A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Politics of Resentment


The right-wing populist AfD has struck a nerve in the former East Germany, feeding off anger, frustrations, and anti-foreigner feelings.

The poster reads: “We are the people!”. © REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

This November marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the event that precipitated the reunification of Germany and that, more than any other, has come to symbolize the collapse of the communist system both here and throughout Eastern and Central Europe.

As the country prepares for a rather somber recalling of those heady events three decades ago, two state elections on September 1 in what was known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, saw the right-wing populist, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) surging. In Brandenburg, the AfD came second after the long-ruling center-left SPD (26.2 percent), more than doubling their previous result to 23.5 percent. In Saxony, the AfD won even bigger with 27.5 percent of the vote, a couple of points behind Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), which ended up with 31.2 percent. Meanwhile, in Thuringia, where elections are to be held on October 27, the AfD has surpassed the CDU and is close behind the Left Party, which lost heavily in both Brandenburg and Saxony.

In all three states, the AfD leadership belongs to the more radical wing of the party, more xenophobic and revisionist than the slightly more moderate leadership in the West.

Crucially, the party’s campaign in the East has not only been about immigration, a vote-winner since 2015. It has also quite explicitly sought to exploit lingering disappointments and frustrations in the former East. This in turn has led to a renewed debate about the failures associated with reunification. Why and how do the two parts of Germany continue to diverge, and why exactly is the East still different?

Party of the East

Overall, polls show that the AfD is the most popular party in the former GDR. Yet it is important not to depict the entire East as an AfD hotbed. While the party is far stronger in the East than the West, it still only attracts around a quarter of votes. In the European elections, although it was the strongest party in Saxony and Brandenburg, and a close second in Thuringia, in vibrant, growing cities like Leipzig and Jena, the Greens actually emerged as the strongest party.

Furthermore, it’s not particularly hard to be the biggest party in a very crowded field, with many parties only divided by a few percentage points. “We have a considerable fragmentation of the party system in Eastern Germany,” says Kai Arzheimer, professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz. “You can become the strongest party with 25 percent of the votes.”

It’s also clear that the AfD won’t get anywhere near power, as the other parties have vowed to reject any cooperation. Its success will still have an impact, as it will necessitate awkward coalitions between parties that would not normally be in government together. This could further erode trust in politics.

Antipathy to Multiculturalism

Nevertheless, the AfD’s success points to a different political culture in the former East, three decades after the end of the communist regime. First and foremost, the major issue associated with the AfD—its hostile stance toward refugees and foreigners—has obviously resonated in the East, although it is far from the only reason for its popularity there. While the AfD started life as a euroskeptic party, opposing Germany’s involvement in bailouts in other EU countries, it soon switched its focus to immigration. With each successive change of leadership, it has become more populist and right-wing.

The 2015 influx of close to one million refugees, many from war-torn Syria, proved to be a boon to the party. Research shows that across Germany, the main issue that marks out AfD voters from the supporters of other parties is an antipathy to a multicultural society and immigration.

The irony of course is that there is little history of immigration in Eastern Germany. While there were some “guest workers” from other communist countries, they were kept separate from the rest of the population for the most part. And in the 1990s, the combination of a bad economy and hostility to foreigners, such as the xenophobic riots in Rostock, meant that the East offered little attraction for new immigration.

According to the latest official statistics, while 23.6 percent of the total population in Germany has a “migrant background,” that is true for only 6.8 percent of those living in the former East.

A Paradox of Fear

However, research shows that, on average, the more migrants live in a city or in a region the less xenophobic people are, explains Holger Lengfeld of the University of Leipzig.

“This is a very long process that takes a long time for people to get used to multiculturalism as something normal,” says Lengfeld. “We assume that this is one of the reasons why people in Eastern Germany are more afraid of the multicultural society than people in Western Germany, because they have no experience of it. This explains the paradox that although fewer foreigners live in Eastern Germany, the rejection of the presence of foreigners is stronger.”

Journalist Sabine Rennefanz believes that the influx of refugees in 2015 also acted as a catalyst in Eastern Germany, churning up feelings of resentment. Rennefanz grew up in Eisenhüttenstadt, on the border with Poland, and has written many articles and a book Eisenkinder about her generation’s experience of the “Wende,” the time immediately before and after reunification. She says for some people, the arrival of the refugees “brought back memories of being foreign themselves in the 90s.”

And the 1990s were certainly a difficult time. After the initial euphoria of reunification and promises of “blooming landscapes,” things went downhill quickly. East Germany’s state-owned companies proved unable to compete under market conditions and there was soon an almost complete collapse of East German industry and with it massive unemployment. And there was little civil society to help cushion the blow.

As a result, many people had to start again from scratch in a very unfamiliar world. In the intervening years, many young people left the East, and the resulting demographic decline saw a dismantling of infrastructure in many places. Young women in particular left for western Germany, leaving behind many frustrated, disaffected men. Crucially, the AfD polls far better with men than with women.

Failures of Reunification

Then, during the financial crisis people were told that there was no money available for schools or buses or roads, Rennefanz says, “and then the foreigners arrived and suddenly there was money. This fueled a lot of resentment.”

