Planned powder factory in Großenhain: rumor with danger of explosion

Ever since there has been talk of the construction of a powder factory by the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall in Großenhain, the town has not been able to rest. No one knows anything - and that's exactly why things are bubbling up.

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Das Bild zeit einen Mann vor dem Schild des Industriegebiet Flugplatz.
As an NVA officer, Armin Benicke was responsible for civil defense and disaster control in the Großenhain region. Now he warns against the construction of a powder factory near the center. © Ronald Bonß

From Henry Berndt

He waves left, he waves right and then left again. Anyone who doesn't see him right away gets a loud "hello" shouted across the street, and he usually gets a friendly greeting back. Armin Benicke knows everyone in Großenhain and likes to let everyone know that as he strolls through the city center. The 65-year-old is not a pop star or even a politician, but he is an airplane pilot, drone instructor, marksman, NVA veteran and a jack of all trades.

An older woman heads straight for him. "Mr. Benicke, I wanted to talk to you about this powder factory. I heard there was something on TV." Without hesitation, Armin Benicke reaches into his breast pocket, pulls out his cell phone and calls up a ZDF report. In it, he can hear and see what has been on the minds of many people in Großenhain for several months: The arms manufacturer Rheinmetall is considering building a powder factory on the site of the airfield on the outskirts of the town of 20,000 inhabitants. Chemical precursors for ammunition are to be produced here, 700 to 800 million euros could be invested and 500 to 600 jobs created.

This is the information that leaked to the public at the end of March. Since then, however, no details have emerged. What exactly is to be produced there and from when? What dangers does it pose? And has the decision even been made yet? All these are unanswered questions.

The Free State of Saxony and the potential investor from Düsseldorf as negotiating partners remain ironically silent. Only Minister President Michael Kretschmer (CDU) recently ventured forward and brought a referendum into play.. "If the citizens say no, it won't take place there," he explained. That's something to measure "Micha" by, according to Armin Benicke.

And the city Großenhain? In the city hall one does not know more and is not legally responsible for a referendum in this question, as it is said. In the meantime, the non-party mayor Sven Mißbach is tired of having to answer the same questions over and over again, to which he has no answers. Contrary to initial rumors, the city of Großenhain has not been involved in any way in the negotiations. "I'm not going to comment on that anymore," he says when asked on the street, waving it off, and then repeats at least his one big wish: "The airfield in Großenhain should no longer be used for military purposes in the future."

The origins of the Großenhain airfield date back to the time before the First World War. This makes it one of the oldest in Germany. Even the Red Baron, Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, was trained here. The area also played an important role for the Nazis as a frontline airfield because of the usually good weather conditions in the region. After 1945, the Soviet forces stationed their 105th fighter-bomber division here. It is said that a kit for an atomic bomb was temporarily stored in one of the two Granit I bunkers secretly built in the 1970s. The restricted military area was only lifted after the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1993. Since then, the airfield has been used by hobby pilots, for example Armin Benicke, who lives just a few minutes away right in the city center.

To this day, the airfield consists mainly of concrete roads and meadows, with a few isolated buildings and shrubs in between. Directly behind the entrance gate, a few discarded military helicopters and fighter planes are reminders of earlier times, including a MIG 21 built in 1966. In total, the area, which is almost impossible to survey, covers 150 hectares. It is the largest contiguous area owned by the Free State of Saxony.

"Starting from the worst case scenario"

"Of course, this is pure gold," Benicke says. "I'm absolutely in favor of having an industrial park here. Just please, no munitions factory." Benicke grew up in Berlin, which you can still hear today. In 1982, he was transferred to Großenhain as an NVA officer and was responsible for civil defense and disaster control in the region. He still feels a certain responsibility for this when he thinks about the planned powder factory. "We don't know anything, and that's why we should assume the worst-case scenario."

