The return of the far-right in Germany
In the aftermath of the AfD’s entry into the German parliament with 90 seats, why is it imperative to engage with its supporters who feel they have been left out of the German political system?
Over 12,000 people marched in Berlin on October 23 against the AfD (Alternative for Deutschland), a far-right political party which managed to wrest 12.7 percent votes in the federal elections this year and entered the Bundestag (parliament) with more than 90 seats. The massive demonstration succeeded many smaller protests against the election results and if the current political environment in Germany is anything to go by, there could be more manifestations of unrest. A petition organised by Avaaz addressed to the AfD leaders has already garnered more than five million stamps of disapproval by the non-AfD voters in just over a month. These are positive signs that mark the start of a long struggle against everything the AfD embodies. But are they enough?
Germany lives with a torrid history, the results of which are visible even today. In the wake of the September 2017 elections, important questions regarding the country’s history, socio-economic indicators and migration policies are being currently brought up. The recently founded AfD came in close after the well-established CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) and SPD (Social Democratic Party), and officially entered the Bundestag on October 24.
The mainstream media in Germany and elsewhere have published accounts of the AfD’s achievement and brought to the discussion, again, the longstanding conflict between the eastern and western regions of Germany. The former GDR (German Democratic Republic) or East Germany is being revisited in the context of a significant proportion of AfD voters hailing from this region. Incriminating these voters as racists, fascists and Nazis and their origins as underdeveloped and backward has become the mainstay of the prevailing narrative, post the elections. But stereotyping can be dangerous—something that I have learnt both while working as a human rights researcher and living in Germany with a foreign background.
The bone of contention today between the east and the west regions might point towards the victory of AfD, but its roots run deeper. The last 40 years of separation between the former GDR and the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) and the rhetoric post the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 have contributed to shaping the current discourses in and about Germany.
If there is anything that histories around the world have taught us, it is to remember them. The rise of the AfD is not an isolated incident but joins a spate of far-right developments that have increased in the last couple of years in Germany. The ultra-right NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) which could not rise to much importance despite its success in the regional parliaments in the 1990s, and the growing political movement known as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) have a sustained follower base both in Germany and neighbouring countries. The bone of contention today between the east and the west regions might point towards the victory of AfD, but its roots run deeper. The last 40 years of separation between the former GDR and the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) and the rhetoric post the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 have contributed to shaping the current discourses in and about Germany. These are especially relevant in understanding the current problems in the “normally staid, well-oiled political system of Germany”, which it presents itself to be.
I travelled to Saxony (Sachsen), a state in the east which has contributed a staggering 27 percent AfD votes, the highest amongst the 14 states in Germany. Saxony’s capital, Dresden, has been a well-known provenience of the Pegida movement and its residents’ enraged demonstrations against immigrants and asylum seekers in past years have been well-documented. I held valid fears of not venturing into Dresden because I look like a foreigner and follow Islam, a religion that sits comfortably on the tongues of those inciting racism. It is also unequivocally placed as an important concern in the AfD manifesto.
In Leipzig, a city in Saxony, I met Veronika Grandke, a 49-year-old journalist working with public broadcaster MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk). Grandke made us some Indian chai and narrated to me her growing up years in the GDR. “We had all the securities from the state such as the Versicherung (insurance), job security, as well as other provisions. However, like many others, I yearned for freedom and to be able to do what I wanted. Even our exposure to the rest of the world was limited. We could only travel to the five communist countries and had no possibility of entering the Soviet Union.” The Communist Party in Moscow wielded significant control over the GDR, the state policies and people’s lives. The GDR was supposed to be like the Soviet Union, with no possibility to critique it and speak out against the communist regime.
The transition of the AfD votes from all parties, especially from the Left Party (Die Linke), which used to be one of the strongest parties in the East, speaks volumes about the functioning of these parties and their connection with the voters. Grandke believes that people are disappointed with the left because of its entanglement with bureaucratic discrepancies and its unkempt promises of equality.
Just like the left, the CDU, CSU (Christian Socialist Union), SPD and FDP (Free Democratic Party) have all lost sections of their voters to the AfD. Interestingly enough, a large section of non-voters has also taken to the ballot to express their ‘dissatisfaction,’ a term that many have used as a reaction against the then ruling coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD. While Angela Merkel has been re-elected Chancellor for the fourth term since her first in 2005 and her party, the CDU, has won with a majority, she has lost her popularity and her vision of a unified Germany has been widely contested, especially in the eastern regions. Taking cues from the turn of events, Merkel acknowledged that her government needs to do more for people in the east, especially through addressing the unequal employment opportunities and income disparities.
Although some historic city centres in the eastern regions have developed, people continue to leave from the rural regions in search of better jobs and opportunities. Up until 2016, 404,000 people from the east migrated to the west in search of work, while only 1,58,000 moved from the west to the east. The strong income differences and unfavourable labour market, along with disproportionate unemployment rates, which stand at 7.1 percent in the east and 5.1 percent in the west, are often cited for this dissatisfaction.
