Why Eastern Germany Has Become Fertile Soil for the Far Right

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Since the reunification of Germany in 1990, the government has kept yearly records of the state of national unity, issuing a report every September that takes stock of economic, social and institutional progress east of the Elbe River. In its 2016 report, the focus was more on socio-political, rather than economic, developments in the region.

“We have achieved a lot in eastern Germany in the last 26 years,” said government spokesperson Iris Gleicke in Berlin last September as she presented the findings of the annual report. But, she added, “we are very concerned about the right-wing extremism, xenophobia and intolerance in the new Lander”—the five federal states that made up the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany.

Since last year, violent incidents at the hands of right-wing extremists have been dramatically rising in the east and are particularly concerning in the landlocked state of Saxony, near Germany’s borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. In Dresden and smaller towns across the state, anti-immigrant groups have been gathering several times a week to carry out activities that include marches, armed patrolling and arson attacks on shelters and hostels for immigrants.

This xenophobic sentiment has begun to affect the economies of the eastern states. According to the government’s report, the unemployment rate in the region stands at 9.2 percent—half of what it was years ago, but still far from the 5.7 percent rate in western Germany. Saxony is Germany’s top-performing state economically, with the highest gross domestic product per capita. However, the population is ageing and many young people are going west for better job opportunities. The region’s unwelcoming attitude toward immigrants has limited the expansion of the labor force and discouraged tourism and foreign investment.

Before reunification, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers poured into then-West Germany to support its booming economy. However, in the East, the labor force came from fellow Communist countries, and immigrant workers were not allowed to integrate with locals. This created vast socio-cultural and economic differences with the multiethnic and multicultural West.

In 1989, both East and West Germany believed in building a strong, unified country, but according to Werner Patzelt, a professor at the Technical University of Dresden, they tried to merge too quickly. “The western side ended up absorbing the eastern one with its infrastructure, institution and people. Many Germans from the ex-GDR had to adopt a new way of life and culture overnight,” says Patzelt. When then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl opened the borders to foreign laborers in the early 1990s, it was the eastern Germans—isolated for decades—who felt particularly uncomfortable.

Two decades later, amid the refugee crisis in Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy welcomed 1.1 million refugees, a significant number of whom were Muslim, adding to the 5 million Muslims already living in Germany. The intake, in the context of rising anti-immigrant sentiment and a growing sense of insecurity across Europe, exacerbated longstanding fears of an external colonization and empowered far-right forces at the grass-roots and political levels.

Merkel’s refugee policy has generated backlash across Germany, but the alarmist rhetoric used by right-wing groups to capitalize on it has resonated particularly well in the East. “Why is our party stronger in the East than in the West?” asks Thomas Hartung, vice president of the anti-Islam and anti-migrant Alternative for Germany Party, or AfD, during an interview. “Because our people have already experienced life under a dictatorship and are ready to fight again.”

The AfD, which, until a recent drop in popularity, was seen as a veritable threat to Germany’s establishment parties, isn’t the only right-wing force riding popular resentment toward Merkel’s refugee policy. Whether it reaches the 5 percent threshold to send representatives to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, will be determined in September, when federal elections are held. But even if it fails to make gains, the party is but one feature of Germany’s increasingly visible—and often interconnected—far-right landscape.

From the Streets of Dresden

The Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known as Pegida, is a popular movement that was born in Dresden in 2014. The group organized its first march with a few dozen participants in October of that year. A few days earlier, its founder, Lutz Bachmann created a Facebook page denouncing Germany’s arms sales to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, an armed group fighting against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq. Bachmann—who was later convicted of hate speech in Germany for describing Muslim refugees as “cattle,” “filth” and “scum” in Facebook posts and has since moved to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands—objected to the fact that his country was supporting a Muslim organization. He has routinely lashed out at clashes between Kurdish immigrants and Salafi Muslims in Germany.

Merkel’s refugee policy has generated backlash across Germany, but the alarmist rhetoric used by right-wing groups to capitalize on it has resonated particularly well in the East.

