This article was first published in the n°31 print magazine of Eyes on Europe.
In Germany, the right-wing extremist party “Alternative für Deutschland” is considerably stronger in the former communist East of the country than in the West. Is this an indicator for a persisting East-West division, what are the origins of this development, and what lessons are there to learn for Europe?
The rise and radicalization of the AfD
Even though the phenomenon of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is not confined to the East of Germany, it is striking to look at a map of AfD support: whereas the party won an average of 21,9 percent in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) federal states (Länder) in the 2017 federal election, it was only 10, 7 percent in the rest of the country. Moreover, the most radical and controversial frontrunners come from East German Länder. Investigative journalists revealed that Andreas Kalbitz, AfD frontrunner in the Land of Brandenburg, had clear ties with neo-Nazi groups and joint multiple events of right-wing extremists in the past. Yet, he was able to double his party’s result from 2014 in this year’s elections, becoming the second political force in Brandenburg with 23,5 percent of the votes. His colleague Björn Höcke, a former history (!) professor, has on numerous occasions used Nazi rhetoric, probably not accidentally referring to a “thousand-year Germany” and infamously criticizing Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as a “monument of shame.” Considered by his opponents as a fascist, Höcke has also led his party to almost a quarter of the votes as frontrunner in the Land of Thuringia in recent elections. The fact that his right-wing fraction Der Flügel (“the wing”) increasingly radicalized the party over the last few years does not seem to have damaged but rather has fueled popular support in East Germany. This raises the question of what makes the AfD in the East more successful than its counterpart in West Germany. Several factors need to be considered. One explanation is based on socio-economic factors, another one on the identity dimension and the feeling to be left behind as “second-class citizens”.
Socio-economic issues and identity politics
The lack of large prosperous cities, industry and employment opportunities in many rural regions of the Eastern Länder is the result of economic mismanagement in the GDR and a rapid transformation after the fall of the Wall. The government of chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998) pushed for reunification at all costs in 1990. Retrospectively, some East Germans were feeling rather being attached to than united with West Germany at the time. Collateral damage of the transformation from planned to market economy was inevitable and led to mass unemployment in the East. Even high-skilled people no longer saw opportunities to climb the social ladder, and many of them left for the West. Numerous companies went out of business following privatization and restructuring. Many of them were overtaken by Western companies, emphasizing the perception that greedy capitalists were exploiting the East and swallowing companies that could have continued to be productive. The Treuhand (“Trust Agency”), the agency responsible for restructuring and privatizing thousands of companies with millions of employees, has been widely criticized for its controversial role both by the extreme right and left.
Even though historians have recently conducted new analyses and cautioned against scapegoating the agency, the AfD has exploited the victim myth and managed to portray itself as the party of East German interests. It positions as the “alternative” to the mainstream parties that have supposedly abandoned their own people. Whereas part of the AfD’s electorate is supporting xenophobic and extremist views, many other voters see it as a vehicle to protest and point out their problems: brain drain of young people, lacking infrastructure in rural regions, little attention from their government. These people simply ignore the extremist right-wing dimension of the AfD because of the frustration that makes them feel left behind as the losers of the post-1989 transformations.
AfD voters’ alienation from and distrust in mainstream politics, media, and institutions is to a certain extent linked to persisting social and economic problems yet also fueled by perceptions and emotions. They feel like they have been condescended by (West) Germany and their work during the GDR regime has been disrespected. The AfD has understood the potential of winning these discontented citizens, promising them to take particular East German interests seriously. It is instrumentalizing East Germans to play classical identity politics, dividing society into different groups. Not only does the AfD present itself as patriots who defend their cultural heritage against the “liberal elite” of mainstream parties/institutions that supposedly stand for migration and multiculturalism. It also appeals to a specific East German identity, claiming to be in the tradition of the 1989 activists who pursued regime change. Thus, the AfD delegitimizes and “others” different groups that allegedly threaten the traditional way of life: migrants; cosmopolitan, urban elites; and center-left politicians who supposedly no longer represent their people’s interests. The success of the AfD in East Germany raises the question to what extent the party simply uses emotions to spread false fear of modernity, globalization, and migration, and to what extent real problems exist and need to be taken seriously. In terms of the East-West divide, what gaps have persisted until today?
The East-West divide
Not all statistics are gloomy: 20 years ago, unemployment used to be almost 10 percent higher in the East than in the West; today, the gap is only two percent. Pensions in the East are on average higher than in the West. On the other hand, average salaries remain significantly higher in West Germany, and the five last positions of a ranking published by a government agency are held by the five Länder of the former GDR (excluding Berlin). A significant gap also remains in terms of economic productivity: a 2016 study by the German Leibnitz Institute shows that 464 of the 500 largest German companies have their headquarters in the West.
In addition to these economic discrepancies, a crucial issue to many East Germans is the fact that they are considerably underrepresented in leading positions of the country. Except for Chancellor Merkel and President Gauck, both former GDR citizens, only a few politicians in holding key positions grew up in the East. A 2019 study by University of Leipzig found that overall, only 4 percent of leading positions in the economic, judicial, scientific and political sectors are held by East Germans even though they represent 15 percent of the population. Among 102 heads of division of Germany’s federal ministries, only three originally come from East Germany. Up to today, not a single university in the entire Republic is headed by an East German.
This blatant underrepresentation certainly can be linked to economic factors, yet it also indicates that having an East German background might not be helpful to pursue a top job in the Federal Republic. It is therefore not surprising that many East Germans might feel left behind or even considered as “second-class citizens.” Some of them regret that the country in which they grew up disappeared within several months in 1990 even though some elements of the education system and other sectors could have been adopted in the Federal Republic. The difficulties to integrate East Germany in the existing economic system and the way social mobility was blocked for many East Germans in their new home country led to an identity crisis. Feeling deprived of their dignity and honour, many East Germans first voted for Die Linke (“the Left,” successor of the GDR’s socialist party) and now turn to the AfD to make their voices heard. It remains questionable whether the AfD could offer constructive solutions and improve people’s daily lives. Considering that almost all leading figures interestingly come from West Germany, it seems absurd that Björn Höcke speaks of “we” when he makes references to the people who flocked to the streets in 1989. Yet, the right-wing party has certainly touched a sore spot and achieved that 30 years later, Germany has a frank debate about its reunification and the transformations that came along with it.
And what lesson for Europe?
For Europe, Germany can be a warning of how rocky the path to unification can be, but at the same time, it is an example of how much can be done when solidarity and political will are given. A lot has been achieved, and economic and political transformations have been quite successful in many regions. Moreover, citizens today have more freedom of expression and civic rights, in contrast to a widespread perception. On the other hand, Germany has not achieved to completely bridge the differences between East and West in the past 30 years, despite its wealth and political will to unify.
Looking at East-West divisions at European level, the challenge of unification appears much more difficult, and major impediments remain. Building solidarity among nations who speak different languages and have different national interests is complicated. Ceding power to a common political union is hardly conceivable where a country clings to national sovereignty at all costs. Moreover, considering that on average less than one percent of Member States’ economic power is spent for the EU, a far greater effort would need to be made in order to bridge not only the economic divide between Eastern and Western Europe but also between the north and the south, between rural areas and cities. A task for generations to come – if they are willing to pursue it.
Frederic Göldner is a second-year master student at the ULB’s Institute for European Studies.