I visited Ms. Müller (name changed), a 78-year-old woman, who hardly spoke any English but was well versed in Russian and German. She didn’t talk much about politics with me but narrated her experiences in the GDR period. “I used to work with the bank Sparkasse in Leipzig and after the reunion I worked with Leipzig’s partner city of Hannover (in the west) and the new CEOs. I was happy the way things had worked in my company in Leipzig but post the fall of the wall, everything changed. It was like we started working in a completely new place and environment.” Her accounts do not detail many of her fond memories of that period which could be connected to the new employment practices by the bosses from western Germany.
Ms. Müller calls Leipzig her home where she has lived for the last 50-plus years. However, her home looked different with its Soviet-style couches and cabinets, in comparison to all the German houses that I have visited. It seemed like nothing had changed in Ms. Müller’s house and I wonder if it had something to do with retaining memories from that period. She talked about her life, her work and showed me a dozen more photographs. “Yesterday is gone and tomorrow could be different,” says Müller, whose memories of the past, especially the GDR, seemed strong. But she also seemed ready to move on.
In a refreshing article penned by Dominic Boyer, “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany”, the author elucidates the struggle that east Germans have felt in preserving and remembering their identities. Post the Second World War and the fall of Hitler, Germany was left reeling under a gruesome history and a large Nazi-oriented citizenry. Soon after, under the influence of the US, Great Britain, France and Russia, Germany was divided into the FRG and the GDR. By 1961, a wall had cropped up and the schism between the two Germanies continued to increase. But when the wall was pulled down, neither side was prepared for what lay ahead, chronicles Boyer in his conversation with Helmut Kohl, the then Chancellor of the unified Germany.
Boyer’s article sheds light on the delicate period from the late 1980s until the end of the 1990s when the German government and policymakers could have handled the reunion process much better and not left it on the absolute economic absorption of the former GDR and expected people to deal with it. He further laments the aggressive assimilation of the east within the west, under the purview of a unified Germany. The stories of the Cold War, the separation and the rest of the narrative were controlled by the media experts and policy enthusiasts in the west. But differences kept cropping up on both sides to validate the social identification of each in juxtaposition to the other. This nostalgia, existing for both sides, has deeper roots in the Third Reich and is immaculately described by Boyer as:
“Who in Germany, East or West, does not repeatedly wish to go back to 1933 and to change history? Who does not wish that recognition of their Westernness did not always somehow seem probationary? Who does not wish that the future question of ‘die deutsche Krankheit’ ould be settled once and for all?”
Ulf Aminde, an artist and educator originally from the former FRG and currently living in Berlin, warns: “We cannot get back to the Third Reich period again!” Aminde recommends that all Germans constantly remember their radical past and understand the roots of the east and west divide as well as the current rise of racism and xenophobia in Germany. Nazism for him is not just a problem of the eastern regions but also of the west. “We have to understand that Nazism in Germany comes from a much earlier period. Following the Second World War, a lot of Nazis continued their life in post-war Germany and racism remained enmeshed in the political arrangement in West Germany.” While Aminde was able to join the post-war leftist-punk movement, there were many others who saw themselves aligned with the Nazi skinhead backlash in both the GDR and FRG.
For political activist Henriette Raddatz, who was born in Potsdam just after the fall of the wall, racism has been a grounding factor during her growing up years in the post-GDR period. She remembers the constant threats that left-leaning youth faced from the skinheads and recalls the wave of aggression that was present in places like Königs Wusterhausen, a small town in the vicinity of Berlin. For her, the neo-Nazi structures were a part of her reality. “The ideology of Nazism has been deeply rooted in Germany, due to a varied set of factors. And I want to work towards ameliorating it and educating people about it. But when people constantly tell me that the east is a racist place, I feel deeply upset and sad about this stereotyping. I feel that—rather than fighting together against racism—I have to first defend the east, where I was born and which is beyond what the people from the west are stating. The reality is much more complex.”
Franz Josef Strauss, an ex-leader of the CSU, a conservative party which is an ally of Merkel’s CDU and enjoys the leading position in Bavaria (Germany’s richest state), once claimed, “There must be no democratically legitimate party right of the CSU.” The regional conservative party which was formed right after the Second World War is known for its strong stance on Bavarian independence from Germany. The CSU is also known for its hard line towards non-Germans and has been trying to pull a strong cap on the immigration in the country. Ahead of the coalition building in the coming months with the CDU, the dominant south-eastern party, the CSU wants to take a ‘Bavaria first’ approach and a subsequent shift towards the right, reports Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster.
Henrike Naumann, an artist from Zwickau, a city in Saxony, believes that the right has roots in conservatism and neo-liberalism of the former FRG and even in today’s western regions in Germany. “The GDR did a lot of harm to my family and constrained the possibilities for myself. But when I look back, I see the colossus of missed opportunities in the reunion process. Many people from the GDR-opposition, who started the ‘revolution’ did not want the union with the FRG and the western neoliberal system; instead, they wanted a ‘new GDR’, a better system. They were aware that things would not be easy if the GDR became a part of the FRG. Subsequently, they even drafted a Constitution for this new state. However, the CDU in the west kept pushing for the unification and achieved it. It was a rushed process and people continue to live with the implications of those decisions. Today, the East German economy has collapsed and many people have lost their jobs, houses and social security.” For Naumann, the east has become an easier target for being called racist because of the antipathy towards Soviet-style socialism and dictatorship which are cited as reasons for the right-wing radicalisation in the east. “But one cannot turn their eyes away from the right-wing activities and structural racism present in pan-Germany and which cannot just be based on simplistic antagonisms between the east and the west.”