“We had enough of foreigners occupying our streets,” says Siegfried Daebritz, Pegida’s vice president, illustrating both the group’s targeting of immigrants and the inflammatory rhetoric it uses to do so. “If they had the right to do it, why couldn’t we gather to show the real face of Islam and wars of religion?” Within months, the group’s small gatherings had grown into mass rallies; a protest that December drew 15,000 people.

Pegida, in contrast to other far-right, xenophobic groups—such as Hooligans against Salafists, a group of violent right-wing football fans active across Germany—tried to appear more presentable politically. At its debut rally, for example, it chanted, “We are not violent but united against Islam and religious wars on the German soil.” Later, Bachmann adopted anti-Communist slogans, such as “We are the people.” His supporters waved the Wirmer flag, used to celebrate the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler and, according to Daebritz, meant “today to show that we are the resistance against a new totalitarian regime.”

However, despite its attempts to present a softer face, Pegida’s ties with Germany’s dark past have always been visible. The group holds weekly marches every Monday—the same day the German National Socialist party held its weekly “walks” in the 1930s. Pegida opposes the mainstream media, which it calls Lugenpresse, or “lying media”—a defamatory term used in Nazi Germany—and has fans and affiliates among radical, far-right groups in Germany and across Europe. Fixtures of the European right wing, including the AfD’s Bjorn Hocke and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, have spoken at Pegida’s rallies.

The group’s harsh rhetoric against Muslims resonated, helping boost the number of its followers, which grew from a few dozen at 2014 rallies to an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 at rallies in early 2015. Foreigners—from immigrants and naturalized-immigrant citizens to German-born citizens of immigrant origin—make up a small portion of Saxony’s population, but there is a strong anti-immigrant stance among residents. “We travel, watch TV and read newspapers and we know all the problems mass migration is creating,” says Daebritz. “Simply, we don’t want neighborhoods taken over by Muslim immigrants, as has happened to some Western cities.” Only 0.1 percent of Saxony’s population is Muslim, compared to roughly 5 percent nationally. Nevertheless, Pegida has united disparate groups around its anti-immigrant platform, from the various fringes of the right wing and leftists excluded from the parliament, to disillusioned members of the middle class and supporters of the AfD.

“We had enough of foreigners occupying our streets.”

“Pegida is like a forerunner for German populism and for the AfD, but Pegida and the AfD are also two sides of the same coin,” says Patzelt, who authored a book about Pegida. Due to its history of fascism, Germany was for many years “a blank spot on the map of European populist, radical, right-wing parties, but Pegida exploited the general dissatisfaction nurtured in a conservative capital like Dresden.” The movement’s attempts to establish itself in other German cities with higher concentrations of Muslim immigrants, such as Leipzig or Berlin, did not succeed, as their populations are less conservative and tend to be more open to immigrants, Germans with foreign backgrounds and Muslims.

Some German politicians have described Pegida’s members as “neo-Nazis in pinstripes,” but despite the group’s references and rhetoric, outright neo-Nazis are in fact a minority in its ranks. Rather, a larger number of its supporters come from the old-fashioned bourgeoisie who lament the divide between the German political elite and ordinary people.

In 2015, however, the movement took a hit when German tabloids revealed that Bachmann had posed as Hitler in a photo on his Facebook page, prompting nearly all of the German political class to label Pegida as an enemy of the Federal Republic. Many members of the AfD, which had initially expressed support for the group, tried to distinguish their ideology from that of Pegida. But even Stephan Vogel, leader of the AfD in Dresden, acknowledged that their outlooks are in reality very similar. “Since the beginning, Pegida’s program has relied on 10 theses that focused primarily on immigration and security, and they overlap with the AfD’s federal goals,” says Vogel.

Since peaking in early 2015, turnout at Pegida’s marches decreased, as the AfD’s popularity began to increase. “Many former Pegida members were tired of a movement that doesn’t take any concrete action and turned to our political party,” adds Vogel.

