How the fall of the Berlin Wall affected Mercedes-Benz and the Ludwigsfelde plant

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All change

9 November 1989 marks the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of division of Germany. On that night, people from the East and West celebrated together. Yet many citizens of East Germany had no idea how profoundly the fall of the Wall would turn their lives upside down. People like Detlef Ludwig, Thanh Nguyen Manh and Torsten Schulz. All three have one thing in common: They were there when the vehicle production plant in Ludwigsfelde, south of Berlin, changed: from a public enterprise owned by the German Democatic Republic (GDR) to a Mercedes-Benz plant. We asked them about their memories of the night the Berlin Wall came down. And what their personal turning points were.

There are countless stories about who for what reason was where on 9 November 1989. And presumably everybody who was old enough at the time can remember where they first heard the news about the fall of the Wall. Or perhaps even where they were when that memorable press conference was held: Günter Schabowski, member of the Central Committee of East Germany’s governing SED party, announced more or less accidentally that the border was now open.

“I immediately thought: Oh, there's something really big happening there,” Thanh Nguyen Manh (58) remembers: “In the evening I grabbed my motorbike, drove to Teltow and then went to West Berlin on foot. Everything was lit up as bright as day, and the joy was unbelievable. I lost count of the complete strangers I simply embraced on the street.”

Today it goes without saying that the Mercedes Star rotates on top of the Ludwigsfelde plant – which after the fall of the Berlin Wall turned from a combine into a modern production site.
Today it goes without saying that the Mercedes Star rotates on top of the Ludwigsfelde plant – which after the fall of the Berlin Wall turned from a combine into a modern production site.

Thanh Nguyen Manh is sitting in a meeting room at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Ludwigsfelde as he tells me about his memories of the night when the Wall fell. He works in Sprinter assembly at the Daimler location in the federal state of Brandenburg. He has known the plant since 1980, when he came to the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a Vietnamese contract worker. Next to him in that meeting room sits Torsten Schulz (56), his foreman, who began his apprenticeship as a welder here in 1979. In principle the two have known each other since Thanh Nguyen Manh’s first day in Ludwigsfelde. Torsten Schulz grins and says: “You were in luck. I was working on the night shift on 9 November 1989. At work we heard absolutely nothing about the great news. It’s only when I got home that I realised what had happened.”

Ludwigsfelde was East Germany’s largest truck plant

Naturally Ludwigsfelde was not a Mercedes-Benz location when Thanh Nguyen Manh and Torsten Schulz started their working life there. In the socialist system of East Germany, state-owned factories produced all of life’s necessities – or rather, what the Party’s five-year considered to be necessities. In 1965, Ludwigsfelde not only received city status, but also a 72,000 square-metre production and assembly shop for commercial vehicles. The plant was operated by the Industrial Association for Vehicle Production (IFA). Above all it produced the W50, an all-purpose truck for socialist Germany and its brother countries. In the last years of the GDR, it was joined by the more modern L60.

Find out more about the entire history of the Ludwigsfelde plant from its beginnings to the present day here.

The W50 was the truck for the socialist Germany – and it was built in nearly unchanged manner from 1965 to 1990.
The W50 was the truck for the socialist Germany – and it was built in nearly unchanged manner from 1965 to 1990.

Even though the IFA ceased to exist nearly three decades ago, yet some things in Ludwigsfelde remind of the past. Those turning off into the street Zum Industriepark on their way to the main gate will see a sign advertising IFA replacement parts. And those driving on a little further to the plant’s former training center will discover a workshop dedicated to the eventful history of the location.

It is the clubhouse of the Friends of the industrial history of Ludwigsfelde. Detlef Ludwig has been the club’s chairman for just over one year, and there can be no doubt that he is the ideal choice for this position. Because firstly, the 63 year-old engineer says of himself: “I can talk non-stop.” Secondly, he not only knows the history of the town and its plant from dusty encyclopaedias. He witnessed a great deal of it himself – and helped to shape it. “I was born in Ludwigsfelde in 1956. After obtaining my diploma in mechanical engineering in Magdeburg, I started to work here at the plant.” This was in September 1980, and in true socialist form his job designation was: Young Engineer.

