“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”
Opinion piece by Solveig Richter* and Ralf J. Leiteritz**
30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful revolution in East Germany, German society is deeply divided – and not only along the former East-West divide. In the Eastern part of Germany, the party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AFD) has gained enormously in strength in the last four years and might even become the strongest party in the upcoming regional elections in three of the five Eastern German states. According to the most recent polls, between 25 and 30% would vote for the party of the extreme right, putting it on equal footing with the traditional political parties like the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) or the left-wing party “Die Linke.” The supporters of AFD are, however, quite a heterogeneous group of people, comprising poor and undereducated as well as economically prosperous parts of society. The reasons for the surge of the AFD are thus manifold and range from short-term mobilization in the context of the European refugee crisis to long-term grievances rooted in the transition from communism to capitalism after the German reunification in 1990.
A first major reason for the success of the AFD is its ability to keep an ambivalent face between a mere populist movement to a radical right-wing party with nationalist propaganda. Originally, it was founded in 2013 by a bunch of Economics professors united in their opposition to bailouts of indebted European Union member states. The refugee crisis that started in 2015 proved to be an accelerator and crucial turning point for its transformation into a nationalistic, partly extreme-right party. While Chancellor Merkel’s famous sentence “We can manage this” (“Wir schaffen das”) was applauded by the international community and cosmopolitan Germans alike, the AFD was virtually the only party that raised strong criticisms of Merkel’s so-called “welcoming policy” within Germany. The emerging new leadership around people like Frauke Petry and Björn Höcke were skillful political entrepreneurs able to mobilize both moderate but pessimistic as well as xenophobic parts of society. In the federal elections in 2017, the party was able to transfer the protest movement against immigration – especially from Islamic countries – into votes in parliament, becoming the third-largest party in the Bundestag.
In particular, it has been the Eastern parts of Germany where the AFD has received the biggest support and even won the majority of votes in some regional communities. The federal state of Saxony – where both authors originally hail from – is a special case in point and exemplifies the deep-rooted societal cleavages that still exist in that part of the country. This relatively small state with about four million inhabitants is located on the border with the Czech Republic and Poland, in the most Eastern part of Germany. Its economy is the strongest one of all Eastern federal states, and the area around the regional capital city of Dresden is called “Saxony valley,” well-known as an innovative hub for technology. For many years, Saxony ranks first in the nation-wide comparison of the best educational system. But it was exactly in Dresden where the Pegida movement started, rallying every Monday in 2014 and 2015 eventually more than 20,000 people behind the flag of its “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West.” The political protest rapidly radicalized, and pictures from violent attacks and acts of aggression against refugees and moderate political forces made international headlines. The rosy image of a humanitarian Germany embracing wave of one million refugees landing on its shores in 2015 and 2016 quickly gave way for an ugly reminder from the country’s darkest past in the 20th century.
Yet, it would be too simple to reduce the success of the AFD only to the refugee crisis and mobilization based on xenophobic and nationalistic sentiments among parts of the population. The AFD is profiting from the legacy of the process of German reunification and the rapid political, economic and cultural transformation in the former East. Especially men at the age of over 50 have a high level of frustration as a result of twisted biographies. While they are hard-working people, they hardly had any chance for a professional career after 1990 since most leadership positions in the public and private sectors were taken over by Western elites after the reunification. Feelings of discrimination and paternalism are widely shared among the population, crossing the whole political spectrum from left to right. A majority does not believe that its interests are represented by the political elite and have thus developed a feeling of being second-class citizens. Indeed, during the refugee crisis many politicians that were inclined to show a multicultural and open Germany were pointing fingers at the East for criticizing the rapid influx of refugees, which aggravated the sentiment of “us vs. them.” A polarizing rhetoric of “darker Germany” vs. “brighter Germany” by the German president Gauck himself was even offending moderate, well-educated and globalized parts of the society in the Eastern states, literally pushing voters into the arms of the AFD. Paradoxically, most of the AFD leadership in the Eastern states originates from Western Germany while the elites in the traditional political parties such as the CDU and “Die Linke” were born in East Germany.
However, profound arguments and attempts at discussion fall on deaf ears with regard to the typical AFD sympathizers who are driven by an irrational combination of protest, frustration, and ignorance. They look for quick, simple solutions – something that political decision-making and common sense rarely offer. That’s also the main reason why dialogue processes that were initiated by moderate politicians and civil society organizations have had only limited success at best. At any rate, not all Saxons are persuaded by the radical rhetoric of the AFD. More than 35,000 people were on the streets last weekend protesting against racism and embracing tolerance, openness, and diversity, making it one of the biggest and most colorful demonstrations Dresden has seen during the last years.
*Solveig Richter is Brandt School’s Junior Professor for International Conflict Management. Her focus lies on external democracy promotion in post-conflict and transition societies, the role of international organizations, esp. the European Union, and on the effectiveness of instruments of civil crisis and conflict management. She has regional expertise in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkan countries.
** Ralf J. Leiteritz is a full professor (profesor titular) in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota. Currently, he is on sabbatical leave and based at the Institute of Political Science at the Universität Leipzig. He has an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the Universität Potsdam (Germany), a Master’s degree in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins University in the USA and a Ph.D. in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK.