Photo illustration by John Lyman

From Democratic Republic of Germany to Republic of Germans: Anti-refugee Sentiment in East Germany

On August 26th, 2018, Chemnitz, a city in Saxony, Germany, was convulsed by large-scale xenophobic riots following the arrest of two foreigners who were suspected of murder. Chemnitz fulfilled the stereotype of a struggling, post-industrial city that acts as a breeding ground for anti-refugee sentiment. The unemployment rate is twice as high as the German average, and there has long been an outflow of young people from the Eastern city since reunification. History seems to reinforce this notion as well.

In 1991, millions of former East Germans were thrust into a new society in which the old order of communism had ill-suited them for integration with a modern, capitalistic west.

Consequently, the economy suffered from an unemployment rate of 17.6% in 2003. As often happens in an economic downturn, more radical political parties and ideologies emerge. In former East Germany, an increase in neo-Nazi sentiment grew in the 90s and early 2000s, which led to the rise of the right-leaning National Democratic Party (NPD). Many characterize the party as a neo-Nazi group with a strong nationalist agenda. In 2004, the party was able to secure 9.6% of the vote in the Saxon State.

Even though the NPD weakened significantly over the next ten years, the refugee crisis and Angela Merkel’s open immigration policy sparked many underlying fires and reopened long-held nationalistic sentiments over the past three years. Significantly higher levels of crimes against migrants were recorded in East German states as compared to their Western neighbors; some attribute this increase to the increasingly vocal NPD party. Further strengthening the nationalistic rhetoric is the anti-immigration AfD (Alternative for Germany) party which has a strong presence in the region.

However, careful examination of Eastern Germany as a region leads to a more complex picture; one in which unemployment and economic strife are not the only determinants of nationalistic ideology. As an example, the city of Dresden has a low unemployment rate of 5.8%. The city has been able to secure large-scale economic growth through high-tech manufacturing and tourism. However, Dresden has some of the largest anti-immigration protests in all of Eastern Germany, led by the presence of the far-right Pegida who gained notoriety for marching against the “Islamization” of Europe. This anti-immigrant sentiment also manifests itself in more extreme forms, such as arson attacks on a Mosque in September 2016. Thus, despite the easy conclusion that high unemployment is at least partially to blame for anti-immigration sentiment, Dresden provides a contrast which suggests other forces are at play.

One often overlooked factor is the cultural difference between East and West Germany.

The legacy of communism is not one in which dialogue and open discourse were encouraged. How could the country that once built the anti-fascist protection wall (Berlin wall), become the land of so many far-right groups? This becomes apparent when one examines the society of the German Democratic Republic. The state held a monopoly on all forms of civic life and repressed religious organizations, which left little room for an independent civil culture. The SED (Socialist Unity Party), who controlled East Germany, also constructed a state in which discussions about racial or ethnic conflict were ignored in the name of communism, which saw them as a non-issue. Furthermore, there was a heavy emphasis on unity and order at the expense of discourse, as is common in authoritarian regimes. The communist state’s emphasis on order meant protests and speaking out on any issue was limited. Lastly, throughout the Cold War, West Germany received a large number of migrants from Turkey and Greece, while the East, remained predominantly German, thus racial, ethnic, and religious differences did not exist for many.

The ideals emphasized by SED often became retooled against immigrants after reunification. The emphasis on unity under communism has quickly morphed into a far-right nationalist ideology where Germans unite against a common enemy of refugees. Furthermore, the lack of civil society allowed for far-right groups to become an outlet through which to organize. Finally, resistance to the capitalist West easily translated into a resistance against “out of touch” bureaucrats in Berlin and Brussels, who did not seem to care about the average East German.

It is important for the German federal and state governments to recognize the special situation caused by communism when trying to combat anti-refugee sentiment within these regions.

Even though the creation of a functioning economy is important, and perhaps a top priority for most governments, the state must also work on developing robust civil society that will help educate citizens on how to express political opinions, evaluate political and economic information, and how to develop vibrant diverse communities where all persons have respect. This can be done with many different organizations, from scouting to sports, to varied service and civic organizations that engage all groups of the population, regardless of whether they are Saxon or Syrian. It is critical that these educational programs are also offered in schools so that young people can be exposed to ideas and cultures that may differ from parents or others.

Additionally, integrating refugees more efficiently into the country, by providing language and culture classes and work permits for professional and trade jobs where qualified, will also help to address some of the challenges and prejudicial attitudes. Germany has a history of racial prejudice and many German people are acutely aware of the dangers of allowing a nationalist extremist ideology to proliferate.