Since its election on September 24, Germany has a new problem: the presence in its parliament of a far-right populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which got 12.6 percent of the vote. But history has old maps to explain this new phenomenon. These maps also show Germany’s mainstream politicians why they should stay calm, and why the AfD’s 12.6 percent need not cause a political crisis down the road as Britain’s UKIP did after it won 12.6 percent in 2015. The trick is to start looking at German culture and politics the same way we analyse American culture and politics: not in national tables, but on regional maps.
That is because in Germany the trouble is clearly in the east. The AfD scored 35.5 percent in Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge, a corner of what used to be East Germany that borders on Poland on one side and the Czech Republic on another. Worse, in the same region Die Linke got another 12.8 percent — it is the party that descends, via several name changes, from East Germany’s communist party. This combined 48.3 percent share is the really troubling thing. For while the AfD and Die Linke are enemies in theory, they share deep cultural affinities: both are anti-EU, anti-NATO, and pro-Russia.
What if this phenomenon spreads? You can’t ignore it, can you? Don’t you have to “close the right flank” nationally on the AfD, as one western German politician concluded? This is where the historian can reassure Germany’s frightened politicians. Don’t panic. It won’t spread.
Western and eastern Germany have always been fundamentally different places. Forget the 1990 fantasy that the former East Germany would soon become like West Germany if only the government pumped money into it (over 2 trillion Euros since 1990, and counting). Eastern Germany won’t ever become western Germany, because it never was. There is no more chance of Saxony becoming a cultural and political Rhineland across the Elbe than there is of Mississippi turning into another Massachusetts.
As in America, it’s all about cultural history, and Germany’s historical fault-line along the Elbe is far older than the Mason-Dixon Line. The western Germans have had 2000 years of secure tenure. Since Julius Caesar named the Germani in 58BC, no one has ever seriously disputed their right to the lands between the Rhine, the Danube the North Sea and the Elbe. Beyond the Elbe, however, it’s always been different. East Elbia – a term often used by the father of sociology, Max Weber (1864-1920), to signal the region’s essential otherness – only became German by gradual, hard-fought conquest after 1147.
The Germans in East Elbia were always colonists, sometimes very insecure in their dominance, and colonialism deforms the colonisers as well as the colonized. For eight centuries, whether you called a certain town Posen or Poznan decided where you stood, and might even kill you. That long colonial insecurity, of which the Soviet invasion and occupation was the final, terrible flipside, has resulted in a completely different cultural attitude to “others” east of the Elbe.
These two Germanies were only made one when Prussia defeated all western and southern German states in pitched battles (1866), then bounced its victories into the annexation we still, inexplicably, call Unification (1871). And as soon as you look at pre-1949 electoral maps, you see what a myth that Unification always was. East Elbian Germany has voted differently ever since Germans got the vote. Forget the names and figures for a minute and just look at the maps.
The east was the vital electoral resource of the Prussian Conservatives until 1918, then of the nationalist DNVP during Weimar, and then of the Nazis from 1930-33 — just as it is today the wellspring of the AfD and Die Linke. You simply can’t blame all of this on the Soviet occupation.
So let’s all just admit it. Political homogeneity is not a prerequisite of a federal democracy. Nor is bending over backwards (as David Cameron disastrously did in the UK) to try to appease structurally unappeasable minorities concentrated in one region. Germany is just going to have to live with its east. And it can, safely, because although the east will never vote as the west does, there’s no more danger of Saxony’s peculiarities spreading to the west than there is of California becoming an Open Carry state.
But what about the AfD’s successes in the West? Well, take a closer look. It scored over 16 percent in only eight Western constituencies. Five are in a single bloc in the far east of Bavaria, bordering on the Czech Republic; two (Pforzheim and Heilbronn) lie in wealthy Baden-Württemberg but have specific electoral histories as “Protestant islands” in Catholic landscapes. All seven are exceptional places that have retained a historical sense of “us vs. them”. Only the eight place fits the stereotype: It is Gelsenkirchen, which has the highest unemployment and the lowest disposable income in Germany, plus a migrant population of 20 percent.
Here, then, is the practical lesson of history for German politicians: western Germans are only vulnerable to authoritarian notions of “us vs. them” under very specific conditions, and even then their vulnerability is limited. (If all of Germany had voted in 1933 as the Rhineland and Bavaria did, the Nazis could not have seized power.) But there are regions in the east which have always been, and always will be, different. Germany should stop trying to please aging single men in Saxony who, like Trumpists and Brexiters, will never be pleased, and concentrate instead on taking care of families in Gelsenkirchen. East Elbia is far smaller now than during the Weimar Republic and no longer has the clout to turn national politics. Crisis? Not if the Germans understand their own history.
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