“Nietzsche is our only hope,” says Dorothee Berthold, who heads an association founded to spare the town of 600 people the fate of several others along a brown coal deposit stretching south of Leipzig. Last October, all 59 residents of nearby Heuersdorf were forced to pack up and leave after exhausting all legal means to stop excavations by US-owned mining house Mibrag.
Their plight briefly received worldwide attention because the 750-year-old church of Heuersdorf was lifted from its foundations, packed into a cradle of wooden supports and moved 12 kilometres (seven miles) to its new home in Borna. Nietzsche and his relatives lie buried next to another historic church in Röcken.
The local pastor, Joachim Salomon, believes it would be “a cultural shame” to exhume the philosopher from beneath his granite and pink marble tombstone and move his remains to make way for a mine. Salomon says he and other residents of Röcken are all the more angry because the mines in the region are being dug to excavate brown coal that will be used to fire atmosphere polluting power plants as Germany phases out nuclear power.
“It is an energy source of the past,” said the pastor.
A 39-year-old resident who would only give his name as Ralf O, said he does not want his hometown to be turned into a mine that “will only help to make the planet overheat a little more still,” adding “Nietzsche will save us.”
But like many others, he admits that for a long time he knew little about the philosopher who penned “Beyond Good and Evil” and famously declared “God is dead.” During communist times, Nietzsche’s legacy was deliberately ignored by the East German regime who accused him of contributing to the rise of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler through his work “The Will to Power,” published posthumously, and his concept of the “Übermensch” or super human.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, tourist authorities were slow to rediscover Röcken’s biggest selling point. “Some tourist guides still simply ignore the subject!” said Hans-Juergen Moehring, a visitor who came to see the church where Nietzsche, the son of a Lutherian pastor, was baptized and the house where he lived until the age of five.
There is a small museum next to the house which receives some 1,500 visitors annually.
Another visitor called Hans who came from Frankfurt to pay his respects at Nietzsche’s grave, said he was less perturbed by the prospect of moving it. “The philosopher’s thoughts will endure,” he told AFP.
Not all Röcken residents see a future mining project as a disaster. Claudia Hempel, who has worked in Röcken as a shop assistant for 10 years, said Mibrag is a major job creator in the region and people should welcome the opportunities a new mining development will bring in economically depressed east Germany.
“This region is economically weak. Mibrag employs a lot of people, so really, this should be seen as a stroke of luck,” she said.
Berthold said 30 percent of the land in and around Röcken is farmland that is no longer cultivated and the owners would be happy to move elsewhere if they were paid compensation.
Others who still live in the houses in which they were born cannot imagine a future elsewhere. “Our whole life, is here,” said Heidrun Kaiser, 54.
For the moment, nobody is sure what will happen as Mibrag is still carrying out tests to determine the quality of the brown coal deposits that run beneath Röcken. A Mibrag spokeswoman said the first results are expected this summer.
“We can understand that nobody wants to leave their homes. If we decide to go ahead, our aim would be to start in 2025. But we need about 15 years to get all the necessary authorisation. A lot of things could happen,” she said.
Some residents hope that the company will discover that the coal deposits are water-logged and too salty – the reasons why the Nietzsche-hating East German state never bothered to mine here.