These antagonisms point back to a similar point made by Boyer, for whom the German identity has been shuffled between the two regions as a claim to a more sagacious and normal Germany. In this process though, many people, especially from the east, have lost claims to their own memories and cultures which have been purported to fit the idea of aVerfassungspatriotismus (constitutional patriotism), a term put together by German sociologist Jürgen Habermas to denote the commitment for shared democratic values rather than a common national culture.
In conversation with Ilka Wild, a researcher in linguistics at the University of Erfurt in Thüringia, I discovered the semantical reproduction of memories of the GDR in Germany and its impact on the current identity struggle of the youth. “East Germany has not just been about the political system but also about the people. This is especially true for the way our histories are presented. This versetzung (transfer) to the west has not even been clearly represented in the many so-called GDR museums. History museums need to have more context and story to the mere representations that they showcase. This is especially important for the young people who were born after the reunion and have a hard time grasping our complex history.”
The stand on taking control of the German identity and calling people to be proud of their German heritage has been the mainstay of the AfD campaign. “It is time to put German interests first,” stated an AfD official in a conversation with the US-based National Public Radio. There is a general consensus amongst the people I speak to regarding the performative angle of the voter’s response through the AfD. They are of the opinion that the voters have lost trust in the governing parties and want to be acknowledged. Wild, also working as a radio journalist with the MDR, states: “I believe that the people who voted for AfD lament not being represented in the mainstream parties. The AfD was present here and in their cities, talking to them and reaching out to the local communities. People probably wanted to be noticed.”
It is worth recalling the late German film and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief’s project, Wahlkampfzirkus ’98/Chance2000. This was a ‘social experiment arrangement’ which spanned over a year with art shows, talks, educative events and the like in the heart of Berlin in 1998. The motto was Waehle dich selbst (Vote for Yourself) and provided a forum for the marginalised sections of society who felt left out by the political parties in the wake of the September 1998 general election, to cogitate over the possibility of voting for themselves as independent candidates. Schlingensief even started a political party called Chance2000 or Last Chance to congregate activism, politics, art and satire and present an alternative to the elites governing the country. While Schlingensief’s causticity might have seemed tomfoolery to some, it sought to stir up people and open doors for alternative possibilities.
In a similar vein Henriette, 27, currently living in Berlin and working with the refugee communities, asseverates, “Through these election results, one can observe that people wanted to speak out against the status quo by voting for AfD. People from both the eastern and western regions of Germany have been left out of the policy and welfare processes. But it does not help to blame someone for our own problems. Today people blame the immigrants for their problems and tomorrow it could be someone else.” She believes that the current problems need to be solved both at the structural level through a fair social economy and more investment in the east as well as at the individual level. “People from the east have to be more active, speak out and address their agency. Choosing racism and xenophobia will take us nowhere. Our history has been a witness.”
For Michaela Putzer, a 30-year-old woman from a small town near Dresden working in an innovation consulting company in Berlin, the ridicule and despise of AfD voters is not of much use. She instead believes that there needs to be tangible engagement with these people who feel that they have been left out of the German political system. “I know a few people in my close-knit network who voted for the AfD. I felt appalled by what they did and sought to talk to them. It was not easy though, and I was often met with aggression. But I believe that we should keep trying.” While engagement with the AfD voters is necessary, it is equally true that racism in Germany has planted itself in everyday lives and systems. The 2015 data from the German Ministry of the Interior provides shocking numbers: 14,000 Nazi-related crimes occurred in 2015 itself. The Guardian states that there were around three attacks a day against asylum seekers which were officially counted, at least until April 2016. Many believe that the anti-immigrant climate, like in the 1990s, is on the rise which could pressure the new government to make docile decisions, just like Helmut Kohl did in the 1990s post the then recurring spate of terrorist attacks.
However, Aminde, the artist working with refugees in Germany on a legal tool to convert their refugee status into art studentship, beams with hope on the early and ‘already set-in winter’ morning in Berlin. He places his cup of black coffee on the table and calmly tells me that Germans must remember where they came from. “Our identity has so many influences on it, especially with the migration patterns. How can we conceive ourselves as being nationalistic or even Germans, for that matter?” Aminde finds the focus on nationalism a huge obstacle. He believes that he, alongwith his fellow German citizens, needs to remember their stories, memories and cultures but also take a stand against border controls, an unethical economy and controlled resources for only a few. “We need to build grounds for common humanity,” he says.
The need to build common grounds for humanity is not just a responsibility of the German State and its citizens but for people all across the world. The growth of the right has become an opportunity for those spearheading such ideologies and feeding off the fears of their supporters. And while immigration and identity conflicts are often cited as concerns for this radicalisation, these seem like residual issues in the face of the larger structural and historical questions. The analogies can be drawn with India as well.
*Name has been changed