Exercises in listening: The Rise of the Far-right in Germany

by Grzegorz Szymanowski

PEGIDA protesters on the banks of the Elbe in Dresden during a demonstration against the so-called alienation of the "West" in 2016 Photo: Matthias Schumann

When the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) enjoyed election success in the east of the country in 2019, it led to a public debate about the state of German unification. Many argue that it is the heritage of the post-communist transition that made this region of Germany so receptive to the AfD's nationalistic message. Others point out that the growth of the far-right comes from new divisions in German society.

"Welcome to all the patriots in the capital of resistance!" blast the speakers in the historic Old Town of Dresden as a few hundred people gather under the stage, waving posters and German flags. It is mid-August in 2019 and it is the 189th meeting of PEGIDA or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, a nationalist movement, in the capital of Saxony, an east German state which borders Poland and the Czech Republic.

"I am here because democracy in Germany is in danger," says 74-year-old Rolf, who came to the rally with his wife Ingrid. He compares the situation in Germany today to that of more than three decades ago in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). "The government is breaking our constitution by letting migrants in, and the media work as its propaganda outlets. Whoever disagrees is called a racist," believes the retired academic. His wife joins the conversation, "We don’t want to become Muslims".

"We are the people" and "Alternative for Germany", Dresden 2017 Photo: Matthias Schumann

PEGIDA started out in 2014 as a protest against Germany’s immigration policies and later against the decision of Chancellor Angela Merkel to keep German borders open in the midst of the refugee crisis in 2015. The images of protesters carrying gallows for Merkel have shaped the public image of Saxony as a right-wing stronghold in the years since.

The resistance rhetoric is omnipresent here. “Down with the Merkel dictatorship and leb-wing fascism,” reads one of the posters. The day of the protests is not a coincidence either. It is always on Monday, the same day as when mass demonstrations took place in East German cities in 1989, helping to bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall later that same year.

Two weeks after the protests in Dresden in August, there were local elections in Saxony. Rolf and Ingrid voted for the AfD, which has become the political voice of a growing right-wing network in Germany. So did all the other PEGIDA supporters who had spoken to me. Before the rise of AfD many of them had not ever voted.

Demonstrators of the right-wing movement PEGIDA with posters against chancellor Angela Merkel, 2016 Photo: Matthias Schumann

AfD’s local chapters in the east of the country are perceived as being the most radical elements of the party. They are affiliated to AfD’s nationalist faction called Der Flügel, which officials from the German internal security agency suspect of right-wing extremism.

Across the country, AfD has 13% support and is represented in all state parliaments as well as in the federal Bundestag. But in Saxony AfD got 27% of the votes and by September it had become the second-strongest political power in the region. So what can explain this turn of events?

Measuring the unity

"The polarisation that we observe today is not solely a product of recent years. The refugee crisis brought to light old differences existing between what was once East and West Germany," says Susanne Dagen, owner of KulturHaus Loschwitz, a bookstore in Dresden. "When we analyse today's polarisation we are not taking the problems that we faced during reunification seriously enough".

The local elections in Saxony and neighbouring Brandenburg took place in an anniversary year, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They shifted the discussion about AfD’s popularity in the east of the country towards a wider reflection on German reunfication. The main question was whether former East Germans are now "second class citizens" in their own country.

It’s easy to measure in terms of economic disparities. For example, the average income in 2018 in what was East Germany was 2790 Euros whereas in the former West Germany it was 3340 Euros. When it comes to the corporate sector, only 36 out of the 500 biggest German companies have their headquarters in the states of the former GDR, which results in lower tax revenues in those areas.

It has also been widely documented that German political, educational and legal elites are dominated by West Germans. For example, only three out of 120 department heads in the German federal government come from the former East Germany. There is not a single person of East German origin among the 81 heads of the country’s state-owned universities. Meanwhile, the 25 highest courts in the five former East German states are all headed by West German natives.

“At first glance this does not seem to have anything to do with politics, but taken together, these things can drive people to the streets or push them towards radicalisation when previously they would have thought otherwise,” says 47-year-old Susanne Dagen from KulturHaus Loschwitz.

