Coal for Christmas, but not for being naughty. Germany commemorates the end of an era as the last black coal mine closes.
Last Friday, the 21st of December 2018, at ceremonies for the official closure of the Prosper-Haniel colliery, the last remaining black coal mine in Germany, miners presented Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier with a large chunk of coal - the last piece of black coal mined in Germany.
Steinmeier and a number of dignitaries waited as the mining elevator creaked its way from deep underground towards the surface. A team of miners stepped out, greeting each of the waiting officials with the traditional miners' salutation "Glück auf!," an ancient phrase abbreviating a miner's wish that their colleagues will have luck opening a rich new lode of ore.The ceremonies were choreographed to avoid celebration of Germany's turn toward cleaner energy. Instead the miners' sorrows were evident as they unsuccessfully attempted to suppress their tears while the choir in traditional uniform solemnly sang a mining song.
The lump of coal given Steinmeier symbolizes the end of an important period of German industrial history, a final token acknowledging a ten year journey away from black coal. When negotiations started in 2007 between the government and the coal mining union (Bergbaugewerkschaft IG BCE), 33,000 people were employed in black coal mining. This number has been reduced to 3,500 without lay-offs, due to generous government programs of early retirement and retraining, benefits the remaining miners can also expect.
But the day also marked a stop to over 60 billion euros in coal subsidies, and the end of a profession whose prosperity was bought at the cost of dangerous and unhealthy workplaces. The sadness reflects the decline of the spirit of solidarity for which the miners are famed rather than an end to the working conditions which contributed to such closeness. The IG BCE Union chair, Michael Vassiliadis, urges that the miners' team spirit, or "Kumpelkultur," be remembered and spread by all workers in Germany's new economy.
It is not yet the end of coal power in Germany. Coal plants will continue to produce energy using imported coal (13% of Germany's energy needs in 2018 were supplied by coal power). And mining of the softer, younger brown coal (lignite) continues. But history will look back on this day as a turning point in the progression towards a greener, cleaner energy future.
In many towns across Germany, the country's rich history of mining is still celebrated with parades and tours. Many of the now closed mines have new lives as industrial museums, welcoming visitors to don protective clothing and descend into the dank, dark bowels of the earth to taste the experience that was the daily bread of many miners over the years. Black coal mining is over, but it will not be forgotten.
A couple videos follow for those who want to know more:
Even non-speakers of German will appreciate the emotion in this video clip, which has the formal remarks edited out in favor of showing the ceremony for the handover of the last piece of black coal, the bracing rounds of the miners' choir, and the evocative tones of the orchestra playing to accompany a video show looking back on the era of black coal in Germany as the attendees gathered for their last meal.
If you want to practice your German, this FAZ video captures more of the remarks at the ceremony:
Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier receives the last piece of black coal mined in Germany from miners at the Prosper-Haniel colliery (Video text in German)