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East Germans Still Feel Powerless

Wolfgang Engler
Sam Langer
Joel Scott

Almost thirty years since reunification, the Alternative für Deutschland is making its strongest gains in the former East. But the far right’s growth doesn’t just owe to Eastern xenophobia — it owes to millions of people’s sense of being mere second-class citizens.

Supporters of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) political party wave German flags as they listen to AfD speakers campaigning for the Brandenburg state elections, on August 25, 2019 in Peitz, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

East Germany is in the news again. The reasons are rather bleak: the National Socialist Underground and the Islamophobic Pegida have become household names, and now the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is going from one electoral success to the next. Thirty years after the democratic awakening in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the accusation goes, many Easterners have yet to find their place in reunified Germany, and neither government cash nor grand speeches seem to help.

Public opinion may be divided about the root causes, but the ongoing and even solidifying divide between East and West in opinions, habits, and political attitudes can’t be denied. Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung Daniel Dettling recently summed up the kind of irritation widespread among Western commentators when he counterposed Easterners’ rising living standards — improving faster than in the West, with a sharper fall in unemployment — to a more pervasive “sense of powerlessness” and “political populism that feeds off this powerlessness.”

Much data, in fact, paints a less optimistic picture than Dettling suggests — in recent years growth has slowed or even come to a standstill. Nevertheless, it is true that apartments, houses, and cities in the former East have been modernized and infrastructure upgraded or newly built; many businesses utilize state-of-the-art technology in their production processes and are able to compete in the world market.

The real question this poses is — who actually owns all of this? More often than not, the answer is West Germans, hence limiting Easterners’ enthusiasm over what progress has been made. They have virtually no chance of catching up to, let alone overtaking, the West in terms of property ownership. This is one reason why processes of equalization between East and West are entirely compatible with generalized political frustration.

Naika Foroutan, codirector of the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research, mentioned another reason in an interview with Die Zeit earlier this year:

In structural terms, data shows that the East is actually catching up. Unemployment levels are going down and poverty rates are declining, even though there are still striking differences in terms of asset accumulation. The following phenomenon can thus be observed: the more you catch up compared to the majority of society, the greater the dissatisfaction about what has not yet been attained, and rightly so. That is what emancipation is. As a result, more and more people in the East are asking themselves, how can it be that we are closing the gap in structural terms, but culturally we are still seen as not belonging?

This apparent paradox is nothing new, and was first formulated by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1856 classic The Old Regime and the Revolution: “Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter.” This same emancipatory logic applies to many East Germans’ dissatisfaction, accepting no half-measures and always aiming for the whole: recognition as first-class citizens.

Pointing out their comparatively comfortable existence and appealing to their gratitude is about as fruitless as dismissing the women’s movement by referring to how much progress has already been made. If we want to put a stop to the rise of the far right, it’s about time we stopped saying that the East has enough already.

Shifting the Blame

Politically speaking, East Germans are more likely to support the populist right than their counterparts in the old West, while a good number of them even appear to sympathize with the forces of the extreme right. This fact dominates discussions of the East-West divide. But where does this authoritarian inclination come from?

A view that has predominated for some time now blames the GDR, portraying it as a delayed consequence of the “second German dictatorship.” Unlike West Germans, after the war Easterners stumbled almost directly from one “totalitarian regime” to the next. They are said to have adapted, both outwardly and inwardly, to the norms of a largely “closed society” and developed a collective habitus with unmistakably authoritarian traits.

Suddenly freed into the “open society,” the argument goes, most Easterners experienced the abrupt transition as a shock and clung to their psychological heritage as a coping mechanism. In so doing, they hindered their own subjective arrival in the West and their integration into the “free and democratic constitutional order.” Their aversion to the new, the foreign and foreigners, their phobias, and their racism both latent and manifest are all allegedly owed to the baggage the GDR left its former citizens.