Past experiences

In the run-up to the local elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, the media gave a lot of attention to the history of the Treuhandanstalt, or “Trust Agency”, which was responsible for the administration of about 8400 state-controlled East German companies after the end of the Cold War. In line with the prevailing neoliberal sentiment at the time, the Agency privatised those companies quickly, either selling them to mostly West German businessmen or closing them down. When the Agency was wound up in 1994, approximately 4000 companies had been shut down and 2.5 million people had lost their jobs. In 2005, unemployment in the former East Germany reached a record 21%, as against 11% in what was once West Germany.

According to the political scientist Philip Manow, people in the former GDR vote for AfD because of the memory of their past experience of personal or familial unemployment rather than their current status. His research shows that more skilled workers support AfD than those who are unemployed. In his book The Political Economy of Populism, Manow writes that, “because of previous negative experiences this connection was more virulent in the former East Germany and had a stronger influence on voting preferences.”

Back to the starting point

Street in Dresden quarter Johnnstadt 2019 Photo: Conny Reichel

It is also much harder to measure feelings and emotions, which play a crucial role in AfD’s strategy.

“We experienced the reunification as an installation of West German institutions on East German territory,” says Paul Kaiser, curator and director of the Dresden Institute for Cultural Studies. “In the beginning of the 1990s many thought that the former GDR could be culturally and economically transformed along the lines of the West German model. Although money solved many economic problems, in terms of cultural reunification today we are back at the starting point,” believes the 58-year-old Kaiser.

We are meeting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig, where this Summer Kaiser co- curated a large exhibition of art from what was East Germany called Point Of No Return. Kaiser describes Germany’s division as a story of gradual alienation on both sides. Young generations in the former West Germany grew up with no connection to those who had been brought up on the other side of the border. "Since they lived through a period of economic success, [after the reunification] Germans in the West didn't accept the cultural kinship of what were their Eastern German brothers. One can see it in the term new states, which implies that something came together which wasn't there before," says Kaiser.


"Complaining Easterners"

Paul Kaiser 
Photo by Grzegorz Szymanowski

In fact, there is a strong bond between both sides, as Kaiser explains during a tour of the exhibition he curated. A 1984 painting by the Dresden artist Ralf Kerbach, German Twins, demonstrates this link. It portrays twins standing with their backs to one another. One has their eyes and mouth shut, while the other one speaks in the opposite direction. However, even if unwillingly, they are still connected at the back of their heads and are tied by one long black belt around their waists.

The alienation intensified when what had been West Germany started dominating the headlines after 1989. Kaiser recalls his time working as a journalist in the 1990’s. “Big media outlets from the West dominated the market and their only interest in the former GDR were stories about the Stasi (East German secret police) and weird “Sex and Crime” stories”. Two years ago Kaiser sparked a public discussion in Dresden denouncing similar attitudes in the art scene, when he accused the director of a major art gallery of giving preference to artists from what was West Germany and hiding works of those from the East.

According to Kaiser, such “cultural overlapping” has played an essential role in building a colonial attitude, which has shaped a negative perception of Germans from the former East who are derogatively called Ossis, the “Easterners”. If they complained during the course of unification then they were referred to as Jammerossis, or “complaining Easterners”.

A widely discussed study from the German Centre for IntegraCon and Migration Research published in 2019 found strong similarities between former West German stereotypes about Ossis and… Muslim immigrants. Both groups are being similarly labelled as “demanding” and “not belonging yet”. On the other hand, both groups perceive themselves to be similarly disadvantaged, with one in three seeing themselves as “second class citizens”.

The same research highlights that the arrival of refugees in 2015 sparked strong opposition in the former East Germany, since both Ossis and Muslim immigrants “compete for recognition” in the German discourse. Yet again, the anti-refugee stance was fed by the perception of immigrants as somehow “skipping the queue”.

