Reunification day

The East German Problem

Federal election in Germany
That's one way to say it. A post-election protest against the AfD in Berlin. Source: Reuters / Wolfgang Rattay

What the hell is wrong with the East Germans? That is the question that many western Germans are asking on a national holiday — the 27th anniversary of reunification — when they should be celebrating the return of their eastern brethren to the fatherland. However, the former East has a problem, as became clear in the election of September 24: An unusually large percentage of eastern Germans favor the right-wing, anti-EU, anti-immigrant, xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD).

In states that used to be East German, including the former East Berlin, the AfD, won 20.5 percent of the vote, coming in second after the center-right Christian Democrats of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In comparison, the AfD only got 10.7 percent in western Germany.

Many Germans are emotional and angry about this outcome. “The Ossis [colloquial for east Germans] are the lousiest, most moronic people on earth,” was just one passionate reaction, among many, on social media. “And I was born there. I am ashamed of so much stupidity!”

“East German schools did not properly teach about democracy.”

An East German civil rights campaigner scolded

“I just think it is sad,” says a Berliner, as he makes cappuccinos for the well-heeled in the city center. “Sad that they feel so left out that they would vote for the AfD.”

“It’s appalling, absolutely appalling,” adds an angry pensioner in the middle-class suburb of Steglitz, also in Berlin. “They don’t even have any migrants living there.”

German analysts and politicians are searching for answers. Journalists rushed to towns where the AfD got over a third of the vote to ask people in pubs and supermarkets what was wrong with them. They may or may not have found answers, but they certainly discovered lots of theories.

In one narrative, the east Germans didn’t vote for the AfD because they agreed with the party’s platform, but rather out of protest. It’s a “late revenge” by east Germans for the alleged “arrogance” of west Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Back then, west Germans felt superior, economically and politically, and made one too many jokes about how the east Germans were desperate for the bananas unavailable to them under Soviet rule.

East Germans don’t trust the political system, other experts argue. Its all part of the global culture war between liberals and conservatives, analysts noted. There’s a feeling of powerlessness, they added – eastern Germans are still not well represented in Germany’s corridors of power. Eastern schools did not properly teach about democracy, one former east German civil rights campaigner scolded.

Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a westerner who spent many years in eastern Dresden, has his own theories. He thinks eastern Germans are sick of change. “Globalization, digitalization, terrorism and the issue of refugees,” as he put it. This “new world” was all too much for them, so they voted against it.

The AfD is especially popular among east German men — in fact, it was the party that got most of their votes. Because they are the losers of reunification, some academics opine. Many of them had full-time, government-secured jobs before 1989. Afterwards, they didn’t. So they feel as though something had been taken away that they cannot get back. Many east German women went west and the eastern males have also apparently had to deal with a lack of potential wives. Some analysts even blamed feminism for making those unfortunate eastern chaps feel less manly.

The result: A new eastern underclass: underemployed, underrepresented, under-educated, unwed — and now, voting for the AfD.

26 Graph of the day – Voters West vs East-01

Although reunification adds a unique aspect to the German situation, this phenomenon is not unlike the estrangement of, for example, white working-class men in parts of America who support Donald Trump.

After Mr. Trump’s election, a lot of American commentators complained that liberals made the mistake of taking him literally but not seriously, when they should have taken him seriously but not literally. Some German pundits now say the same about the AfD.

Others reject that notion. “Today I keep hearing that I should, finally, take the east Germans seriously,” said Hasnain Kazim, a journalist for the German magazine Der Spiegel, writing on his Facebook page a day after the election. “Sorry, but you came here in 1990, in a rattling old Trabi [a typical east German car] and now so many of you have voted for the AfD. Excuse me, but exactly how am I supposed to take you seriously?”

Mr. Kazim’s comment on social media got so many reactions that he was forced to write a longer explanation of why he, a German with Pakistani roots, was being so nasty. Ever since 1990, he elaborated, he had experienced racist insults in the east and received hate mail. He was once even warned not to travel to the eastern German city of Rostock because of his skin color.

“I have travelled through the east and had many good experiences,” Mr. Kazim reflected. “But I also got a lot of bad looks, was spat at and was treated like some sort of enemy – in the Uckermark, in Magdeburg, in [Saxony] and on the island of Rügen. And in a way that I never experienced in the west.”

Muslims are always asked to apologize for terrorist incidents, the German journalist points out. And he agrees that Muslims do need to deal with the problems in their own communities that stem from extremist practices. But, he concluded, the east Germans should also do the same.

Cathrin Schaer is an editor with Handelsblatt Global.

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