Assuming this analysis is accurate, the question immediately arises: why was this toxic heritage not disposed of over the last three decades, or at least somewhat depleted? Certainly, until 1989 East Germans lived in a society that was ethnically and culturally more or less homogeneous. Its rapid transformation into an arena of economic globalization and cultural and religious diversity frequently caused distress and insecurity, leading to reactionary, defensive responses that escalated in the early 1990s.

The fact that it was mainly young people who spearheaded this xenophobia does indeed point back to the GDR, especially to its final decade. To convey their rejection of the state and the restrictions and paternalism of everyday life, some young East Germans resorted to radical means of expression. Soccer hooligans chanted racist slogans, laid waste to trains, and brawled with law enforcement. Others directed their frustration at “leftist” bands or environmental movements, adorned themselves with Nazi symbols, and openly presented themselves as fascists.

But the further we get from that era and move toward the more immediate present, the more questionable this attribution becomes. Today, the average Easterner is under fifty years old. Most have spent the majority of their lives in reunified Germany, especially those who are now taking their right-wing and far-right views to the streets.

Those who blame the GDR for antidemocratic attitudes in the East commit a threefold error. First, they infantilize Easterners by declaring their experience since 1989 irrelevant — as if the circumstances of their lives after the GDR left no traces.

Second, they fail to analyze habits inherited from the GDR in their contradictory and complex reality, instead one-dimensionally characterizing them as handicaps.

Last, they justify the aberrations, injustices, and slights of the reunification period that disoriented so many citizens, marking them as second-class citizens. The refusal to look at post-reunification history for causes of xenophobia in the former East is, in fact, nothing more than ideology.

The cowards and bootlickers this discourse presents to us could never have achieved what the people of the GDR did in fall 1989. It was precisely because the East German state denied its citizens basic democratic rights that the desire for political and civic self-determination was so vibrant. Today’s apologists ignore this dialectic.

Uwe Johnson, the author of the Anniversaries tetralogy who left the GDR in 1959, knew it well: “One could say,” he remarked in a 1964 interview, “that the idea of a democratic government is more vivid, more sharply contoured, in a state that is not governed democratically. The lack of democracy gives democracy a much more decisive form; and the intense and often very extensive intrusions by the state into the personal lives of its citizens cause it to crystallize even more clearly.”

The Cost of Silence

Until recently, there was a glaring lack of any realistic, unvarnished picture of the social upheavals in the East and their practical consequences. Those in power long neglected to take an interest, failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation until East German voters began dancing out of step and entertaining the attentions of the extreme right. Only then were these problems grappled with. Take Martin Dulig, the Social Democratic Party’s commissioner for the New Federal States, in an article in Das Parlament last autumn:

The post-reunification era is over, but we are only now beginning to come to terms with it. It was a central mistake not to debate publicly the upheavals, the grievances, and the injustices of that time. It’s time now to talk about the form and the problems of the systemic transformation, one which took place under the banner of market radicalism.

In a conversation with Die Zeit last March, Günter Nooke, the long-time speaker for the Christian Democratic Union’s East German representatives in the Bundestag, acknowledged the defeat of the old policy of “working through” the past:

I remember giving a speech in the Bundestag at the time. . . . It goes without saying that I spoke about East Germany. Because it is my view that if you don’t know the East, you also can’t demand anything on its behalf. A day later, I drove to Thuringia, to visit [this region’s] then–Minister President, Bernhard Vogel. . . . Vogel asked me not to play the “East card.” He was of the opinion that to do so would be to argue for splitting the country. . . . That was the zeitgeist at the time. Some were so intoxicated by reunification that they said: we must under no conditions jeopardize all this by continuing to draw distinctions between East and West. . . . West Germans were happy to hear criticism of [the GDR’s ruling] Socialist Unity Party, but criticism of the current situation in the East? Better not. Today, we find ourselves in a situation where, in many ways, the East feels neither represented nor understood. My generation did not manage to solve this problem; now the younger generation has to see what they can do about it.

