model community The Promised Land in Lower Saxony

A group of German idealists wants to create the community of the future, equal parts old, young and migrant. But even before the first house is built, they are running into roadblocks.
Can people create heaven on earth?

“The village will be done when it’s done,” Thomas Hagelstein likes to say. The 58-year-old north German native with a permanent no-nonsense facial expression is standing in the middle of a field, under an overcast sky. He is surrounded by weeds to his knees. A couple of gnawed corncobs are strewn around, litter left over from the harvesting of the neighboring field.

At first glance, this piece of land in the river-side town of Hitzacker in the state of Lower Saxony seems bleak and dreary. However, on these five and a half hectares, Mr. Hagelstein and his cohorts are planning a model society.

The vision is for 100 old people, 100 young people, and 100 refugees to work together, to build an open, united, and mutually supportive community for people of all backgrounds: Seniors, students, rich, poor, Germans, and immigrants. At least that’s the plan.

In a sense, the model village sounds like an alternate reality to 2017’s ego-driven society, one in which social solidarity is at an all time low. Populists are playing natives against newcomers, politicians are building fences. Us versus them seems to wins elections these days. Mr. Hagelstein and his fellow utopians think that is terrible. They say they are guided by love in an era characterized by anger.

For the village founders, it’s obvious that refugees don’t have to disappear into voiceless, parallel societies and can instead become fellow citizens.

Their idea of the model village almost always excites left wingers. It’s all about integration in practice, socially engaged and politically visionary. But important questions remain: Who will take part in the end? Will young people give up their city life for it? What about the refugees who don’t speak German? In short: Who will follow the call out into the middle of nowhere?

In his wife’s words, Mr. Hagelstein is “one of the nutters” who came up with the idea of the village. The other is Hauke Stichling-Pehlke. With his white mane of hair, Mr. Stichling-Pehlke looks like he could be the younger brother of Hans-Christian Ströbele, a well-known MP for the German Green party.

Both Mr. Stichling-Pehlke and Mr. Hagelstein are natives of Hamburg but have been living for some time in the region of Wendland in Lower Saxony. Mr. Hagelstein calls himself an anarchist and spent time squatting houses in the 1980s. Mr. Stichling-Pehlke spent many years living in communes and likes his pants colorful. He sees the village as a unique solution to some of Germany’s problems: Integrating refugees, fixing income inequality and providing space for the country’s aging population outside the big cities.

The politicians aren’t getting it right, says Mr. Stichling-Pehlke. He is keen on showing them how they can. For him, it’s obvious that refugees don’t have to disappear into voiceless, parallel societies and can instead become fellow citizens. He also believes that being close doesn’t automatically mean being confined - and that knowing and interacting with your neighbors is not a bad thing.

The village was originally supposed to be called Neuropa, a German portmanteau for a new Europe. But some of those involved thought it sounded like a combination of neurosis and “opa” - the latter being the German word for grandpa. They now simply call it the Village of the Future.

Here, society’s issues become magnified, offering a perspective on how utopia becomes reality – or is torn apart.

Next to a lonely railroad track, around five-minutes from the field by foot, is the red-brick nucleus of the village here: Hitzacker’s former train station. The German railway had auctioned off the three-story building with a small tower and round, arched windows years ago. The Kulturbahnhof Hitzacker Association – In English, the “culture station” or “Kuba”, for short - won the bid. In the building’s entrance hall are flyers for refugee assistance, yoga courses and the Wendland seed exchange, as well as excerpts from various left-wing tracts printed on recycled paper. The village has its office on the second floor; in the adjoining room is a wooden model, with small houses strewn across a green surface. That is the future.

A meeting is held here once a month to talk about just that. They talk about rules (“Are dogs allowed?”) and principles (“Does the energy supply have to be 100 percent green?”). They also introduce new potential members of the community (“Those just wanting a cheap place to live have come to the wrong place.”) The plan is to build the first house in the spring. Then come small businesses, farm-ready fields, and charging stations for electric cars.

Naturally, questions abound. What happens when, in an Afghani family, only the husband has authority? Is openness toward foreign cultures more important than feminist principles? And will someone be allowed to move into the village who wants to regulate immigration? Does everybody have to separate their trash? Are you allowed to drive a Porsche?

Here, society’s issues become magnified, offering a perspective on how utopia becomes reality – or is torn apart.