The AfD has been clever at tapping into these resentments, by constantly attacking the current state governments, as well as the federal government, as an out-of-touch elite. Gero Neugebauer, an expert on the GDR and the politics of the reunification period, says that the AfD has been clever at knowing which buttons to press depending on the electorate. “In Brandenburg they say nothing about the euro, little about Muslims. They say that the elderly care is bad, that you have long ways to the doctor, that the transport connections are bad, that at the educational institutions the teaching is poor.”

And while the Left Party, the successor to the former ruling SED party, had long claimed to represent the interests of those in the former East, their subsequent participation in many state governments has led them to be increasingly regarded as part of the establishment.

According to Neugebauer, many disappointed Left voters became non-voters. “Then the AfD showed up and said: we will avenge you now, we will take revenge for the fact that you feel disadvantaged, that your expectations, both individual and collective, have not been fulfilled, and they attracted most of their votes not from the CDU, SPD and the Left Party, but from the non-voter camps and the small right-wing parties.”

“Complete the Wende

And indeed, the AfD is using overt rhetoric and slogans this fall harking back to 1989 in its campaigns, with its talk of things like “Wende 2.0,” despite the fact that many of its prominent leaders such as the party head in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, are West German.

For example, an election poster in Brandenburg reads: “Become a civil rights activist. Get your country back—complete the Wende.” And there are stickers saying: “Dissidents are being spied on again” or “We are the people, then as now,” echoing slogans used by those who demonstrated against the GDR regime in 1989. At the launch of their party campaign in July, AfD leader in Brandenburg Andreas Kalbitz, who is also from West Germany, said: “The AfD is committed to completing the Wende.’” By doing so the party is of course implying that there are similarities between the Federal Republic of today and the totalitarian GDR state.

Many of those involved in the end of the GDR have been horrified by the AfD’s campaign. On August 20, 100 civil rights activists and prominent East Germans issued a joint statement entitled: “Not with us: Against the Abuse of the Peaceful Revolution 1989 in the Election Campaign.” One of the activists, former Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records, Marianne Birthler, also voiced her criticism in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio. “There is no copyright on the phrase ‘We are the people,’ but if the AfD really meant that seriously, then it would also have to adopt the demands we made back then—for an open country with free people, against discrimination against minorities, against borders and against walls.”

Politically Excluded

“I find it really terrible that they can take this idea of the Peaceful Revolution and its heritage and say now we will finish this revolution,” says Rennefanz, adding: “I think they could take up this narrative because none of the other parties really dealt with the East until recently and, apart from a few exceptions, still haven’t really understood what is going on in the East.”

Indeed, economically the two parts of Germany are still far from aligned. Despite the around €100 billion a year being spent on overhauling the infrastructure and economy, eastern Germany is still a fifth less productive than the West, while only 7 percent of the country’s top 500 firms are based there, according to a report from the Halle Institute for Economic Research released earlier this year.

Yet the divide is being slowly bridged. The unemployment rate is now 6.9 percent in the East compared to 4.8 percent in the West. Meanwhile the East’s GDP per capita in 2017 has reached 73.2 percent of the West German level, and the gap is shrinking. According to Neugebauer, it’s not just those who are suffering economically who vote for the AfD, but also those who resent unification because it left them feeling like second-class citizens. “They don’t feel socially excluded, but politically excluded.”

Furthermore, the AfD can do well because of a lack of an anchoring of democratic ideals. “Representative democracy, the permanent negotiating in order to have compromises that do not make people really happy, accepting people who have completely different convictions—we have the impression that East Germans find this harder than West Germans,” says Lengfeld. “Although it’s now 30 years since unification, it may be that it is really a phenomenon that needs practice over two, three, perhaps, four generations.”

Same Old Prejudices

At the same time, with the low levels of party affiliation and high volatility, it cannot be said that all those who vote AfD necessarily back all their policies. “If more than 25 percent of the people who vote in the elections in Saxony vote for the AfD, that is not 25 percent right-wing extremists. Many are normal people, and if you dismiss them all right-wing extremists and exclude them, then you would damage democracy,” says Lengfeld.

As long as the AfD adheres to the constitution, it’s important to accept it as part of the political landscape. “It’s better that protest against the established parties is visible, then that it remains invisible and thus represents a real threat to the future of a representative democracy.”

Rennefanz, meanwhile, warns against vilifying the entire former East on the basis of the higher level of support for the AfD. “We tend to use this word ‘East Germany’ for everything as if ‘East Germany’ is some homogeneous entity.” She points to significant differences between north and south, between cities and small villages, between those states bordering Poland, which are home to mining communities that are suffering from the closure of brown-coal mines, and more affluent cities like Jena, Leipzig, or Potsdam.

“If you don’t know this or never talk to people there… then you start to think they are all Nazis, they are all AfD voters,” Rennefanz says. “I feel like we’re always going in a circle and we’re not moving very far. It always seems that the same prejudices are being replicated, and the only ones who seem to have learned from the past are these West German politicians from the AfD like [AfD national leader Alexander] Gauland or Höcke, which is really quite sad.”

N.B. This article was updated on September 2 to include the election results in Brandenburg and Saxony.