It is time for a working-through of the working-through process — to understand its one-sidedness and its missed chances. German society needs to discuss the mistakes and identify the true causes for the troubling rightward shift in the political spectrum in the former East, requiring a conceptual shift which Dulig himself hints toward: the systemic transformation that took place under the banner of market radicalism. This gets us to the heart of the problem. For the key to this undeniably dire situation is to be found in the 1990s, and especially in the first half of that decade.

More Capitalism!

To this day, the majority of East Germans who actually remember the years immediately after reunification tell stories revolving around the economic decimation of the entire GDR — a process without historical precedent. Of the 150 large companies with over 5,000 employees, 145 vanished almost immediately along with the social, medical, and cultural institutions connected to them. Life drained out of wide swathes of the country, and social interaction came to a near-total standstill. Centers of public life were shuttered, trains often went by without stopping, buses passed less frequently, and the sense of provincial isolation deepened and spread.

Those who still had ambitions tried to get as far away as possible, as millions of East Germans in the early 1990s did. Anybody who kept their job or found a new one considered themselves lucky, and because of this privilege accepted comparatively poor working conditions. Not doing so meant the threat of precarious employment, temporary and agency work, workfare-style programs, or unemployment — the metamorphosis from citizen to client of public service providers, to welfare recipient. This transformation constitutes a deep and still unhealed wound.

Within a few years, the former East was turned into a testing ground for a harsher and more individually oppressive style of capitalism. The slogans of the time were “any work is better than no work!” and “anything that creates work, no matter how bad, is socially beneficial!” The East was in this sense “avant-garde,” since the conditions and forms of behavior rehearsed here were supposed to usher in a paradigm shift throughout Germany — a turn away from participatory capitalism and its replacement by market-compliant democracy.

East Germany’s post-reunification experience fueled doubts about democracy among hundreds of thousands of people. Though it occurred at a uniquely breathtaking pace, the East German experience nonetheless corresponds to those of millions of people who underwent the same upheavals over a more extended period, having never lived under dictatorship. The same radical restructuring of economy and society took place in the Rust Belt of the United States and the classic industrial regions of Britain and France, indeed with the same result: the mass alienation of citizens from democratic institutions, systems, and processes, and the complementary rise of nationalistic, vulgar-democratic tendencies and parties. All this can’t be blamed on the GDR.

Two Ways of Looking at Democracy

Basic democratic rights, ties with the West, a social-market economy — these were the three pillars on which the Federal Republic of Germany stood and evolved since its foundation in May 1949. West Germans were provided with a prefabricated democratic framework put together by the Parliamentary Council under the mentorship of the Western Allies. Its economic underpinnings, likewise planned in advance and conceived during the war years, proved durable and capable of expansion, bringing West Germans tangible, lasting improvements in their material conditions. It was no miracle — as the notion of the “Miracle on the Rhine” might suggest — but the upward trend was consistent. The longer it lasted, the more the sense of having gotten everything right tended to solidify, and citizens gradually grew accustomed to the political and legal framework of the new polity.

The script for the reunification process of 1990 and beyond turned this sequence on its head in every respect. This time, democracy was won from below; reunification was affirmed by the majority and pushed through against all objections. As soon as basic rights and elementary freedoms for all were guaranteed, millions of East Germans, however, lost their economic and social footing. Ground gained in terms of political and legal self-determination went hand in hand with socioeconomic losses. The ground upon which one was moving caved in, undermining any identification with the framework within which the movement took place. Without accounting for this basic contradiction, it is impossible to understand everything that has happened since.

Without this realization, it is impossible to understand either the arduous fight for self-assertion in the first half of the 1990s or the burgeoning anti-democratic attitudes in the second half of this decade — which could have taken on far more unpleasant forms even back then, had the disappointment and rage not been buffered by the parliamentary left. This marriage of convenience suffered undeniable damage during the so-called refugee crisis of 2015; whether it is permanent remains to be seen.

