Migration, Populism, and the State in East Germany

Published September 19, 2017 by Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock

Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock reflects on Germany's elections on 24 September, and explores connections between economic decline, migration, and distrust in political elites.

'We are the people!'

'Merkel, go to Siberia! Putin, come to Berlin!'

'Refugees not welcome! Deport!'

It was a cold evening in January 2016 when I listened to Pegida protesters chanting angry slogans in Dresden's Theaterplatz square. Recent attacks on women during New Year's Eve had sharpened anti-migration rhetoric. The atmosphere was hostile. Pegida is a German acronym for 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident', and the heterogeneous movement has brought together protesters from Dresden as well as its rural hinterland. The group started its Monday evening marches in October 2014, copying elements from the pro-democracy protests that contributed to the end of socialism in 1989. Within weeks, weekly gatherings attracted thousands of participants, who denounced globalisation, political elites, US politics, refugees, Islamic culture in Germany, wars in the Middle East, austerity, the Euro, and supposed NATO warmongering with Russia.

Pegida protest. 'No war against Russia! Stop USA_NATO.'

Pegida placard: "No War Against Russia: Stop USA/NATO"

Pegida became a protest platform for wide-ranging resentment that exists in many parts of East Germany. The same areas see large support for the far-right and populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Almost two years since I studied Pegida in Dresden, anger and resentment have not disappeared in the formerly socialist East, where disappointment with democratic capitalism, unemployment, and hostility towards migrants and Islam remain more pronounced than in the West. In 2016, in regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt, in East Germany, the AfD achieved 24.3 percent. It became the second-largest party. In the same year, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern's regional elections produced 20.8 percent for the Alternative for Germany, second only to the Social Democrats. In the West German state of Rhineland Palatinate, by contrast, the party gained only 12.6 percent of the vote. In Lower Saxony, also in West Germany, only 7.8 percent voted Alternative for Germany in municipal and district elections in 2016. A pattern emerged: anti-establishment sentiment has greater success in the East, where it mixes with anti-migration and islamophobic views. But why?

Pegida protest. 'Stop asylum cheaters. Every single one is one too many. Go Home! Deport!'

Pegida placard: "Stop asylum cheaters. Every single one is one too many. Go Home! Deport!"

The political culture of West Germany was shaped by denazification and re-education following the US, French, and British occupation after 1945. In the East, by contrast, critical engagement with the origins of Nazism and complicity was absent. Particularly in Dresden and other places devastated by war, a narrative of victimhood took hold. In the West, especially in the wake of the 1968 cultural revolution, which attacked continuities between the Nazi regime and the new Federal Republic, anti-authoritarian left-wingers pursued careers as teachers, professors, and public officials in order promote democratic values (what they called 'the long march through the institutions'). Immigration soon changed West Germany’s cities, as 'guest workers' from Southern Europe, North Africa, and especially Turkey transformed factories, workplaces, and urban quarters. West Germany's economic boom owed much to the toil of foreigners. Certainly not all West Germans embraced the presence of ethnic and religious minorities, but at least they became part of everyday routines, particularly in cities and industrial centres. In East Germany, however, immigration and cultural diversity featured little. When the Wall fell in 1989, fewer than 200,000 foreigners lived in East Germany. Many of them were contract workers from other socialist states, such as Vietnam, with little to no interaction with East Germans. There was little visible presence of Islam in the country until the 1990s. Whereas Muslims had worked as colleagues in West German factories, the first key event that put Islam on the minds of many East Germans was 9/11. In the absence of positive, personal everyday experiences, prejudice and stereotypes remained widespread in areas such as Saxony or Brandenburg, where minority ethnic groups are a recent phenomenon. The atheist traditions of socialism only exacerbate scepticism towards headscarves and mosques as expressions of religiosity.

The transformations that followed reunification soon combined enthusiasm about free elections with fear of change: unemployment soared across East Germany, and West Germans replaced local elites. Many politicians, museum directors, journalists, and public officials in East Germany still have West German origins. Important newspapers and TV channels are based in West Germany or Berlin, which contributes to a much-articulated perception that East German opinion counts less. The victimhood narrative and scepticism towards elites, both of which emerged under socialism, still feature in the eastern regions: a sense of being disenfranchised and ignored shapes East German public discourse and political sentiment. East Germans do not have lasting allegiances with political parties either; they are much more likely than their West Germans counterparts to move even from the socialist Left Party to the rightwing Alternative for Germany. At the Pegida rally, various supporters told me that I, as young West German, was too naïve to understand what they were seeing: that the elites in Berlin were as corrupt and dishonest as during socialism. They distrusted the political class in Berlin as much as they ever had during the former regime. Instead, they admired Vladimir Putin as a strongman defending traditional values and national identity.

Socialist housing blocks in Dresden

Social housing in Dresden

Migrants and religious minorities have been caught up in such general dissatisfaction as the most apparent symbols of change. The arrival of foreigners in East German cities and regions coincided with economic decline and political humiliation. Since the 1990s, cuts to social services, pensions, social housing, schools, hospitals, and other public infrastructure in East and West Germany have been justified by austerity. In 2006, the city of Dresden sold off its entire public housing stock to an American hedge fund. In a society used to social security and state protection, the sale of public property was a cause for public anger. Then, in the wake of the financial crisis, hundreds of billions of Euros were made available for bank bailouts. With the arrival of over one million asylum seekers since 2015, the German government allocates over 20 billion Euros annually for refugee accommodation and integration. Social envy is a major factor in disappointment with the political establishment in Berlin, particularly in areas characterized by state withdrawal and decline – where ethnic and religious minority groups have often born the brunt of anger channelled into racism.

Following the elections, Germany's political leaders will need to pay more attention to political emotions – envy, jealously, fear, and disappointment. It has become clear that the challenge of creating a diverse and open society in what used to be a homogenous and protected social environment – East Germany – requires state investment in public institutions and social security. Stripping public infrastructure of cash and humiliating local populations, while giving generously to newcomers, exacerbates fear and conflict. The success of the AfD is also a consequence of the failed experiment of austerity in times of uncertainty and rapid change. In order to maintain its economic clout and welfare levels, Germany will need net migration of around 500,000 people per year in the future. This will require state planning and attention to social justice to guarantee that growing diversity in East German cities will give rise to new types of solidarity and cohesion, rather than to resentment and conflict.

bock for blog

Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock is a Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute. He will shortly be holding an interdisciplinary workshop entitled "Talk on Trust and Europe's Crisis of Representation Workshop" (7-8 Dec). For further details and to register, please see here.

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