Perhaps one of the most iconic images of the 20th century is that of East Berliners joyfully chipping away at the wall which had kept them prisoner for 28 years. Around 5000 people are believed to have attempted to escape over the wall, while countless other East Germans illegally watched West German television, many fascinated by the glittering world which could await them across the Iron Curtain It was possible to describe the GDR as the land from which its own citizens wished to flee, a land of would-be refugees.
In a report published by the German cabinet on 21st September 2016, concern was raised about levels of xenophobia in the former East German Bundesländer. Rates of racially-motivated violence are proportionally much higher in the East than in the West (in 2014, 47% of these crimes were committed in eastern states, even though they only contain around one-fifth of Germany’s overall population). Merkel’s ‘Wilkommenskultur’ appears to have aroused little enthusiasm in the East. In Bautzen (Saxony) for example, a crowd cheered when a hotel being converted into a refugee shelter went on fire in February of this year, while in September in the same town a fight broke out between far-right protestors and asylum seekers. Resentment against refugees is by no means limited to Bautzen; both the Pegida movement and the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party have garnered widespread support in the East.
East Germany was for many synonymous with the desire to flee; why then has the former East turned so much more violently against refugees and outsiders than the West?
It is easy to add the former GDR to the long list of European countries currently experiencing an increase in right-wing populism. The rise of the far-right in Europe has been attributed variously to the migrant crisis, to disillusionment with ‘the establishment’ and to Europeans feeling left behind by the forces of globalisation. Indeed, it is certainly possible to frame the East German phenomenon in these terms, reducing it to a mere jigsaw piece forming just another part of the wider puzzle. The average West German is younger, richer and more urban than the average East German. 40% of East Germans are working class, compared to 20% of West Germans. While vast amounts of money have been invested in the infrastructure of the former East since the fall of the wall, a certain level of economic disparity remains. Unemployment rates are also significantly higher in the East. Pegida’s mission of regaining Germany for the Germans (“Heimatschutz statt Islamisierung”) thus gains greater traction in the more disadvantaged East, particularly among the young.
To develop a better account of the rise in extremism, we need to look beyond the ‘angry, white, working-class’ generalisations and also look for more specifically local reasons behind the situation. During the Cold War, the GDR defined itself as the antithesis of Nazism, with Westerners often being described as Nazis in state television broadcasts. In line with Marxist-Leninist principles, the rise of Nazism was attributed purely to the evils of market capitalism in East German textbooks. The East portrayed itself as being free of the legacies of Nazism, for in its own eyes it constituted a ‘new better Germany’; the fascist past was kept at a distance. This lack of ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ (‘confronting the past’) is often touted as a possible reason for the prominence of racism in the East, for racism was depicted by the regime purely as a problem of West Germany’s past; any mention of neo-Nazism in the East was incompatible with this message.
It is however easy to be reductive when examining German history. While it is plausible to suggest that racism was not properly challenged in the GDR, the same statement could easily be made about the West. In addition, treating German neo-Nazism and xenophobia purely as relics of a Nazi past can actually encourage us to consign these problems to the past, especially as the Nazi era continues to retreat into history. A more significant historical reason for elevated levels of racism in the East is the homogenous nature of East German society, both pre- and post-1990. Before unification, foreigners constituted only 1.2% of the population – only a few thousand people sought asylum in the East. It has been shown that foreigners were kept isolated from the general population, while strict border controls also contributed to the homogenous feel of the GDR. Indeed, even post-unification, a 2011 census put the proportion of people with foreign roots in the East German Bundesländer at below 5%. Living in an ethnically diverse country makes people less likely to hold racist views, and thus the East’s homogeneity compared to the West can help to explain the difference in rates of xenophobia.
Furthermore, between 1989 and 2013, the population of the East fell by 14%. It seems that some of those who either chose or were forced to remain in the East after the fall of the wall developed an ‘us against the world’ mentality, as they witnessed the world which they had previously known fall apart before their eyes. The secure, homogenous nature of the GDR did indeed encourage many of its citizens to tear down the wall. However, the upheaval of unification seems to have caused some of those left behind in the East to feel insecure in the new, post-1990 world, especially as the migrant crisis now appears to some to threaten the already unstable equilibrium of the fragile East German states.
When considering the reasons behind elevated levels of xenophobia in the East, it is vital to avoid generalising the problem as just another example of a European-wide phenomenon. The former East is poised on a battleground embodied in two of Germany’s women leaders. Both Angela Merkel and Frauke Petry grew up in the GDR, but they offer competing visions of Germany’s immigration policy. Merkel hopes to continue to welcome refugees, while Petry is the newly appointed leader of the right-wing populist AfD: who will win the former East’s heart?