Mixed message

Election campaign poster of AfD, 2019

AfD successfully tapped into this public sentiment in the recent election campaign. It rallied under the slogan Die Wende Vollenden (“complete the turnaround”), implying that the changes promised during reunification have not yet been delivered. The essential part of this narrative is the party’s critique of the German media and also its claims of an apparent lack of freedom of expression in Germany. AfD succeeds in arguing that it has been unfairly portrayed by the mainstream media.

I have experienced it myself when visiting AfD events in Saxony in August 2019. Most participants looked suspiciously at my note-taking and didn’t want to talk. They only opened up after I introduced myself as a journalist from Poland, since AfD supporters hold the governing Polish conservative Law and Justice party in high regard for its vehement anti-refugee stance. “Our media call us racists”, was one of the most common claims that I have heard from AfD supporters. It seemed that AfD’s strategy of portraying themselves as victims in public opinion was working.

On the other hand, AfD criticises the inequalities produced by the reunification process. This mixed message resonates well with AfD supporters. “We in Saxony have already managed to change the system once and we need to do this again,” says 68- year-old pensioner, Volker, during an AfD meeting on the outskirts of Dresden. “In the West people are made deaf and dumb by the media. That’s why they don’t stand up, even when Merkel wants to have our population replaced.” Just like several other AfD voters I talked to, he referred to the nationalist right-wing conspiracy theory that the white European population faces the threat of being replaced by non-European people as part of a masterplan developed by politicians.

New cracks emerging

Susanne Dagen
Photo by Grzegorz Szymanowski

Susanne Dagen and Paul Kaiser both point towards the course of reunification as an explanation for the AfD’s popularity in Saxony but it seems to be the only thing they agree on these days. Even though they both live in the same district of Dresden and have known each other for years, their attitudes towards the rise of far-right in the region have set them apart.

Susanne Dagen has been sympathetic towards PEGIDA and voted for AfD in the general election in 2017. She sees PEGIDA as “a grassroots and citizen movement” which “a democracy needs to have, as long as it is lawful.” When reminded of the PEGIDA leader’s conviction for inciting hatred against Muslims, Dagen plays it down, “such sentences are unusually common in Germany”. Does she think that PEGIDA and the AfD are responsible for the xenophobic shib in German public opinion? Dagen evades the answer, “I don’t know if this is the case.”

More than anything, Susanne Dagen sees her role as a defender of the freedom of expression. Aber the stands of right-wing publishers were boycotted at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017, she started an open petition criticising “how intolerance is experienced under the pretence of tolerance and how the apparent protection of democracy erodes freedom of expression”. Speaking to me in the beautiful garden of her bookstore, she criticised what she sees as a "medieval demonisation of those who think differently" among inhabitants of Saxony.

In 2018 Dagen started a new YouTube channel, together with a publicist for an influential right-wing publishing house called Ataios, which is closely connected to AfD and the "new right" network in Germany. It was after this cooperation that Paul Kaiser co-authored a public letter in which he criticised Dagen's "radicalisation" and "open advertisement for new right-wing ideas and slogans". He said that she did not take into account "the real hardship of the refugees" or try to critically address "the phantom fear of foreign domination in a region where only three percent of the population are foreigners".

For Dagen, the letter was "an outrage". She sees herself as a victim of stigmatisation, since in the last few years she has lost customers and revenues. "It's a new form of totalitarianism, not one in which people are jailed, but one in which they disappear from the surface because their very existence is in danger," says Dagen.

After their argument became public in February 2019, Dagen and Kaiser took part in a panel discussion dedicated to freedom of speech and how to address growing divisions in Saxony. They did not agree on the potential danger coming from the “new right” or on the limits of free speech. Both of them have not talked since and each accuses the other of taking opportunistic positions.

However, many in Dresden were happy that their discussion took place at all, in the hope that the new divisions emerging in Germany 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall might be stopped before it’s too late.


About the author:

Grzegorz Szymanowski is Polish freelance journalist who lives in Berlin. He graduated in political science from the Free University of Berlin, and has also studied in Munich, Warsaw and Moscow. He is interested in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. His work has been featured in Tygodnik Powszechny, Polityka and Deutsche Welle.