Alternative for Germany

Frauke Petry, the AfD’s chairwoman since July 2015 and leader of the party’s Saxony branch since its foundation, was at the forefront of efforts to draw a distinction between her party and Pegida. When asked in March 2016 by journalist Tim Sebastian to comment on what her co-founder Alexander Gauland saw as the party’s “natural allies” in Pegida, Petry said that the AfD would always stand by those who protest democratically in the streets—describing support for the democratic right to protest, rather than an alliance with the movement itself. When Sebastian asked her if she agreed with Bachmann’s description of refugees as “cattle and scum,” she responded with exasperation. “Of course we don’t agree with that and we have said this so many times,” she said, accusing the journalist of trying “to establish a link that has never existed.”

The AfD was founded in April 2013 as an anti-euro—not anti-European Union—party. It primarily drew its support from popular fears that the financial burden of successive bailouts for heavily indebted EU countries, particularly Greece, would ultimately prove too high for German taxpayers. Earning 4.7 percent of votes in the 2013 federal elections, the party narrowly failed to reach the 5 percent threshold necessary to enter the Bundestag. However, it was able to elect seven legislators to the European Parliament in 2014, and earned around 10 percent of votes in several German regional elections that year.

But the AfD split the following year, with 10 percent of its members defecting. The rupture caused its popularity to slump to 3 percent in national opinion polls. One of the party’s founders, economist Bernd Lucke, spearheaded efforts to break from the party, denouncing the “infiltration of xenophobic, racist, nationalist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic extremists into it.” A number of the defectors joined Lucke’s new party, the Alliance for Progress and Renewal.

While the AfD’s agenda in the European Parliament was mostly concerned with economic policy, its delegations in state legislatures, such as in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, predominantly focused on internal security and immigration policy.

“The AfD started as anti-euro, but after the split, the far-right and Nazi side took over the party,” says journalist Marcus Bensmann. “Today, the AfD is pushing forward Volkish ideas into the mainstream political discourse,” he adds, referring to the populist cornerstone of Nazi ideology. These ideas, he notes, were inherited from Pegida, and include themes “like the imminent threat Muslim immigrants represent and the risk of a great Muslim infiltration.”

In August 2015, Petry, who had replaced Lucke as the party’s leader, proposed an “autumn offensive” focusing on both the euro and immigration. But talk of the euro evaporated quickly, and the most extreme demands—such as sealing borders, lifting the right to seek asylum or enabling the German police to shoot refugees “in case of an emergency”—were featured instead.

AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry attends a news conference, Berlin, Germany, Dec. 16, 2016 (AP photo by Markus Schreiber).

Party leaders explain its rise by pointing to the impact of the refugee crisis that has gripped Europe and Germany since 2015. “The basic changes Germany witnessed in the last two years are due to the enormous wave of refugees that reached our country and changed the attitude of the population towards the ruling parties,” said Vogel, the AfD’s leader in Dresden, in a December interview. “Since the beginning, our people didn’t share Merkel’s migration policy, and the AfD just rode on this sentiment.”

Among the AfD’s most radical voices is Bjorn Hocke, the head of the party in the east-central state of Thuringia, who was previously a member of the youth organization, or Junge Union, of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). When, as an AfD representative, he highlighted the “differing reproductive strategies” of Africans and Europeans, the AfD leadership asked him to resign. He not only refused, but stubbornly persisted without lowering his tone. The reception given to his public appearances, such as a fiery February speech in Dresden, proved that his focus on the most radical fringes of the AfD’s electorate was actually an effective strategy for boosting the party’s prospects.

Since 2013, the AfD has gained momentum in the east, with opinion polls currently putting it above the 5 percent threshold for entry into parliament at approximately 10 percent. By 2016, it had representatives in 10 of 16 states, and an 11 to 12 percent approval rating nationwide, stemming partly from the refugee crisis and a series of violent attacks perpetrated by immigrants and asylum-seekers. Its success also results from a political strategy that recalls the so-called de-demonization of France’s far-right National Front party and its leader Marine Le Pen, who sought to integrate the party into the political mainstream by disavowing its history of anti-Semitism and racism.

