factory in the Triebishtal quarter that has made the name of Meissen famous worldwide.

It was here in 1710 that German artists, chemists and potters first solved the secrets of East Asian porcelain ware and then went on to develop the European techniques celebrated today in ancient museum pieces and waiting-list order blanks bearing staggering prices. Meissen china graces the tables of the rich and the mighty, some of whom in olden days kidnapped or lured the town's master workers to capitals like Berlin and Vienna.

Anyone who thinks that the replacement of a hard-line Marxist regime in East Germany with a Western-style free-market economy should boost production of Meissen dishes, vases and figurines will have to think again.

This is meticulously hand-crafted stuff (three hours just to paint a small flowered plate) that cannot be rushed or put on an assembly line. Apprenticeship alone takes four years, after intense entry competition, so some of the artists achieving professional status today began their studies when Erich Honecker was in power instead of in jail.

Long before the Soviets set up a German Democratic Republic surrounded by walls, barbed wire and watch towers, the Meissen porcelain factory was publicly owned. It still is. But with one key difference:

During the Communist era, the precious hard-currency earnings of Meissen's biggest enterprise (1,500 workers) went right into the coffers of the bureaucrats in East Berlin. There they were exchanged for soft East German marks that were channeled back to Meissen. So one of the country's chief sources of American dollars, Japanese yen, British pounds and West German marks had to scramble and beg to obtain modern machinery and electronics available only in the West.

"It is better for us now," says Guenter Granz, merchandiser for the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen. "Now we get our hard currency direct and can buy the equipment we need on the world market."

The huge sell-off of East Germany's decrepit industries to private companies or investors in the West once led entrepreneurs in West Germany and even in Japan to show an interest in buying the Meissen enterprise, Mr. Granz relates with obvious distaste. But his factory is neither decrepit nor incapable of competing in the global marketplace. And so the predictable decision was made: Meissen porcelain would remain a public treasure, owned by the state government of Saxony in line with ancient tradition and standards. No grubbing after big profits or soaring production. The only thing to go up would be price tags and worker salaries.

Step outside the bustling porcelain factory and its splendid museum, tourist stops for 300,000 visitors a year, and quite a different Meissen is on view: a town with blocks of derelict buildings, closed shops, unemployed citizens, not even one operating hotel.

This is a situation, repeated all over East Germany, that has taken the gloss off the sparkling hopes aroused by reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall. If another German economic miracle is taking place, it is not apparent to millions who have lost jobs or confronted the demands and insecurity of Western capitalism. The old German habit of incessant grumbling is at high tide.

Yet, in actual fact, another German economic miracle is in process. It may take five or 10 or even 20 years, rather than the two years Christian Democratic leader Helmut Kohl suggested in winning election as the "unification chancellor." But gradually, old East Germany is turning into one big construction site.

Roads are being widened and resurfaced. Paint is appearing on thousands of walls that hadn't had a drop for years. The Bonn government is subsidizing its new eastern states to the tune of $70 to $80 billion a year -- a bonanza that puts the Marshall Plan in the shade and has Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians and other former "comrades" of the old GDR salivating with envy.

Stores are stocked with goods once only dreamed of. Mercedes and Opels roar past putt-putting East German Trabants that are quickly becoming collectors' items. In a little village on the outskirts of Meissen, Helmuth Zschoche has left the farm he acquired in Quebec 20 years ago to reclaim his ancestral property. He wants to grow soybeans, which he will do, and lure one of his three daughters in Canada to join him, which is #F unlikely.

A more typical Meissen citizen is Frau Alfred Leipner, who was born in the year the Soviets set up the East German regime and knew no other system until reunification less than three years ago. She misses the neighborly solidarity that was the common way of coping with the deprivations of living in a cramped authoritarian rump state. She frets over the exodus of young people to the West, low birth rates and classes with only 8 or 18 pupils. She does not like the sharp differentiation in incomes she sees coming.

And yet, Frau Leipner is a budding capitalist, as are many of her fellow townspeople. She runs a meticulously clean and attractive bed-and-breakfast ($60 a night for two), has a husband who is a computer programmer and is happy that her 19-year-old son, an electrician, is getting into private business. She does not want to go back to the old days. But to make things right, materially and spiritually, will, in her view, take a generation.

When that day comes, the Meissen porcelain center will still be turning out pieces unchanged in workmanship or design from HTC today or centuries ago. The sturdy central core of Meissen life is as permanent as the cathedral spires Frau Leipner can see looking up from her garden.

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