At its height the Völklinger Hütte ironworks employed over 17,000 workers, mainly men, who rotated through three shifts a day to keep the plant operational around the clock. It is said that when the factory closed in 1986, after over a century of operation, the people of Völklingen found it most difficult to sleep, so unused were they to the silence. In 1994, UNESCO placed the ironworks on their list as a World Heritage Site. This is the first such structure, of its kind, from the heyday of the industrial revolution, to be granted this status. Now there are numerous exhibition halls and over six kilometers of walkways made safe with signposts, for visitors to explore. There is even a small café and a “paradise garden", where plants and wildlife make a new home, as they slowly overtake the structure in this most industrial of settings.
Seeing the bricks crumble, iron rusting and the old furnace blowers with oil-smeared corners, you can never escape the knowledge that this once was a place of intense heat and back breaking work of long relentless hours in almost unimaginable, close to inhumane conditions. During the summer the men melted in the extreme heat, and in the winter, froze while exposed to the raw open elements and iced covered frozen steel. Imagining when the shift-change whistle blew and seeing thousands of men pouring out of the ironworks towards the local bars and cafes surrounding the Völklinger train station, only to pause with oil-smeared faces, saturated clothes and aching limbs and bones, with just enough time for a couple of knock-off beers with a little conversation before finally heading home, only to prepare for coming back the next day to do it all again.
The Völklinger Iron-Works, as a monument to the almighty power of the industrial revolution, along with its incredible and almost unbelievable dimensions, definitely deserves its place on the UNESCO heritage list. However, it is difficult to celebrate something that meant such an incredible hardship for so many of the workers throughout most of its 100 year history. Through prison labor during the second world war, and where great fortunes were made, that never would trickled down to the men working in a place with such difficult and extreme conditions. Then, of course, there is the contradiction that, despite the Hütte being relatively unscathed from WW2, the closure of the ironworks practically ripped the hearts out of the town and its community, to the extent that the echoes of the Völklinger Hütte are still sounding in the second decade of the 21st century.