He has been retired since 2017, ending his career as head of assembly planning. His professional life covers a period full of historical events: It began in the Industrial Association for Vehicle Production (IFA), in a state named the German Democratic Republic which had subscribed to the principle of a planned socialist economy. And it ended at Mercedes-Benz Ludwigsfelde GmbH, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Daimler AG in a reunified Germany.

The Ludwigsfelde workforce heard about the fall of the Wall on West German television

Previously Detlef Ludwig worked on process improvement as an expert in materials technology. It sounds surprising, but automation in the workplace was also under discussion in socialist East Germany – although the official doctrine was full employment. “Above all, rationalization was important because resources were scarce in the GDR,” Ludwig remembers. One factor in particular showed him that his projects were important: “I would often receive foreign currency for my projects from our plant management, so that I could buy joining or laser-cutting technology in the West. And this even happened in 1989, only months before everything changed.”

Detlef Ludwig started his professional career at the Ludwigsfelde plant in 1980.
Detlef Ludwig started his professional career at the Ludwigsfelde plant in 1980.

Nonetheless, it came as no surprise to him that the GDR, the country where he was born and grew up, collapsed in that year. Developments in the Soviet Union, where Michail Gorbachev was initiating his first, tentative reforms under the watchwords glasnost and perestroika, were sending obvious signals. And the events taking place in the summer of 1989 also spoke for themselves: “We had heard what was happening in Hungary, or in the German embassy in Prague. Even good friends of ours used this route to escape to the West.” It was on West German TV, during the evening of 9 November, that he heard the news that the Wall had fallen.

But he was in no great hurry: “I had already made private trips to the Federal Republic in previous years, to visit relatives. So I was not really that curious. Two days later we crossed over to West Berlin for the first time, and used the welcome money to buy toys for the children.” In fact his memories of the evening when the Wall came down are overshadowed by his recollection of the morning afterwards: “At that time I was working on a multi-week project taking place outside the plant, and as usual I went to the bus that was to take us to the location. The bus was normally used by 30 to 35 people – but that morning it was empty. That’s when I really began to understand what had happened during the night.”

Currency union and reunification: many changes, very little time

As soon as gaps appeared in the Berlin Wall, a completely new dynamic process took hold in both East and West. After all, wasn’t the fall of the Wall a unique historical chance for the German people to overcome the status quo? To reunify the two German states? And to draw a line under the postwar order, which in many ways still seemed provisional even four decades later?

Helmut Kohl, later to be celebrated as the “Chancellor of German unity”, was among the first to recognize the power of this trend. He lobbied the victorious former allies, the USA, USSR, Great Britain and France, asking for their confidence in a peaceful, reunified Germany. And for the first democratic elections to the GDR parliament, he created the so-called Alliance for Germany which had one overriding aim: the rapid unification of the two German states. On 18 March 1990 this alliance achieved an impressive electoral victory.

We gave little thought to the changes that would happen. In most cases we were merely onlookers.

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Detlef Ludwig worked as an engineer at the Ludwigsfelde plant in 1989

During the next weeks, events followed in rapid succession: on 1 July 1990 the currency, economic and social union of the two states came into force – from then on, East Germans would also pay in Deutschmarks. And on the morning of 3 October 1990, not even eleven months since the fall of the Wall, the German Democratic Republic was consigned to the history books – its territory as new Länder became part of the Federal Republic. In other words, of a state which was frequently branded as a “class enemy” in official GDR-speak.

