Refugee Reactions

Germany's Intolerant East

Anti-immigration protesters demonstrate near a refugee center in Heidenau, Saxony, this summer.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Support for anti-immigration parties and the number of attacks against refugees is higher in the former east than in the west of Germany.

  • Facts


    • A survey found that one in two people in the east think immigrants should not be welcomed; in the west, the figure is one in three.
    • Figures show that only 41 percent of western Germans could imagine living in the east.
    • Citizens of communist East Germany were rarely allowed to travel outside the country.
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A pile of sweaters, trousers, shoes, sheets and blankets interspersed with toys, pots and pans are piled in the basement room of a school in Schwerin, the capital of Germany’s northern state of Mecklenburg-Pomerania. Nadida Nouri, 49, and Rita Eisentraut, 57, make an interesting pair as they carefully sort through the donations from charitable Germans.

Ms. Nouri fled Syria almost two years ago with her husband and their four children. Like Ms. Eisentraut, a German, Ms. Nouri was lucky to get into LaQs, a federally funded project for the long-term unemployed, jobless migrants and refugees. Its goal is to better prepare them to enter Germany’s labor force.

Syrian and German work well together here, something that is not always self-evident, either in Schwerin or elsewhere in eastern Germany. Hardly a day goes by without reports of arson attacks on refugee centers. Last weekend, a large apartment block near the northern city of Rostock that was slated to receive refugees was burned down.

Violence is leveled not only against refugees, but also those helping them. In Neuhardenberg in the eastern state of Brandenburg, two cars owned by supporters of an initiative to aid refugees were set on fire and destroyed. In nearby Saxony, more right-wing disturbances have followed riots in the towns of Heidenau, Freital and Dresden.

Sociologists are unanimous in their verdict: Decades of communism and authoritarian rule in the former East Germany have left their mark. Many eastern Germans continue to think and feel differently to their fellow citizens in the west, who experienced liberalism, democracy and freedom to travel. Are people in the new German states that used to make up the East more xenophobic than those in the west?

“I get irritated at the blanket accusations that the east is more xenophobic than the west. That's not true.”

Hans Bauerfeind, Entrepreneur

Consider the statistics. The Amadeu-Antonio Foundation records attacks against migrants and refugees based on police statements and reports by refugee organizations. Current figures indicate violence and attacks against asylum seekers have occurred in almost every German state this year.

In the south and west of the country, police have recorded an especially large number of arson attacks against refugee housing. Burning buildings were not limited to the east this weekend, but also in affluent southern Baden-Württemberg, where refugee housing was set ablaze. Since the beginning of the year, there have already been ten arson attacks against refugee accommodations in Baden-Württemberg and neighboring Bavaria.

In the east, however, the incidents are more frequent despite fewer inhabitants. Often, they include cases of bodily injury inflicted on asylum seekers including 34 attacks in Saxony alone. There is particular concern about the situation in its state capital, Dresden, where 17 violent attacks on refugees have occurred since the beginning of the year.

These are not isolated incidents. Support was huge for the Pegida anti-immigration movement that sprang up in Dresden and nearby Leipzig last year, showing that there was widespread resentment at the level of immigration in Germany.

The influx of refugees 25 years after reunification highlights the persistent differences between eastern and western Germans.

A survey for the Bertelsmann Foundation, a European think tank, reached the conclusion that west and east are drifting apart. In the west, one in three people think immigrants should not be welcomed, but in the east, the figure is one in two. Just three years ago, researchers found no substantial differences between east and west.

No matter what the findings, the city of Schwerin faces a daunting task. On one hand, urban experts find an unexpectedly widespread willingness to help people, while on the other, it is impossible not to hear skeptical voices saying “Don’t forget us Germans.”

Political scientist Werner Patzelt of the Technical University Dresden is not surprised by the negative attitude toward migrants. Even decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he sees significant differences in the states.

He thinks that those who want to understand the reaction in the east need only look at how governments of former Eastern Bloc countries such as Hungary or Poland are dealing with the current refugee crisis. “The governments of these countries say, ‘We don’t want to become a country of immigrants; we want to preserve our existent social structures’,” Mr. Patzelt said, adding that many former East Germans share this view.

He argues this is the reason why right-wing movements such as Pegida attain significant popularity only in the new German states.