For example, a huge explosion mushroom cloud whose suction then takes houses with it. On Facebook, he has already posted a video of a blast at a Bundeswehr test site in Sweden. For him, many things are conceivable: technical failure, human error, sabotage. In order to protect the houses in the surrounding area at least a little in the event of a possible explosion, Benicke believes that masses of earth would have to be moved to build walls around the factory.

Even if hardly anyone in Großenhain goes so far as to dream up comparable plans for the apocalypse, most citizens agree: The plans for a powder factory in their place should be stopped as soon as possible. "We don't need anything like that here," grumbles 71-year-old Jürgen Linge, who drives through the city center in a wheelchair. "That's what they should build for themselves in the west, those pipes!" Others formulate their criticism more politely, speaking of their fear of becoming a possible target for Russia in the event of a further escalation of the Ukraine war. "The Putin knows where the square is. He was here himself."

Many say that they have already signed and mean the petition of the Left Group. The lists show a crossed-out tank and the call to "Stop the arms race. Over 250 signatures have been collected so far. Even the six city councilors of the AfD have signed. "Now is no time for party politics," says one of them, Brigga Pöschl. "We have to stop this together." On the window of her civic office in Großenhain hangs a poster showing AfD member of the state parliament Mario Beger, scowling and with his arms folded, standing in front of a pile of bullet casings. "No arms industry in Großenhain!" At least 200 people gathered at a protest organized by the AfD in the center at the end of June.

Yes, is it possible to find anyone at all who would welcome the construction of the powder factory alongside former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière? Two, in fact: a kebab vendor and the CDU member of the state parliament Sebastian Fischer, the latter not living in Großenhain, but in Priestewitz, five kilometers to the south. Despite the immense headwind, Fischer stands by the fact that he would welcome Rheinmetall with open arms. National security cannot be defended with bows and arrows, he said recently. The kebab vendor sees it the same way. "We can be happy if such a company is interested in Großenhain," he says, somewhat surprised that anyone is interested in his opinion.

Sebastian Fischer believes that approval and rejection in Großenhain are not as clearly distributed as they seem at the moment. "In this charged climate, many don't dare to speak their minds. You can understand that."

In order to get talking to each other again, the CDU man planned a discussion round in a pub for Monday last week, but the landlord wanted nothing to do with the topic. When Fischer then wanted to move the event to the CDU office in Großenhain, he was whistled back by the district chairwoman. "It is simply not possible to have a free discussion on the subject of the powder factory in this town," he said, and ultimately moved the discussion round to the Internet. 15 interested people logged on Monday evening, among them a conspicuously large number of CDU supporters, including from Leipzig and Riesa.

Also there, of course, was Armin Benicke, armed with all kinds of figures, hypotheses and alternatives, for example the construction of the factory in one of the opencast mining holes in Lusatia or in the Dresden Heath. For an hour and a half, the discussions largely passed each other by. While the people from Großenhain wanted to talk specifically about the powder factory, the others preferred to deal with the potential of the Saxon economy in general.

Order worth billions from the Bundeswehr

There is only one thing everyone agrees on: the explosive mood in Großenhain is primarily due to the ongoing secrecy surrounding the matter, which gave the rumor its explosive power in the first place. Presumably, the public should never have known about it at this early stage. As long as nothing is known about the project except for the idea, however, every person from Großenhain can imagine his or her own hopes and fears. Why doesn't Rheinmetall seize the opportunity to demonstrate the advantages for the region in order to take the citizens along with them a bit, many are asking.

Last Thursday, however, it became known that the defense group had received a new billion-euro order from the German armed forces for the supply of tank ammunition. "The order expresses the armed forces' desire to close any gaps that have arisen in inventories and to increase overall ammunition stocks in view of the security situation," the Group stressed.

For the time being, however, Großenhain continues to talk about "unlaid eggs," as Mayor Mißbach puts it. It would be best to put the topic on ice until there is concrete information, he thinks. Even then, there would still be plenty of time for discussion, because the development of the site would take years. Regardless of which company is involved.

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