More than 25 years after German reunification, the federal government has drawn a sobering conclusion. The East still lags behind economically, and is experiencing an alarming surge in right-wing extremism.
Every year, the federal government issues a report on the state of Germany unity. The findings are not usually a cause for exuberant joy, and this year’s report, released Wednesday, is no exception.
The economic gap between East and West continues to close. But 26 years after reunification, the East’s economic performance is still more than a quarter below the level of Western states. Per capita gross domestic product, the report says, rose from 42.8 percent of the West’s in 1991, to 72.5 percent in 2015.
However, the report contains worse news – a rise in racially-motivated violence in East Germany.
In the past year, there has been a “strong” increase in the number of right-wing extremist and xenophobic attacks in the region, the report found.
“Alongside innumerable attacks on refugees and their accommodation, violent clashes, as in Heidenau and Freital, have become symbolic of a solidifying xenophobia,” reads the Annual Report on the State of German Unity in 2016.
Heidenau and Freital are among the German towns that saw violent attacks on apartment buildings and temporary shelters housing refugees last year. Germany took in more than a million refugees in 2015 and the government estimates about 300,000 more will arrive this year.
“The government still has no strategy to adequately respond to the massive rise in right-wing violence seen for months.”
It became clear during protests against the influx of refugees, the report said, that the line between civil protest and extreme right-wing agitation is becoming increasingly blurred.
The report has prompted calls for more decisive action to tackle racist violence and combat the right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, which has in part been symbolized by the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, over the past year.
“The government still has no strategy to adequately respond to the massive rise in right-wing violence seen for months,” the Green Party’s Konstantin von Notz told the Handelsblatt, adding that the government needed to stop chasing voters for the AfD.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU Party has lost seats to AfD in a number of recent regional elections.
The report, which was presented to the German cabinet Wednesday, referred to “alarming developments” that have the potential to “endanger social harmony in Eastern Germany.” And it doesn’t rule out negative impacts on the East German economy, either.
“Xenophobia, right-wing extremism, and intolerance present a great danger for society but also for the economic development of the new states,” it said. “East Germany will only have good prospects for development as a cosmopolitan region in which all people living there feel at home and participate in social life.”
Clemens Fuest, head of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, said intolerance characterized only a minority of East Germans, but its impact threatened the entire region. “Both tourists and investors are put off by xenophobia,” he told Handelsblatt.
For years, statistics have shown a high frequency of xenophobic and extreme right-wing assaults in East Germany.
The 2015 Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution documents upwards of 50 acts of right-wing extremist violence per million people in eastern states like Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg, compared to an average of 10.5 in the West German states.
The unity report explicitly warns of the possible dangers of this development. In 2011 it was revealed the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a right-wing extremist group, was responsible for murdering 10 people, pointing to an extremist environment out of which a terrorist cell developed.
The Germany police and domestic intelligences services have come in for harsh criticism of their handling of the NSU murders.
Reacting to the unity report, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats Ralf Stegner told Handelsblatt: “There are unfortunately cases in relation to the NSU murders where the police and Office for the Protection of the Constitution carried out their work in manner that was far from satisfactory, and even in some cases sympathized with right-wing activity.”
He added that in some regions “right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis and enemies of democracy” face little democratic opposition from the state or civil society.
And the number of extreme right-wing and racist assaults has risen significantly over the past year. According to the report, in 2015 extremist crime reached its highest since counting began in 2001.
The federal government said it is “noteworthy” that, with the exception of Berlin, the East German states still have small immigrant populations compared to West Germany. “This shows that violence against foreigners is not contingent on a high proportion of foreigners,” it said in the report.
Instead, the report points to other factors, such as effects of population decline and emigration on the make-up of clubs and social organizations and structures. Rural and structurally-weak regions are particularly hard hit by this, the government says, making them fertile ground for extremism.
“The focal points of right-wing extremists in rural regions are primarily in Eastern Germany, and also in a few regions of the western states,” read the interior ministry’s response to a minor inquiry by the Left Party faction, according to the answer seen by Handelsblatt.
Not all of this is necessarily home-grown. The ministry addresses a phenomenon known as “ethnic settlers,” about which the Left Party faction inquired. The suggestion is that some instigators may actually be targeting vulnerable rural regions for support.
However, the ministry stressed that Germany’s domestic security service is not keeping track of the movements of ethnic settlers and there is also currently “no knowledge about right-wing extremists having a specific strategy of settling in rural areas.”
Ulla Jelpke, a member of the Left Party, suggested the response means the federal government isn’t taking the problem seriously enough. “These settler projects are potential breeding grounds for Nazi terror,” Ms. Jelpke said to Handelsblatt. “I expect the federal government to gather more precise information about this movement and make it available to the public.”
The new federal states commissioner now wants a closer look at this phenomenon, and plans to commission a study on the subject of “ethnic settlements in Eastern Germany.” According to Handelsblatt’s information, this project is already being reviewed on a technical level.
While the problem has certainly gotten worse since the influx of new refugees over the past year, the government suggests that this trend to radicalism pre-dates the recent refugee crisis.
“These phenomena, however, are by far not to be ascribed exclusively to current developments,” it said in the report. “It is also a matter here of a pattern of attitude that has been having an effect for a long time and the challenges resulting from it. Fighting extremism is therefore as much an urgent task as it is a long-term one.”
Nor is it just a matter of right-wing violence. On the whole, an “alarming escalation” of political confrontation can be observed, the report found.
“The extreme-right anti-asylum agitation also has the effect of serving as a catalyst for violence on the extreme left spectrum,” the report found.
In demonstrations, for example, right-wing extremists count on confrontations with left-wing extremist counter-demonstrators. “Then again,” states the report, “left-wing extremists misuse counter-demonstrations to commit a large variety of criminal acts, combined in part with considerable violence, particularly against the police.”
This too is backed up by the numbers. The number of left-wing extremist-motivated acts of violence also rose “substantially” in 2015, according to the report. Again, the focus is in East Germany, where the percentage of crimes per million population were significantly higher (31.3) than the West German level (16.9). Much of it is concentrated in just two states, Saxony (69.8) and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (39.4). The German capital Berlin (23.8) is also among the worse-affected.
So how to turn the tide? The federal government said it is counting on the engagement of all social actors in the fight against radicalization. Citizens, companies and retailers, associations and clubs and communities all have a common interest in allowing “as little space as possible” for xenophobia, extremism, and violence.
“The overwhelming majority in East Germany stand up for democracy and tolerance,” the report said. They must continue to be supported and encouraged “to openly and visibly take a stand against the extreme right-wing threat so that a vociferous minority can no longer dominate and distort the overall picture.”
That’s not always easy. The federal government said it is well aware of the civil courage demanded to rebuff inhumane and antidemocratic remarks – no matter whether they are in a club or association, at work or in an everyday situation.
But there’s reason to be hopeful. After all, it’s not the first time eastern Germany has gone through a period of dramatic change.
“The East Germans have already demonstrated civil courage and determination in the dramatic days and weeks of 1989. This must be continued and built on in the future.”
Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org