Joachim Ragnitz has reached similar conclusions. He conducts research about eastern Germany and structural change for the Dresden office of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, a think tank. He says life remains quite provincial in many regions of the east, largely because the more cosmopolitan sectors of the population have frequently left while those with a strong sense of belonging to their home region remain.

One political group in particular benefits from the love of homeland: The right-wing anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD). It has already won seats in the state parliaments of the eastern states of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg. And since it has become clear that more than one million refugees are likely to arrive in Germany this year, the party’s appeal has been steadily rising.

According to recent surveys, the AfD would now get 9 percent of votes in Thuringia and 13 percent in Saxony. In many western German states, however, surveys show the AfD draws no more than the 5 percent threshold required to enter state parliaments.

This sports hall in the eastern town of Nauen was earmarked to house 100 refugees but was burnt down in an arson attack in August. Source: DPA


Mr. Patzelt noted the national self-image – including pride in orderliness – is much more pronounced in the east than in the west. “In the east, social security and equality are much more important than freedom,” he said.

Many easterners are disturbed that their traditional outlook is equated with right-wing thinking. Entrepreneur Hans Bauerfeind, 75, whose company produces medical stockings and bandages and has its headquarters in Thuringia, has long felt at home in both parts of Germany. “I get irritated at the blanket accusations that the east is more xenophobic than the west,” he said. “That’s not true.”

After reunification, he shifted production and company headquarters from Darmstadt in southern Germany to Thuringia. “I wanted to be involved in the first steps into a market economy,” he explained. He was impressed by people’s mentality at the time, noting: “There was more camaraderie than in the west.” Today, he believes attitudes and behaviors in east and west have become much more similar.

Thilo von Selchow, managing director of the Center for Microelectronics in Dresden, formerly a state enterprise, is particularly impressed by the “healthy sense for the common good.” He sees this as a virtue of eastern German employees. “It has not been my experience that eastern Germany is less cosmopolitan than western Germany,” said Mr. von Selchow, who hails from the west. “I continue to be amazed that many persons in the west have never been to the east.”

A survey by the polling firm YouGov for the book “What Makes Germans Tick” found only 41 percent of western Germans could imagine living in the east. People in the new states, in contrast, showed more flexibility, even if only because of jobs, with 58 percent saying they could imagine living in western Germany.

The survey also found continued differences in the mentalities of easterners and westerners, with 80 percent of respondents saying people in eastern and western Germany tick differently.

So has nothing changed in 25 years? A generation has grown up in the east with no experience of a divided country, but Mr. Patzelt noted, “There remain dents that have become historical.” He acknowledges the east remains in the process of developing a civil society like that in the west, but it’s a fact that far fewer people get involved in political parties, organizations or associations than in the west.

Integration is still a gargantuan task. There are high hopes that those who no longer consider the foreigner to be foreign are shedding their prejudices. But particularly in the east, the opposite can occur.

The fact western elites want to help the east become cosmopolitan by sending many refugees to the new states is creating a defiant attitude, said Mr. Patzelt, adding: “That is profoundly irritating to eastern Germans.” It does not go unnoticed by eastern Germans that there are many examples in the west of unsuccessful integration, such as in West Berlin, for example, or in districts of Dortmund.

In Schwerin, however, people are on a promising path. The city worked hard to achieve that progress and continues to do so. In 2011, the Action Alliance for a Peaceful and Cosmopolitan Schwerin was created to promote freedom of thought and conscience by founders who believed right-wing thoughts were taking hold in the middle of society.

Today, optimism prevails. “It was possible in recent years to develop a climate in which cosmopolitanism and tolerance have grown somewhat,” said Dimitri Avramenko, the city’s commissioner for integration. It remains an important and ongoing task, he added.

“For many people, it isn’t always easy,” said district administrator Hanne Luhdo, who comes from eastern Germany. She acknowledges fear of foreigners is still somewhat more widespread in the east. To reduce this fear little by little, every Monday Ms. Luhdo organizes a weekly welcoming coffee morning for refugees, local residents and volunteers at the community club. “We have to create possibilities for getting to know one another,” she said.


Silke Kersting reports for Handelsblatt on consumer protection, construction and environmental policy. Anja Stehle is a correspondent in Berlin. To contact the authors:,

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