Mr. Stichling-Pehlke and Mr. Hagelstein have already found around 120 potential village residents from Hamburg, Berlin, and Hanover who are searching for something in the countryside that cities can’t offer. Becoming a member of the cooperative costs €500 (around $540). Those who pay for a share can take part in decision making. To be allowed to later move into the village, one must purchase additional cooperative shares, between €15,000 (around $16,310) and €20,000 for an apartment with circa 60 m². The rent is supposed to be around €5.50 per square meter. Not exactly cheap for Hitzacker, but the houses will meet the highest environmental standards.

On a Saturday in January, interested parties, including small business owners, farmers and a parish priest take their place in a series of folding chairs. The rooms in the building are moderately heated and scarves are left on.

Rita Lassen, a woman in her mid-60s with short gray hair, is one of the village’s representatives. At least twice a week, she drives from her home in the west of Hamburg to Hitzacker, usually together with her companion, Käthe Stäcker. Ms. Lassen has a degree in business administration and spent half of her professional life counseling large non-profit organizations. Today she is leading the discussion. Everyone who wants to ask a question is given a chance, even if it means the discussion sometimes goes off track.

Grass-roots democracy isn’t easy. But Rita Lassen believes that ignoring the concerns of even one member could threaten the entire vision. Despite the occasional debate, it seems clear that all of the people here are actually pretty similar, around the same age, with similar backgrounds and similar political views. Right-wing populists are unlikely to stray in here. Only a few are under 50 and there isn’t even anyone here, whose parents came to Germany as guest workers. Diversity may be the goal, but it isn’t the reality here.

If it stays a senior citizens’ project, then the thing is dead. Thomas Hagelstein, founder, Village of the Future

So far, Isabell Seifert and Roman Höfers are the youngest in the village. Mr. Höfers, with brown, horn-rimmed glasses and a scraggy beard, works as an editor for a publication about cemeteries. Isabell Seifert, with a felted headband and fur boots, is a midwife. Both are 32 and would like to get the subject of playgrounds onto the agenda. So far they haven’t had any success. They consider themselves the “token young people.” That’s why they are asking themselves what happens if this village of the future turns into a senior citizens village. “But,” as Mr. Höfers says, “somebody has to take the initiative.”

Even if so far no one among their circle of friends wants to go along with them, the couple has decided to leave their four-room apartment in Hanover behind and move to Hitzacker. They already see themselves planting vegetables in their garden and only working part-time. But that might take a while, they admit. “There’s a lot of optimism sentiment about a new beginning, but not much willingness to make actual decisions,” they note.

That’s also the problem for the refugees who are supposed to move into the village, they say. Although a couple of refugee families have declared a willingness to live here, the Afghans, Syrians or Eritreans in Wendland have more pressing worries than heating, green power, community bureaucracy and fundraising. They are learning German, sitting in government offices and searching for a place to live as soon as possible, and not in a village that may, or may not be, finished in a year, or perhaps ever.

While Mr. Stichling-Pehlke remains optimistic and says they won’t compromise on the demographic mix they want, Mr. Hagelstein is one of the few to admit that the undertaking could fail.

“I don’t know whether we can really manage to get 100 refugees,” he notes. “If it stays a senior citizens’ project, then the thing is dead,” he adds. It needs every generation. The young ones work, the old ones look after the children, the ones with successful careers pay for the coop fees of the single parents or refugees, who stock the village store in return and care for the aged. For the time being though, it is mostly still about people who have enough time and money to be involved.

Of the €15 million the village is supposed to cost in total, so far barely €700,000 has been paid by coop members. The Village of the Future has formed its own limited liability company in order to build and 12 refugees are doing internships there, learning “German for the construction site,” while hammering on sample houses.

Omid Kuhestani was the first to be employed by the company and is now in charge of the others. The 24-year-old is himself a refugee, who arrived from Afghanistan in 2009.

Mr. Kuhestani, a good looking man with a large silver ring on his finger, would be a perfect model for immigration and integration. He has completed training as a bricklayer, is working to become a master craftsman, and speaks German very well. But even he is yet another example of what could go wrong for the Village of the Future.

The project is all about “offering people prospects,” he says, sounding like a politician. He places his hand on his heart: “We want to be examples and show you should make no distinction between people.”

However, when asked whether he wants to move into the village himself, Mr. Kuhestani smiles and says no. He wants to finish trade training, then maybe go to college and basically enjoy life to the fullest. That doesn’t necessarily involve waiting for the afternoon train to Lüneburg. His parents, however, are moving into the village. But they can’t join in the discussions yet - they don’t speak German.

Spring is coming now and with it, will come the bulldozers, to begin building the village for real. Still it seems clear: The future is far from certain.

Anant Agarwala is an editor with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, in which this story first appeared. To contact the author: [email protected]