The far-Right’s appeal to resentful Germans
An AfD march in Rostock. Credit: Ralf Hirschberger/AFP/Getty   
Spotlight on Europe Series

“They’re angry. Some of them are angry about a lot of things: bad job, no girlfriend, bad social life. They’re blaming the foreigners for this, or the government for looking after foreigners before themselves.”

It’s election time in East Germany, and I’m talking to my host, Klaus, about those of his friends who had toyed with the idea of voting for the AfD (Alternative for Germany).

“Would you vote AfD?”, I ask him.

“My life is pretty good,” he replies, “Sure, we have problems, but I don’t want to say that it’s all the fault of foreign people. I’m not as angry as my friends really.”

In Leipzig, the faces of polished candidates stare down from the billboards lining the streets. It’s hard to avoid their gaze. It is strange to think that a few generations ago elections here were little more than a sham, an exercise in political legitimisation for the ruling Socialist Unity party and futility for everybody else.

This was once the beating heart of East German industry, and it is here that the far-Right has enjoyed particular success in recent times. Support for the AfD in East Germany is on average more than double that in the West. In this week’s elections to the European Parliament, the AfD was the biggest force in Saxony, winning a quarter (25.3%) of the vote. The party also finished first in Brandenburg.

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As with populist successes elsewhere, the reasons for the AfD’s rise are multifaceted. There is the decline of industry and resultant male resentment. There is the gap between the attitudes of younger city-dwellers and older voters toward multiculturalism and immigration. And there is a tired political establishment – in this case Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany – that has been in power for nearly a decade and a half.

The AfD has specifically harvested the anger and disenchantment towards foreigners. Its platform is virulently anti-migrant and its leading figures have talked of an “invasion of foreigners”. The AfD even wants to prosecute Chancellor Angela Merkel for her decision to let around 1.3 million refugees into the country, even though migrant numbers have fallen considerably in Germany in the past three years.

The East is receptive territory for such a narrative. Before the emergence of the AfD in 2013 there was the anti-Islam group Pegida. The group would stage weekly marches in the Saxony city of Dresden, attracting up to 20,000 people at their height.

The difference in attitudes to immigration between East and West is significant. According to a recent survey, 66% of respondents in the former East German states are not satisfied that their immigration concerns are being addressed, compared to 46% in the former West German states. There are fewer foreign-born citizens in the East than in the West, yet anger about immigration runs deeper. According to data collected by victim counselling centres, five people in the east fall victim to far-right violence every day. In Saxony, 317 attacks were recorded in 2018, up from 229 in 2017.

The city of Chemnitz was the scene of a particularly violent far-right protest in 2018 after a German man was killed by two immigrants. Protesters clashed with police while some protesters openly saluted Hitler. A 20-year-old migrant in the nearby eastern town of Wismar was beaten with an iron chain by three assailants.

Seemingly, the former communist regime in the East equipped those living within its borders poorly for the multicultural Germany that emerged after reunification. Barriers were put up to prevent its own citizens from escaping so the country remained predominantly German; in West Germany, however, there was a steady flow of migrants into the country from around the world. Discussion of ethnic conflict and cultural differences were suppressed by the Socialist Unity Party and the emphasis laid firmly on class conflict above all else.

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There are other factors at play in the party’s growth. The economy, for example. But often these are connected with immigration as low-skilled workers compete with immigrants for jobs. Though the AfD did well in areas with strong economic growth, support across Germany was typically stronger in areas with low household income. Those living in the former GDR are statistically several percentage points more likely to be living in poverty than those living in the west of Germany.

Traditional industries have been wound down over recent decades in East Germany and the beating heart of the Eastern economy is slowing. As Chancellor Merkel recently put it, everything changed in East Germany almost overnight, and some people have still not gotten over it. “On the day of the monetary union, 13 percent of the people in the East worked in agriculture,” Merkel told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper. “The day after that it was 1.5 percent.”

This may explain the significant component of male resentment playing a role in the new party’s success: one-third of male voters in Saxony cast their ballots for the far-Right in 2017. The competition for low-skilled jobs is significant. But just as significant is the competition for sex. Between 1989 and 2001, 1.2 million people emigrated from East to West Germany. A high proportion of those leaving were young, educated women. As a result, today there is a significant imbalance in the male-female population in the former eastern states and much of the resentment directed at new arrivals on far-right online forums emphasises the protection of German women from foreigners. Indeed visit a nightclub in Görlitz or Chemnitz and this disparity is striking, with far more men on the dancefloor than women.

In a park in the suburbs of Leipzig I met a small group of men who insisted that life for them was better under the ancien régime. “You knew where you were, we had a good life,” one of the men said in between puffs on a cigarette.

It was a conversation that reminded me of similar encounters I had had with retired miners in south Wales. It wasn’t so much the GDR that the men I spoke with missed, just as the miners in south Wales had not actually wanted to venture back down into the bowels of nearby mountains to dig coal. Instead, what they yearn for was the security of the old system, and along with it the respect industrial work commanded for men from the working class.

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The left-behind, anti-establishment narrative is a familiar one to those watching the rise of populism around the globe. And the AfD have been able to capitalise on the mood in Germany because they have a clarity of message that is missing on the Left. They operate in primary colours, stoking dormant fears of foreign invasion and drawing a crude division between white Europeans and outsiders.

In contrast, Die Linke, a party of the far-Left, is struggling to articulate a coherent Left-wing economic vision 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nobody believes in central planning any more. Nobody wants a return of the bureaucracy and officialdom associated with the overbearing East German state. And only a dwindling number of Marxists still believe in the dream of a workers’ paradise. Indeed, according to surveys, fewer than 15% of the former East Germany’s 16 million people say they would want the pre-89 regime back.

Die Linke is thus forced to grudgingly regurgitate fashionable capitalist bromides. Were it to win power, the party would probably run the economy along similar lines to how it is run now – albeit with higher welfare spending. This is hardly the heady stuff required to inspire a political revolution. Consequently, Die Linke won just 5.5% of the vote across Germany in this week’s elections.

The challenge this all presents to the German establishment is similar to the one facing politicians in Britain: how to placate a resentful rump of the population – predominantly living in small towns and former industrial areas – that sees multiculturalism and the global economy as an existential threat.

Some would argue that Germany’s politicians can safely ignore these ‘left behinds’, confined as they are to forgotten towns and the former industrial belt of a vanished state. Indeed, there may be a ceiling on the level of support the AfD can pick up, as demonstrated by the party’s inability to make significant inroads in the west of the country.

Yet ignoring similar resentments has cost the political establishment in other countries – most notably Britain and the United States – dearly in recent times.

Angry, disenfranchised men are now a noisy and influential minority in many post-industrial areas of Europe and the United States. Germany is no exception. The country’s politicians ignore such anger at their peril.