In practice, the AfD put a friendly face over its radical origins, attempting to appear less threatening and appeal to a larger electorate. But its rhetoric continued to scapegoat globalization and immigrants, if indirectly. “In the east, many people who used to vote for the Left party ended up giving their vote to the AfD,” says Jurgen Elsasser, editor-in-chief of Compact magazine, the AfD’s unofficial media organ, “because they felt betrayed by people that followed the international agenda of the big money and the open borders.”

Gauland, one of the AfD’s founders and a former CDU politician, is eager to appear moderate, if only outwardly. “If to 80 million Germans, many with a migratory background, you add first a million and then an ever-increasing number of foreigners year by year,” he explains, “you’ll see a change in people’s composition and identity.” His rhetoric appeals to former conservative CDU voters who felt betrayed by Merkel’s immigration policy.

The AfD put a friendly face over its radical origins, attempting to appear less threatening and appeal to a larger electorate.

In particular, Petry, who was labeled “Adolfina” by Der Spiegel newspaper, has embraced the approach of giving radicalism a soft look, often appearing youthful and approachable in sympathetic press organs. Petry was born in Dresden during the communist era but was raised in the West and educated in England, a cultural mix that helped her gain popularity in Germany.

The AfD so far has been unable to appear as unified and organized as other European populist parties, such as the National Front or the Austrian Freedom Party, and hasn’t announced its candidates for the September federal elections. Nevertheless, Petry looks like the best chance the AfD has to reunite opposing sentiments both inside and outside the party.

The Cultural Revolution

As time passes, the resentment the East has harbored toward the more-liberal West has widened the gap between the two sides of Germany. Today, these divergent sentiments reflect the polarization that has emerged across Europe and worldwide.

“The idea of an open, multicultural and multiethnic society hails from the 1968 cultural revolution experienced intensively in the West, and almost entirely absent from the East,” explains Patzelt. “That generation of West German student activists went on to occupy all top positions in media, universities, public administration and political parties. But this intellectual hegemony is coming to an end, because the political, societal and economic problems have changed, and the old answers are no longer sustainable for ordinary people.”

An AfD election poster, Halberstadt, Germany, March 7, 2016 (AP photo by Jens Meyer).

The demand for new answers to everyday problems, together with crises over identity and culture linked in part to globalization and new migratory flows, are paving the way for an unexpected revolutionary impulse across the ex-GDR.

In the past, Germany’s right wing was characterized by thugs with shaved heads and jackboots. After the 1990s, this group was replaced by the “autonomous nationalists”: right-wing extremists with left-wing looks and tactics but a violent attitude similar to their predecessors. At rallies that denounce capitalism and globalization, the Autonomous Nationalists often dress in black, brandishing banners with slogans written in English in funky, street-art-inspired fonts that more closely resembled urban graffiti and the hip-hop movement than those used by neo-Nazis and skinheads. Today, those groups are still around, but they represent a minority within the New Right that mostly comprises members of the middle class, conservative intellectuals, devout Christians and a large constituency of people enraged with the political class for different reasons.

At the same time, the New Right—of which Pegida and the AfD are the grass-roots and political manifestations—opposes the state and its organs, and mocks them as “traitors,” “dictators” and “liars.” Such victimization and harsh anti-establishment rhetoric hail from the neo-Nazi tradition.

The New Right believes that the mainstream media cannot be trusted, and has thus created its own gatekeepers of truth and information, with two key media figures seeking to unite its internal differences and drive the German public toward the AfD: Jurgen Elsasser and Gotz Kubitschek.

Elsasser, the editor-in-chief of Compact magazine, doesn’t identify himself as right wing. He used to hold leading positions in communist organizations and write for leftist newspapers such as Junge Welt or Neues Deutschland. “In 2005 I tried to convince my comrades that we had to defend our nation-state against globalization, in order to protect the working class and the poor people,” he says in an interview, “but they mistook this for right-wing nationalist thinking, and I started alienating myself.”

