Daily Briefing

Germany’s East 28 years after reunification

Feier zur Wiedervereinigung Deutschland Berlin 02 10 1990 Feier zur Wiedervereinigung am Abend de
Source: Imago.

Chemnitz again. That’s the city in the eastern state of Saxony where a German man was stabbed to death in August, apparently by one or more migrants, sparking riots by mobs of ordinary citizens but also right-wingers and neo-Nazis. For several weeks, all of Germany was talking about little else, including whether eastern Germany (meaning the former GDR) is peculiarly prone to such excesses. And now: Neo-Nazi terrorists.

Yesterday, the police arrested eight of them, all ordinary-looking Saxons. They were part of a group called “Revolution Chemnitz”. It appears that they saw themselves as a successor to the NSU (“National Socialist Underground”), a terrorist group that murdered nine immigrants of Turkish, Greek or Kurdish descent more than a decade ago. The new group, Revolution Chemnitz, was apparently planning attacks against journalists for tomorrow, Germany’s national holiday. They were well armed. Their ultimate goal was to overthrow the Federal Republic.

Terrorism is not an ideology but a tactic. It comes in all sorts of flavors: leftist, rightist, or Islamic. We should never get hysterical about terrorist threats. (Hysterical terror, after all, is what these people want to sow.) At the same time, we should remain vigilant, as the federal police in Chemnitz were this time. Which brings me to another topic…

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What exactly is the relationship between extremists, such as those in Revolution Chemnitz, and “populists”? That’s not easy to say, especially because it’s not even easy to define “populism”. One working definition is that populists like to posit a unified will of “the people” (populus in Latin), which is deemed to be suppressed by an arrogant “elite”. Populists then use this elitist bogeyman — invariably including journalists, as Revolution Chemnitz reminded us — to release mob energies and expunge nuance.

That’s why, although it is wrong to blame “mere” populists such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) for criminals such as Revolution Chemnitz, it is also disingenuous to deny that there is any connection. What populists do is to raise the temperature in a society, to make civilized debate harder, to pit groups against one another rather than reminding them of their common civic duties. In short, populists stoke anger. Words that were taboo become “straight talk”. Some people then go one step further and “take action”.

As we calmly commend the state for preventing an act of terrorism yesterday, we should therefore also pay attention to a new study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (in German). It finds that more Germans have become receptive to populist propaganda: 30 percent. That includes both the leftist and the rightist sort. In what the authors call the “political center” of society, one in eight has populist attitudes, compared to one in nine last year. Food for thought.

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And one more thing. Tomorrow is German Unity Day. That means you won’t get our Daily Briefing or our News Bites (if you don’t get that newsletter yet, you can sign up here.) It also means, as every year, that all of Germany is consumed with navel-gazing over whether East and West have, or have not, grown together by now, after 28 years.

Many maps of Germany look as though the old inner-German wall had never crumbled. That’s true whether the topic is demographics, economics or politics. For example, people are still moving out of the East, leaving some regions depopulated. Few large companies are based in the East. Incomes are lower.

Political attitudes are strikingly different. Easterners, probably out of old habits, still expect more from the state, in terms of redistribution or welfare, for example. At the same time, they trust the state less, often feeling alienated from the political process. Easterners identify much less with the “old Western” parties of the center. In some regions, more than half of the electorate either doesn’t vote or supports populists on the far right or the far left. That is not healthy for democracy.

One narrative goes as follows. Reunification was a takeover, not a merger. Arrogant Wessis (Westerners) swept in, bought up derelict factories, then disrespected and fired the Ossis (Easterners) who had built their lives and careers there. Western elites took over the reunified country’s media and mainstream culture. The Ossis felt sidelined — like second-class citizens, like strangers in their own country, and thus bitter.

When the refugees started showing up en masse in 2015, the narrative continues, the same Ossis saw their government, led by one of their own (Angela Merkel), treating those newcomers humanely. ‘Why do they get so much, when we could use so much?’, the Easterners started asking. If they felt like second-class citizens before, they now feared becoming third-class citizens, behind migrants. And so hate grew. Hate which, in some cases, boiled over into assaults on migrants or their accommodations.

Parts of this narrative are true. At the same time, its overall gist is far too simplistic, far too smug, and thus in sum a lie. When viewed from outside Germany (as the historian James Hawes has done) the cultural differences between western and “east-Elbian” Germany have much deeper roots than the last 28 years, or even the 73 years since division.

It is understandable that some Easterners feel frustrated by their experience since 1990. But that is also a matter of individual framing. The Germans in the East wanted freedom. And they got it. Freedom never meant bananas, BMWs or Deutsche Marks. It never meant the right to a safe job. Instead, as all free peoples have had to discover, it means hard work. Liberty comes with burdens and responsibilities. It presupposes tolerance, engagement and individual initiative to improve one’s own lot as well as society’s. The 28 years since reunification have not been easy for many Easterners. That doesn’t stop any of them from rising to their civic duty now. In fact, that is — as it has been since Athens and Rome — the best, indeed the only, way to become a first-class citizen.

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