In Germany's east, populist vote finds root in reunification woes

The anti-immigration AfD party is set for its best-ever national election Sunday, largely due to its popularity in the former East Germany. There, voters say they were left behind during reunification – and resent efforts to integrate immigrants while they still feel like second-class citizens.

Axel Schmidt/Reuters
Lead Alternative for Germany candidates Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel attend a news conference in Berlin Sept. 18.

“Traitor!” “Merkel, out!” The anger, boos, and whistles greeting Angela Merkel in Germany’s east earlier this month are not the sort of reception many outside observers expect the country’s popular chancellor to receive.

But not so for people like Regina Bernstein, who lives near this small village of 4,200 at the foot of the Lusetian Mountains near the Czech Republic. She recognizes the anger, which dates back to Dec. 5, 1990. That's when the agency overseeing East Germany’s transition into unified Germany declared that the local factory, called Margarethenhütte, wouldn’t compete in the free economy, and laid off its 850 workers.

For more than 130 years, Margarethenhütte manufactured ceramic insulators for power lines, which by 1991 it sold everywhere from Sweden to South Africa. But for Ms. Bernstein, who worked there as a ceramic engineer, her bitterness over its closure was about more than the loss of job or history.

“It’s not only our jobs that were taken but our dignity,” Bernstein, who now owns a pottery studio, says. All the things she had worked for were undermined: her qualifications, the system of all-day school that had helped her combine family and work – her entire system of values. “We felt humiliated, degraded, taken advantage of,” she says. “This arrogance, it sits deep and it’s passed on when it remains unfiltered.”

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
A woman with a headscarf walks past an election campaign poster of the anti-immigration party Alternative fuer Deutschland AfD, in Marxloh, a suburb of Duisburg which local media said is populated mostly with people of Turkish migrant background, Germany September 13, 2017.

And while those events are more than a quarter-century past, they have new relevance today amid Germany’s national elections, set for Sunday. For it is this sense of anger and resentment deeply anchored in the country’s east that has contributed to the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. And it is rooted in the personal experiences of individuals like Bernstein, who feel that western Germany continues to see its eastern German “brothers” as second-class citizens. So, they ask, why should we sacrifice to integrate Muslim refugees now?

“People don’t want to share at all,” says Bernstein, speaking of many she knows (although she says she will not vote for the AfD herself), “because they feel they were betrayed.”

'Why don't you integrate us first?'

After Germany reunited, the Margarethenhütte story was repeated thousands of times, from the coal-mine regions to those of chemical industries. Easterners’ feelings of humiliation remained unspoken for long. But Ms. Merkel’s “welcome culture” policy toward refugees changed things.

It was one Saxony minister who, in a headline-making speech before the German state’s Social Democratic Party leaders in Leipzig last fall, spelled out the connection between the unspoken wounds of reunification and the growth of the AfD in the east. Petra Köpping, who had been mayor of a small town near Leipzig in Soviet times but had to sell insurance after the Berlin Wall fell, spoke from her heart. She had seen coal miners cry when their mines closed. She saw how Western investors took over businesses in the east while Easterners were unable to get loans and left the region. She spoke of railway workers whose pension systems were not being recognized in reunited Germany.

“People were treated like objects,” she said.

Today, Ms. Köpping is Saxony’s first integration minister at a time when the anti-Islamization Pegida movement marches weekly in Dresden, the state capital, and anti-refugee violence still flares. She has been inundated with calls from journalists from across Germany and around the world asking, “What is wrong with the east?” 

She tries to explain by talking about one of the angry Pegida demonstrators she had spent time with. “You and your refugees! It’s all about refugees,” the woman yelled at her. “But why don’t you integrate us first?”

“People saw how the state is taking care of the next generation of people in need – the refugees – and they are saying, ‘Why hasn’t it worked for me?’” Köpping said. “‘Why is the state taking care of them while it never took care of us?’”

Matthias Rietschel/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to an employee during her visit to the Daimlers first battery factory prior to the beginning of the ground breaking ceremony for the second battery factory at Daimler subsidiary ACCUMOTIVE in Kamenz, Germany May 22, 2017.

'We were taken over'

An influx of Western money after reunification gave the east new roads and refurbished town centers, paving the way for cities like Leipzig and Dresden to experience an economic comeback. The gap between the country’s two halves has narrowed.

But it remains large. None of Germany’s 30 DAX index companies are in the east, and practically no big company is headquartered here. Wages lag behind, and the risk and rates of poverty are higher. In regions where young qualified people have left in droves, all major leaderships positions in all areas of society, from its universities to its churches, are occupied by western Germans. Many in the east feel they are not part of today’s successful Germany, the motor of Europe. That is fertile ground for right-wing attitudes.

“We were taken over, like a colony,” says Rainer Schiemann, who was an electrical engineer at Margarethenhütte for 20 years. He felt the decision to close the plant while systematically turning down any input from workers amounted to “a deliberate effort to eliminate us and make room for the competition.”

After unification, he saw western firms take over, using labor in the east but keeping their highest-paid employees – and the revenue streams from their taxes – in the west. With the labor reform under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and then Merkel, precarious jobs developed and wages never took off. “And people tell us we should be grateful that the west took us over!” he says. “No wonder that people are voting for the alternative.”

Former plant worker Axel Gude says his family – and his life – fell apart after he and his wife lost their jobs. His son turned to the neo-Nazi scene – his revenge on the system, Mr. Gude says. Gude adds that “the memories of the nice times in socialist times and my family have helped me.”

A voice for people's resentment

The AfD has clearly tapped into the disillusionment voters feel with Germany’s established political parties. But linking the upheavals of reunification to the rise of the AfD has many fierce critics. Yes, mistakes were made, they say. But revising the past brings but false hopes, and nobody wants East Germany (GDR) back. 

Integration Minister Köpping says it's important to talk for people to talk about the past so they can come to term with it. That’s key to preserving social peace, she says. “Otherwise we could forget that the GDR was a dictatorship,” she says. She points out that, in Saxony, a quarter of the young people say they do indeed want East Germany back, according to recent studies.

The east, where voters’ attitudes are notoriously fickle, is the AfD’s stronghold, and that has a lot to do with the feelings of the locals – like the fears of the future, of falling into economy uncertainty, and of having been lied to by the main traditional parties. Those feelings look set to propel the AfD into Germany's national legislature, the Bundestag, for the first time. It will also be the first time that a party to the far right of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) bloc – and one with an overtly nationalist agenda – will make it in, ending Germany’s unofficial consensus not to let extremist parties have a say in politics.

The open question is whether the AfD will win third place nationwide, and become the leading opposition party. In the east, their draw could go as high as 25 percent, according to recent polls, which could put them above the usually second-place Social Democrats. 

But even if the AfD’s numbers do not rise so high on Sunday, many in the east, even those who have no plans to vote for the party, understand some of its supporters’ frustrations. In Bautzen, a small town near Großdurau, entrepreneur and faithful CDU voter Marco Kosak is one of those. Decades after the Berlin Wall fell, many of the eastern region’s leaders – in the world of academics and business – come from the west. He is an exception. 

“Nobody regrets the GDR, but the feeling of inferiority has remained,” Mr. Kosak says. “People don’t want to be occupied again.”

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