Life changed radically for the population in East Germany – and it did so almost overnight. Which was indeed what many East Germans wanted at the time: “I was also strictly opposed to a two-state solution,” Detlef Ludwig recalls: “I wanted unification to happen quickly. Even as a schoolboy, I sang along with the line ‘Germany, united fatherland!’ with particular fervor.” The line comes from the anthem of the GDR, Auferstanden aus Ruinen (Resurrected from Ruins). And said line was presumably the reason why from 1970 onwards, the anthem was no longer sung at official events, but only played as an instrumental version.

After the turnaround there were suddenly no customers for the trucks from Ludwigsfelde

Looking back at the speed of events, Detlef Ludwig takes an ambivalent view. Of course he is happy to be living in a reunified Germany and a democratic country. “But with hindsight, it all happened too quickly. At the time we gave little thought to the changes that would happen as a result of the currency union and German reunification. In most cases we were merely onlookers.”

One consequence of the economic and currency union had a very direct effect on the plant in Ludwigsfelde: in summer 1990, demand from the trucks from Ludwigsfelde fell to rock bottom. Firstly because former GDR customers suddenly had hard Deutschmarks, and were able to buy technologically superior vehicles from the West. And secondly because the socialist states ceased to be sales markets for the Ludwigsfelde trucks. “The IFA serviced a world market that naturally included the whole of Eastern Europe, but also many countries in Africa, South-East Asia or Latin America,” Detlef Ludwig remembers: “Our trade with the Eastern bloc was mainly on a barter basis. When we delivered a truck to Cuba, it was often paid for with oranges. This was no longer possible after the currency union – we suddenly wanted hard currency for our vehicles.” So the decision was made: after a quarter of a century, the last example of the IFA W50 would leave the production line at the end of 1990. “And we already dismantled the line on which the L60 was produced in September,” says Detlef Ludwig.

The ray of hope for Ludwigsfelde was Mercedes-Benz

How were things to continue in Ludwigsfelde, where people were and still are proud of their town’s industrial history? And where thousands of jobs depended on the truck plant? A few months after the fall of the Wall, the hopes of these people rested on a sheet of paper. It was dated 12 March 1990, and bore the heading Memorandum of Understanding. A declaration of intent that the West German vehicle manufacturer Mercedes-Benz and the IFA conglomerate would work together – signed by the then Daimler Chairman Werner Niefer, his deputy Helmut Werner and Lothar Heinzmann, the last General Director of the publicly owned operation.

Remained a protoype: the IFA 1318.
Remained a protoype: the IFA 1318.
On 8 February 1991 the first Mercedes-Benz Truck from Ludwigsfelde rolled off the line.
On 8 February 1991 the first Mercedes-Benz Truck from Ludwigsfelde rolled off the line.
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“We saw this as a light on the horizon,” says Detlef Ludwig – even though the original plan of the two partners was soon to collapse like a house of cards: The rapidly conceived IFA 1318, a combination of the IFA L60 chassis and the cab of the Mercedes-Benz LK, remained a prototype owing to the lack of potential sales markets. Nonetheless, a rapid movement of workers was already taking place in autumn 1990: employees from the IFA were seconded to the Mercedes-Benz plant in Wörth – one of them was Torsten Schulz, who worked in assembly for three months. In return, staff were sent out from Wörth to help with the conversion work that was starting in Ludwigsfelde. The news everybody had been feverishly waiting for was by now official: from 8 February 1991, the Mercedes-Benz LK would also be produced in Ludwigsfelde. By then the Industrial Association for Vehicle Production (IFA) had already ceased to be a legal entity: from 1 February 1991 the plant became the property of Nutzfahrzeuge Ludwigsfelde GmbH (NLG), the former Mercedes-Benz AG held shares of the NLG. The new entity was founded by the Trust Agency (Treuhandanstalt) – a state-run organization established to privatize East German enterprises.

The fall of the Wall changed East German biographies at a stroke

The end of the Wall and the quick succession of currency and economic union, followed by reunification, left its traces in almost every East German biography. However, the legal demise of the GDR also concerned the 93,500 or so contractual workers from other socialist countries who were living in East Germany in autumn 1989.