Since then, significant sections of the frustrated and disgruntled have addressed their protests to the rightward pole of the political landscape, and are now moving toward a general balancing of accounts with the “system” and its supporting strata. The reprivatization that took place under the Treuhandanstalt (a government agency established to sell off the GDR state economy), new welfare laws, bank bailouts, open borders for refugees — all decided and implemented from above and without their consent. And all of a sudden, politicians, journalists, and academics start flocking to the East, a place they had spurned for so long, to find out what is going wrong. For many in the East, this is precisely what they sought to provoke: after years of being ignored, the public is again interested in their plight.

The East as a Lesson

The shockwaves of the early post-reunification years are still reverberating today, and force us to take stock: economic decimation, emigration, infrastructural atrophy, and an aging and disproportionately male “remaining population.” This is not the case for the entire East, but certainly throughout substantial zones. Whether to stay or go — the crucial question under the GDR — now poses itself anew for every subsequent generation.

In the critical regions, it is answered in the good old-fashioned way: those with more mobility, ambition, and youth leave. In so doing, they weaken society’s center, that guarantor par excellence of the defense of democratic achievements. The East German middle class is, as it was, “by nature” more vulnerable and more threatened with downward mobility, since it is considerably resource-poorer than its West German counterpart. This mass exodus only further erodes the potential for political mobilization. Often it finds itself fighting battles that have already been lost when the radical right is on the march. It is not at all rare for sub-fractions of the middle class to join these marches.

Spokespeople, adherents, and sympathizers of this right-wing movement are made all the more confident by the power they derive from the weakness emerging in the East German middle class and civil society. The more those with the capacity to defy the far right emigrate, the greater its political strength on the ground becomes in electorates and communities. This, in turn, gives those who find the situation difficult to bear the final push to leave — completing a vicious circle. Any remaining doubt about this relationship was cleared up in a comprehensive and detailed dossier on East-West emigration published by Die Zeit in May of this year. The more pronounced the outflow, the more intensely “blue” — the color ascribed to the AfD — the political landscape becomes. Harking back to the GDR does not make this correlation any more plausible.

The lesson to be drawn from this dilemma is straightforward and can be understood by anyone who bothers to think about it. Such comprehensive, radical social restructuring as took place in Germany’s eastern states after 1990 ought first and foremost to bolster the resources and the strength of the local population. The rapidly spreading socioeconomic demobilization of East Germany’s population was a calamity that should not have happened, and whose consequences, now visible everywhere, are affecting the entire country. Vita activa is the mother of democracy, and this spirit, this attitude of participation primarily on the basis of one’s own resources in an autonomous fashion, came to a premature halt in far too many instances once the main objective — the conquest of democratic freedoms — was achieved.

Picking Up the Pieces

The development sketched out here does have one positive aspect — as long as we know what to do about it. The rise of the new right has led to a re-politicization of German society. Electoral participation is rising, party profiles are becoming more sharply defined, and the now extensively differentiated channels of public opinion reflect the growing polarization of moods while also intensifying them. The pressure to take sides is growing. Political spectators are turning into political actors, and that is a good thing.

Acting means making decisions that could have been made differently. It would be a lie to claim that circumstances dictate anybody’s will. Even the most oppressive living conditions bring forth a variety of individual responses. There are dozens of reasons why the professional frustration-mongers find such popularity in the East. None of them justify joining the far right. There is no emergency, not even a social one, that could be invoked to justify this decision. Hannah Arendt, in her 1964 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, said all that needs to be said on this point:

If the defendant excuses himself on the ground that he acted not as a man but as a mere functionary whose functions could just as easily have been carried out by anyone else, it is as if a criminal pointed to the statistics on crime  —  which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place  —  and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it.

The political right, and the radical right in particular, have always known how to conceal the true causes of the widespread unease about social conditions, and it will not come to grips with them in the present moment either. To opt for the Right is to act against one’s own existential needs. It is possible to be cognizant of this — and many are. They act against their better knowledge in order to express their justified anger. That is their weak spot, and that is where they are vulnerable.