"We still haven't properly tackled the east's far-right problem"

An extremism expert says extreme rightwing views and violence are still prevalent in former East Germany, 30 years after reunification. The reasons for that go back further. 

Participants on a right-wing march, which included neo-Nazis and the anti-Islam group Pegida, on last year's German Unity Day (3 October 2019).
Participants on a right-wing march, which included neo-Nazis and the anti-Islam group Pegida, on last year's German Unity Day (3 October 2019).Imago

Berlin-The annual report on the state of German unity has shown conditions in east and west are becoming more alike, satisfaction is growing, trust in politics is up again. That should surely be cause for celebration – but the answer is yes and no. One problem in particular continues to fester: the government’s representative for matters pertaining to the former East Germany, Marco Wanderwitz (CDU), is warning of growing rightwing extremism in the parts of the country that made up the former Eastern Bloc country. Are his worries justified – or just over-the-top Ossi-bashing? We spoke to Michael Lühmann of the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research to find out more.

Mr Lühmann, the government’s representative for the east, Marco Wanderwitz, has warned of rising rightwing extremism in the region as the latest annual report on the state of German unity is released. Is he exaggerating or does the east have a genuine problem with rightwing extremism?

Yes, it does – and a particularly specific one. That’s not to say the west doesn’t have one too. We’ve known since long before the attacks in Halle and Hanau that rightwing extremism is a problem for the entire country. But in the east, it’s been hidden for a long time. In research on rightwing extremism, we differentiate between beliefs and actions. In terms of attitude patterns on the right, it’s almost the same story in east and west. But in terms of actions, east Germany is way ahead. Xenophobia is also higher in the east and has risen recently.

Why is that?

A lot of elements from the history of the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) are still present today. Civil rights activist Konrad Weiss described the same thing in 1989, namely how rightwing extremist tendencies in the GDR had grown from the fascism of Nazi Germany, because sometimes grandparents had passed those views down to their grandchildren. What that led to was that when the GDR collapsed, children and young people who had been socialised in the 1970s and 1980s renounced socialism and increasingly deferred to extreme rightwing beliefs. That was the basis for the "baseball bat years" in the 90s when everyday far-right violence almost became normalised. That didn’t happen in the west. In particular, in the east there has never been such a massive reckoning with the question of guilt over the Nazi dictatorship as there was in the west. This question was given a simple, ideological solution: those responsible were offered loyalty to the GDR as a way of reconciling the past. Of course there was a de-Nazification process, but after that it was an anti-fascist state by decree.

If you compare the results of the recent local elections in North Rhine Westphalia [in the west] with those in eastern states, it’s clear that the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/Alternative for Germany) has really fallen short. But in some areas, particularly those that are weaker economically, their numbers increased. So is there some truth in the often-rumoured connection between poor economic status and a tendency to right-wing views?

There is a connection between feelings of deprivation – of getting less than you’re entitled to – and rightwing extremism. It has been established for years that this is felt particularly strongly in the east. So at first, this connection is accurate. But it doesn’t explain everything. Economically speaking, Rostock is in far worse shape than Chemnitz. At the European elections the AfD got just over 12 per cent in Rostock, but in Chemnitz it was almost double that. And in Heilbronn, which is one of the wealthiest districts in west Germany, they got 16 per cent.

What’s the explanation then?

I think the problem largely lies in our political culture, in terms of the question of how do we deal with right-wing extremism. Take the CDU as an example: in states like North Rhine Westphalia or Schleswig-Holstein, which are led by the relatively liberal CDU state Prime Ministers Armin Laschet and Daniel Günther, the AfD is relatively weak. In the places where the CDU is the furthest to the right and there is the least difference between them and the AfD, in Saxony for example, the AfD is much stronger. Of course, the kind of political culture we have can change, but people have to want it to change. The east’s problem with right-wing extremism has not been properly confronted and addressed for decades. We’re harvesting the fruits of that now.

The annual report shows that people in the east are more critical of political institutions and politics in general. That’s not necessarily anything negative – but it does show a clear discrepancy between the idea of democracy and the level of satisfaction with the actual democratic conditions in Germany.

It’s a very liberal-normative position to think that anyone who likes the idea of democracy but criticises the current democratic conditions surrounding them must have a particularly sophisticated understanding of democracy. But if we look at east Germany, we see that isn’t automatically the case. There’s a prime example in the Saxony-Monitor opinion poll from 2017, which asked respondents to say whether or not they agreed with the statement “What Germany needs now is a single strong party which embodies the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) as a whole”. The concept of the Volksgemeinschaft is one very clearly rooted in national socialism. But 41 per cent of those who completed the survey said they agreed with the statement. Two-thirds also agreed with a question asking if decisions made by the public should be held as valid, regardless of what any parliament, court or the constitution has to say about them. Both of these statements are clearly unconstitutional and possibly also evidential of lacking political education.

Infobox image
Private picture
Michael Lühmann was born in Leipzig, Saxony in 1980. He studied medieval and modern history as well as political science at the Universities of Leipzig and Göttingen. He is now a researcher at the Göttinger Institute for Democracy Research, covering a range of topics including political parties, right-wing extremism, left-wing militancy and political culture in eastern Germany. 

In both east and west, trust in political institutions has sunk in connection with the refugee crisis of 2015. But the west generally seems to handle the arrival of people from other cultures much more easily. Is the cliché true that prejudice against foreigners is more prevalent in the east, because during the GDR era there just weren’t as many of them there?

It’s generally the case that people who have less contact with people from other cultures have more fears about people who are different from them. That is now constantly on the decline. If you look at our generational structure, you can see that under-25s – regardless of whether they’re from the east or the west – hardly have any reservations towards others. This generation is highly mobile and interculturally connected via social media. It’s a different story with older people – they do tend to have these reservations. In election campaigns in the east, they sometimes give rise to this nightmare scenario of a multicultural society, which is perceived as much less problematic in the areas where it actually exists.

But let’s be optimistic – if the next generation doesn’t have these fears either, then that should take care of the right-wing problem in the long run…

We can’t wait for our society to just grow out of this. That would take another 30 or 40 years. The group of people who turned to right-wing ideas at the end of the GDR is fairly big and will still be around for a long time to come. Typical AfD voters are men born between 1960 and 1980. They could pass on their pattern of right-wing beliefs to their children and grandchildren. There needs to be a discussion about right-wing extremism in east Germany before that happens.

Marco Wanderwitz has talked about having “citizens’ dialogues” to directly reach as many people as possible…

I’m afraid that won’t be enough. Often these kinds of dialogues involve having debates with right-wingers who get to use it as an opportunity to express their “opinion” – and in the end all you get out of it is hate and incitement. Instead of talking to these people for the umpteenth time, we should be having discussions about how they talk, about their thought patterns and the mistakes that have been made in the past when dealing with this kind of extremism. We won’t solve this problem purely through dialogue and hoping that at some point everything will just get better. We need a strong, well-fortified democracy. But it shouldn’t shy away from conflict, otherwise we’ll spend another 30 years beating around the bush .

This article was prepared for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.