Polarized Politics

Save the east to save Germany

AFD Landesparteitag Sachsen-Anhalt
Stop forgetting us and we'll stop voting for racist parties. Honest. Source: DPA.

What do many men from Saxony have in common with refugees from Syria? At first glance, not much. But take a closer look and it becomes clear that both groups face the same major challenge: integration into the German economy and society.

Last week’s resignation of Saxony’s state premier Stanislaw Tillich was the logical consequence of a rightward shift in recent years, or even decades, which has culminated in the success of the anti-immigrant movement Pegida and the strong showing of the Alternative for Germany: the far-right party known in Germany as AfD which is now the strongest party in Saxony after last month’s federal elections.

The assertion that the shift to the right is only due to an East German dislike of refugees is populist and fundamentally wrong. There are few foreigners in the regions where the AfD receives its strongest support. No resident of Saxony has lost benefits because of refugees, nor have the immigrants endangered jobs or wages there. And hardly anyone in eastern Germany can claim that the refugees pose a personal security risk.

The integration of many people in eastern Germany is a major challenge, perhaps even greater than the integration of refugees.

Instead, the strong support for AfD and Pegida in the east, especially in Saxony, is due to the lack of economic and social integration of many people and the fact that entire regions have been left behind. For about 10 years now, eastern Germany’s economy has stopped catching up with western Germany’s. Eastern Germans still earn considerably less, have worse jobs and receive inferior government benefits compared to people in many regions of western Germany. Demographic change is catastrophic in many eastern German regions, especially rural areas. Young people are moving to cities and western Germany to find opportunities and build a future.

This is partly due to a failed investment policy on the part of the federal and state governments. Balancing public budgets cannot be an end in itself. Private companies will only come and create good jobs if the underlying conditions are good. And the only way to convince young people to remain and shape the region’s future is by providing an excellent education and family policy.

The integration of many people in eastern Germany has failed. It is especially difficult for older people to find good work. Many realize that their prospects for advancement are slim and that their children will not be better off if they stay in their native region. This also applies to other areas in Germany, especially in the western Ruhr region and in the north. But people in eastern Germany are particularly disgruntled, because they were promised “blooming landscapes” 27 years ago.

Saxony’s Integration Minister Petra Köpping cites the failure to address history in the post-reunification period as a second central cause of the political shift to the right and the dissatisfaction of many eastern Germans. She describes it as a “thorn of humiliation in the flesh of many East Germans” that their life stories were not sufficiently appreciated, especially as reunification demanded that they make enormous efforts to adapt. This is particularly true of men who do not feel sufficiently appreciated in their efforts to build a new life after reunification.

When the East Germans shouted “We are the people” in 1989, they were demanding democratic rights. But when “We are the people” has been chanted in recent years, it was primarily to gain recognition for concerns and needs. It is wrong to express this legitimate need in the form of xenophobia. But expecting this problem to be ignored is just as wrong.

The integration of many people in eastern Germany is a major challenge, perhaps even greater than the integration of refugees. In the last 27 years, politics and society have at least partly failed because of this. Neither a tougher policy against foreigners, nor ignoring them, nor an attempt to keep people complacent with more social benefits will remedy the mistakes of the post-reunification period. The integration of refugees will only succeed if social polarization within German society is addressed and Germans do not see the newcomers as opponents in the struggle for recognition.

To reach the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com.

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