As time passes, the resentment the East has harbored toward the more-liberal West has widened the gap between the two sides of Germany.

From 2007 to 2008, Elsasser gradually left his left-wing circles to embrace more radical, anti-Islamic and pro-Russian ideas, co-founding Compact in 2010. “The division between left or right doesn’t make sense anymore,” he says.

For Elsasser, it’s too late for violent street revolutions, but it’s still possible to “influence the state by voting and fighting for our cultural hegemony, rejecting multiculturalism and globalism and bringing back family values, patriotism and nationalism,” he says. “Trump came into power by a constitutional process enabled by the vote and helped by new media like Breitbart News. In Germany, Compact and others could play a similar role by supporting the victory of the constitutional revolution.”

Kubitschek, for his part, is not only the publisher of Compact, but is also behind far-right institutions including the Sezession news site, the International Staats Politik think tank and the Antaios publishing house. He remains one of the most influential theorists of the so-called cultural revolution promoted by the New Right. He often appears with Elsasser and Hocke, speaks at Pegida’s events, and organizes symposiums at his farmhouse, where he gathers representatives of Germany’s ultra-conservative and nationalist fringes.

“The conditio sine qua non for our cultural revolution is the homogeneity among the people,” he says in an interview at his home in the isolated eastern village of Schnellroda. “To this, you have to add the defense of our identity, the overpopulation of Europe and a strict regulation of immigration. Europeans will be welcomed in more generously, but those who are culturally distant from us have to leave.”

While most New Right leaders don’t perpetrate violence themselves, they create an atmosphere that encourages violence-prone right-wing extremists to act. “There’s no need to be politically correct anymore,” says Bensmann, the journalist. “On the one hand, it’s very common to lash out against Muslim people in the public sphere and, on the other hand, populist parties like the AfD keep saying that they are the only ones telling the truth, that they are under threat and need to defend themselves.”

In September, Germans will cast their votes in the election. At 10 percent, the AfD’s popularity nation-wide currently far exceeds the 5 percent it needs to enter the parliament as an opposition political force. And Merkel’s conservatives, confronted with an unprecedentedly popular center-left Socialist Democratic Party, are particularly unsettled right now. The CDU and Christian Social Union (CSU) have been at odds for months, and after 12 years of Merkel, many Germans want a new face, if not a new approach.

The destinies of the AfD and the CDU may be more intertwined than each party thinks. “Apart from the dwindling number of immigrants and the burst of new terrorist attacks, another factor might affect their popularity,” says Patzelt, “and that is if Merkel will try to reconquer the political space on the right of her party.”

It’s still unclear if and how Merkel will try to appeal to conservatives that feel left behind by the CDU and are tempted to move closer to the AfD. If she moves her party’s platform rightward, and other parties follow suit, it will push previously unacceptable ideas into the mainstream. In such a scenario, the New Right will already have accomplished one of its long-term goals, with implications for Europe and beyond.

Eleonora Vio is a freelance journalist and co-founder of Nawart Press media platform. She focuses on the Middle East, particularly on Islamic radicalism and gender-based stories, as well as European right-wing extremism.

This article was written in collaboration with Giulia Bertoluzzi.

Eleonora Vio

Eleonora Vio

It might sound naive, but my decision to pursue the ill-advised profession of freelance journalist stemmed from my insatiable curiosity and keenness for adventure. Perhaps it was linked to a Master degree in London, time spent in Iran, various internships around the world or the scholarship I was awarded by Qatar University. But if I hadn’t followed my natural inclinations since I was child, if I hadn’t decided to disregard the obvious and embrace the diverse, I would not have pushed it so far, I love writing and photography, but cannot live without piles of books and rock music pumped in my ears. I’ve lived in India, Qatar, Palestine and Egypt. With the launch of Nawart Press, I am as thrilled as I was before those first trips as a backpacker.

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