Then and now: Detlef Ludwig

There are probably few people who know the history of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Ludwigsfelde as well as Detlef Ludwig. Ludwig, who is now 63, was the head of assembly planning at the plant until 2017. Ever since he retired from his job, he has devoted his time to his favorite hobby: supporting the Friends of the Industrial History of Ludwigsfelde association, whose chairman he has been for over a year.

One can say without exaggeration that he’s the ideal man for the job. For one thing, this is how Ludwig describes himself: “I can talk like a book.” For another, he knows the history of this industrial town in the state of Brandenburg from personal experience. Instead of reading about it in dusty encyclopedias, he was there for some of it and even participated in shaping it. That’s partly because he’s a real native of Ludwigsfelde. “I was born here in 1956,” he says. “The people in this region generally have their feet on the ground. That was certainly one of the reasons why I started to work at the local plant after I received my mechanical engineering diploma.” That was in September 1980, and the plant he refers to was a facility of the Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau (Industrial Association for Vehicle Construction, IFA). His first job description was “Junior Engineer.”

As an expert in the area of materials technology, Detlef Ludwig worked on process improvement in the years before German reunification. It may sound surprising, but the automation of work processes was a topic of interest in the GDR as well — even though the official state doctrine called for full employment. “Rationalization measures were important, primarily because resources were scarce in the GDR,” Ludwig recalls. He realized that his projects were important because of one circumstance in particular: “Again and again, I would receive foreign currency for my projects from our plant management so that I could buy screw technology and laser cutting technology in Western Europe — even in the year the Wall fell, 1989.”

Nonetheless, the collapse of the GDR did not come as a surprise for Ludwig. “Of course we were aware of what had been happening in Hungary and at the West German embassy in Prague,” he says. “We even had good friends who used this route to flee to the West.” On the evening of November 9, he heard about the opening of the Berlin Wall on the news program of a Western TV channel. He didn’t rush to the West immediately. “In the late 1980s I had made a private visit to relatives in the Federal Republic of Germany, so I was not all that curious,” he says. “Our first visit to West Berlin was on Saturday, November 11, and I used my welcome money to buy toys for my children.”

It took Ludwig some time to realize that this historic event would turn his life upside down. “We had not spent enough time thinking about what would change for us because of the monetary union and the reunification — we only passively registered most of the things that were happening. In 1990, I was also a strong opponent of a two-state solution and I wanted reunification to happen quickly. Today I see things somewhat differently: It might have been a mistake to liquidate the GDR and its industry so fast.”

One result of the economic and monetary union was the lack of any buyers for the trucks manufactured at the Ludwigsfelde plant. The company that was founded by the Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency) as the successor of the IFA (Industrial Association for Vehicle Construction plant), Nutzfahrzeug Ludwigsfelde GmbH, initially offered only short-time work — and then it even started to fire people. “For many of the people here, this was inconceivable. That’s because there was no such thing as unemployment in the GDR,” says Ludwig. “My colleagues were invited to individual employee reviews, where they were told either ‘We’ll continue to employ you’ or ‘We’re letting you go.’ I had to wait a long time for my employee review, and people kept reassuring me.”

With good reason, as he found out later. In the spring of 1991, when it became clear that the Mercedes-Benz T2 van would be produced in Ludwigsfelde, Daimler-Benz was searching for small team that could support the planning process in Stuttgart. The company needed people who were intimately familiar with the plant. Ludwig was appointed to head the assembly planning team. “They told me to simply call Mr. Klein in Stuttgart,” he says, adding with a grin, “However, we didn’t even have a telephone here that could be used to call someone in the West. So I drove to West Berlin and stopped at the first phone booth past the border to make my call.” He agreed to take on the job and worked at the Untertürkheim plant for one year. Today he still remembers the name of the department that was responsible for at the plant in Ludwigsfelde: Planning Abroad.

Two other employees from the Mercedes-Benz plant in Ludwigsfelde share their experiences with us. Thorsten Schulz remembers the historic night when the Berlin Wall fell. Thanh Nguyen Manh tells us how he came from Vietnam to the GDR in 1980 and experienced the fall of the Wall.

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