Thanh Nguyen Manh still remembers quite clearly how his initial euphoria quickly changed to uncertainty: “After all, our home countries had made contracts with a state which suddenly no longer existed.” The 530 or so Vietnamese contract workers still working at IFA in 1989 received an offer: a once-only payment of 3000 Deutschmarks if they returned to their home country at once. “Almost all of them accepted,” says Thanh Nguyen Manh. But not him: “I met my wife in 1988, when she also came to Ludwigsfelde as a contract worker. We married in Vietnam in 1990. So I said to her: Let’s try our luck in Germany – if it doesn’t work out, we can always go back.”

Thanh Nguyen Manh came to East Germany in 1980 as a Vietnamese contract worker.
Thanh Nguyen Manh came to East Germany in 1980 as a Vietnamese contract worker.

It did work out: NLG took Thanh Nguyen Manh on as an assembly worker, enabling him to plan a future in the reunified Germany. The fact that he was still in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell was already due to a chain of fortunate circumstances: his time as a contract worker in 1980 was really only limited to three years, but he was given the chance to volunteer for another four years. “And in 1987, when the GDR was again looking to recruit Vietnamese contract workers, I was asked if I wanted to stay and look after the new arrivals.”

The changes were political and personal

For his long-standing colleague Torsten Schulz, the months after the fall of the Wall were not only a geopolitical, but also personal transformation: In 1988 he obtained his qualification as a master craftsman at the IFA. After the Wall fell, the new company, NLG, informed him that he was no longer to be employed as a foreman. His reaction? Pragmatic. “They offered me the chance to hand in my notice. But that was out of the question for me. So I simply said: Why should I? I had trained as a welder, and at that time I had already worked in assembly at the Wörth plant for three months. So we came to an agreement that I would work as an assembly worker at NLG in future.”

Since 2006 Torsten Schulz has once again worked as a foreman. He says he never worried too much about his personal future as all the social changes were going on around him. “I simply cope with it. My basic principle has always been to see what comes along – I’m flexible, and I wait to see what life has in store,” he says. It is impressive that he says these things without a hint of bitterness. But right at the end he also has something to add: “OK, at times we had the impression that some people were trying to tell us that whatever we were doing in East Germany before the turnaround was worth nothing anymore.”

Torsten Schulz started in Ludwigsfelde as a trainee, back in 1979. Today he works there as foreman in the assembly shop.
Torsten Schulz started in Ludwigsfelde as a trainee, back in 1979. Today he works there as foreman in the assembly shop.

He says that it was only well after the Wall fell that many East Germans realized how much social security they had enjoyed in the German Democratic Republic – including him: “I paid a monthly rent of 60 marks for a four-room apartment measuring 60 square meters,” he remembers. “Of course I don’t want a return to this system and its government. And it’s quite obvious that this system would soon have collapsed if the Wall had not come down. But for us the end of the GDR also led to personal upheavals: my wife at the time lost her job, and had to re-train.” A number of his work colleagues also learned about the downsides of a market economy the hard way: the NLG only kept on 1,700 employees from the old IFA workforce. The result was short-time working and even dismissals: “This was inconceivable for many of us. After all, unemployment did not officially exist in the GDR,” says Detlef Ludwig.

Back in Stuttgart, the Foreign Planning department was still responsible for Ludwigsfelde

Personnel discussions were the order of the day in the months after the turnaround. Detlef Ludwig remembers that he had to wait an unusually long time before being invited for a discussion. And for a good reason, as he found out later: in spring 1991 the decision was taken that in addition to the LK trucks, Mercedes-Benz would produce a second model series in Brandenburg – the T2 van.

