In the mid-1960s, the GDR began recruiting so-called contract workers from other socialist countries. The idea was that these young men and women should complete a skilled worker certification program in East Germany and then return home in order to assist with the economic development of their countries. As a pleasant side effect, the presence of these workers in the GDR also helped ease the labor shortage in the GDR. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, some 93,500 contract workers were living in the GDR. Most of them — 59,000 — were from Vietnam, and one of them was Thanh Nguyen Manh.
Thanh Nguyen Manh was attending school in Hanoi in 1979 when he was chosen to be sent to work in the GDR. “When the government officials came to my school and asked who would consider going abroad to learn and work, everyone raised their hand, of course,” he says with a grin. The 30 students who were selected were prepared for their stay abroad in a kind of crash course that lasted two months. “I began attending the vocational school here in Ludwigsfelde on February 5, 1980,” he says. The plan was for him to work at the Kombinat des Industrieverbands Fahrzeugbau (Industrial Association for Vehicle Construction — IFA) for three years and then return to Vietnam. So how is it that he’s still working in Ludwigsfelde (in the automotive plant there) nearly four decades later? Thanh Nguyen Manh grins again: “In 1982, we were asked if we could imagine extending our stay in the GDR for an additional four years — and everyone raised their hands again. Because the GDR was still experiencing a labor shortage in 1987, it recruited even more Vietnamese. I was asked if I wanted to stay and help settle the new arrivals.”
Everything was lit up like it was daytime and the people were so happy.
He agreed to do this, which is how it came to pass that he experienced the historic events of November 9, 1989 up close. “I immediately thought, ‘oh my, something big is going on here.’ So I hopped on my moped, rode to Teltow and then walked the rest of the way to West Berlin.” He remembers that evening in Berlin as if it were yesterday: “Everything was lit up like it was daytime and the people were so happy. I lost count of how many complete strangers I hugged on the street that night.” Thanh’s excursion to the West wasn’t actually legal. “The new freedom to travel actually only applied to GDR citizens and did not extend to foreigners,” he explains.
When the GDR officially ceased to exist on October 3, 1990, the foreign contract workers there were faced with a difficult situation. “Our countries had signed the contract worker agreements with a country that suddenly no longer existed,” Thanh explains. The Ludwigsfelde plant offered each of its approximately 530 Vietnamese workers a one-time payment of 3,000 German marks if they would agree to return to Vietnam immediately. “Nearly everyone accepted that offer,” Thanh recalls. But Thanh himself did not: “I met my wife in 1988 — she was also a contract worker in Ludwigsfelde. We got married in Vietnam in 1990. I then suggested to her that we try to establish a life in Germany and that if it didn’t work out, we could always go back to Vietnam.”
In the end, Nutzfahrzeuge Ludwigsfelde GmbH (NLG) — the successor company to IFA and the predecessor company of today’s Mercedes-Benz Ludwigsfelde GmbH — decided to keep him on. He and his wife therefore never needed to use their contingency plan to return to Vietnam, and Germany has long since become their home. “We built a house two years ago,” Thanh says proudly. When asked where he built the house, he seems confused at first, before replying: “Well here, of course — in Ludwigsfelde.”
Two other employees from the Mercedes-Benz plant in Ludwigsfelde share their experiences with us. Detlef Ludwig knows the plant inside out. Here, he reports about the time in Ludwigsfelde after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In addition, Thorsten Schulz remembers the historic night when the Berlin Wall fell.