To prepare for the start-up, Daimler-Benz was looking for a small team that could give support with the planning work at headquarters: employees who were intimately familiar with the Ludwigsfelde plant. Detlef Ludwig was to head up the assembly planning team: “So they said to me: Give Mr Klein in Stuttgart a call,” he remembers, and grins: “In fact we didn’t even have a telephone here that could call a number in the West. So I drove to West Berlin and stopped at the first telephone box I saw after the border.” He accepted the offer, and worked in Stuttgart for a year. He still remembers the exact name of the department responsible for the plant in Ludwigsfelde: Foreign Planning.

The close relationship between the plant and its people has not changed

The last example of the T2 now stands in the club workshop of the Friends of the Industrial History of Ludwigsfelde. This fire-red van marked the discontinuation of the model series on 12 December 1996. What did not come to an end that day was of course the success story of the Ludwigsfelde plant. On the contrary: it continues to this day. The T2 was followed by the Vario and eventually the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, whose open model variants, especially the pickup and chassis, have been produced there since 2006. From 2001 to 2005 the Ludwigsfelde plant also produced the high-roof Vaneo crewbus. Since the turnaround, Daimler has invested more than 750 million euros in the location, and more than 855,000 vehicles bearing the Mercedes star have been produced there since 1991.

Since the turnaround, Daimler has invested more than 750 million euros in the Ludwigsfelde plant.
Since the turnaround, Daimler has invested more than 750 million euros in the Ludwigsfelde plant.
A production line at the Mercedes-Benz plant Ludwigsfelde: Since 1991, more than 855,000 Mercedes-Benz vehicles have been produced there.
A production line at the Mercedes-Benz plant Ludwigsfelde: Since 1991, more than 855,000 Mercedes-Benz vehicles have been produced there.
At the Mercedes-Benz plant Ludwigsfelde the open Sprinter variants are being assembled – which means: the pickup and the chassis.
At the Mercedes-Benz plant Ludwigsfelde the open Sprinter variants are being assembled – which means: the pickup and the chassis.
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From the IFA W50 – which was produced practically unchanged from 1965 to 1989 – to the T2, Vario and Sprinter: Torsten Schulz, Thanh Nguyen Manh and Detlef Ludwig have witnessed all of them leaving the production lines. But much more than that, together with many other colleagues, they actively contributed to ensuring that after the upheavals of the post-1989 period, the plant became what it is today.

In 1994 the companies NLG and EGL (Development Company for Ludwigsfelde Motor Vehicles) became wholly-owned subsidiaries of the then Daimler-Benz AG. From June 1997 they jointly operated as Daimler-Benz Ludwigsfelde GmbH, and from November 2007 under the current name of Mercedes-Benz Ludwigsfelde GmbH. The name of the company producing commercial vehicles in the industrial park in Ludwigsfelde may have changed during the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As has so much else within and outside the plant gates. But Torsten Schulz is glad that one thing has not changed. “Compared to the large Daimler plants in South Germany we are something of a small enclave. I’m very happy about that. And I believe that the close relationship the workforce has with this plant is a real ace in the hole.”

The close relationship between workforce and plant is a real ace in the hole.

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Torsten Schulz Foreman at the Ludwigsfelde plant

Thanh Nguyen Manh knows what his foreman means: “I’ve always felt welcome here. That’s why I wanted to stay here after the turnaround – despite all the bureaucratic hurdles I had to overcome as a contract worker after the end of the German Democratic Republic.” The town to the south of Berlin has long been home to him and his wife. “Two years ago we built a new house,” he says proudly. And when asked “Where exactly?” he looks slightly surprised and answers: “Well, here of course. In Ludwigsfelde.”

Many colleagues at Daimler have vivid memories of the night the Berlin Wall fell, of the changes that followed, or of East Germany before 1989. Read their stories here on our web special.

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Sven Sattler

is too young to remember the divided Germany. But even at school he was fascinated by the history of the two German states, and above all by the peaceful revolution in East Germany. But it is only in recent years that he has understood how many perspectives there are on German reunification.

More about the author

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