The year 2015 saw Germany faced with a crushing identity crisis. It continues to play out in various German towns and cities. This was the third one in a matter of seven decades and greatly risks dividing the country. The first two came post Second World War, after the reunification of East and West Germany.
But what happened following the great migration, when nearly a million people walked into Europe as a direct result of political instability or war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, forcing a question to an unassuming host – who are we? On both sides of the ensuing debate were strong personalities. Some backed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call of ‘wir schafen das’ or more simply ‘we can do this’ – while some others said, well maybe let’s not do this.
Right-wing and counter right-wing marches became a weekly, sometimes daily, affair across Germany; they might not have always violently clashed, but the placards made interesting reading – pointing to a deep social chasm. On one side of the debate was Gunter, not his real name, a 35-year-old father of two, unemployed – supported by social welfare, living in a working class neighbourhood of Berlin.
Ideologically, Gunter recently attended a Rudolph Hess death anniversary march. Hess, was Adolf Hitler’s deputy, who was captured in 1941 and committed suicide in a prison outside Berlin in 1987. It was only natural for Gunter to answer Merkel’s call with a ‘no’ and join a new political party that rose out of the ashes of her political legacy, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). The AfD easily qualifies as a right-wing political party with strong far-right elements, depending on who you speak to.
“Merkel shouldn’t have let all these people in the country, they’re not from here, it will change our country, our culture,” says Gunter. The AfD is currently the largest opposition party in the German Bundestag, campaigning often on a single point agenda of anti-immigration, and often too, slipping into controversy.
One of its founding members, Alexander Gauland, in 2016, while being interviewed by a national newspaper commented about German national footballer Jerome Boateng, who is of African descent, “people like him as a footballer, but they don’t want to have a Boateng as a neighbour.” The remarks were recorded by two journalists, but Gauland later denied it.
In September 2017, a video emerged of Gauland saying Germany should be proud of its soldiers in the two world wars, he was quoted, “if the French are rightly proud of their emperor and the Britons of Nelson and Churchill, we have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.” As much as comments like these make much of Germany hang their heads in shame, for someone like Gunter they are meant to reinstate a sense of national pride and identity.
And it worked, the AfD, in a short period, amassed enough political leverage to force traditional political parties, like the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, into reviewing the open door immigration policy. Unfortunate as it may be, Gunter isn’t an anomaly – he fears prolonged joblessness, is often faced with increased difficulty in dealing with Germany’s shrinking welfare system. He also possesses a healthy fear of the million new faces who walked into the country looking for a safe space to live.
In a recent poll conducted by the Infra-test Dimap, a polling institute, which conducts electoral research for Germany’s public broadcaster and several governmental agencies, nearly 64 percent of Germans think that the country faces either a very big problem or a big problem with racism in everyday life. If Gunter isn’t an anomaly, according to this research, Gunter would be an ordinary man of Germany’s forgotten underbelly – someone who has found his voice along with many others facing the same fears.
Its the money, honey: The reason for the underbelly wanting to make itself heard might lie first with the German economy. On the face of it, Germany is one of the strongest economies of the world, perhaps even single-handedly stabilising the euro’s global standing. But at the very heart of Germany, there’s a boiling social discord.
Berlin is the second poorest urban centre in Germany, where nearly 23 percent of the people live in poverty. This means they earn less than 60 percent of the national median income. At least 150,000 single parents survive along with children on less than 1,500 euros per month.
Berlin also has around 20,000 homeless people, which is a record in Germany. No other urban centre in the country has that many shelterless people. Beyond all this, the capital is faced with a severe housing crisis and shortage of schools. Only a small part of which is due to the arrival of refugees in the country, and much of it is due to delayed development funds.
But this goes back to the reunification of Germany in 1989-1990, when a very poor half of Berlin, joined a relatively affluent other half. Sensationalist headlines in local tabloids too, keep the fear of migrants alive with Gunter. He sees many of the ‘flucthlinge’ or refugees as intruders, who have come to usurp jobs and opportunities.
He routinely laments the difficulties he faces in convincing Germany’s strict welfare system to keep supporting him. “Every month, they send me letters, asking me to explain how much money I earned from small jobs – this is ridiculous, every month I have to account for every penny I earn, they always make it difficult for me to have just a normal life. Sometimes they cut out money from my child welfare payments,” its almost insulting, he adds. Germany’s welfare system is generous but strict, the government routinely reviews welfare applicants and vigorously helps and encourages them in finding regular employment. Gunter, instead blames strain on the system on refugees.
He says, “look at all these refugees, they came here just two years ago, and the government gave them houses and jobs and now their children are going to kindergartens and schools.” His rhetoric sounds like regurgitated political speak, but the idea that refugees and migrants will take a large chunk of an already shrinking social welfare pie, has become a rallying cry for many who oppose the current migration trends.
While Donald Trump was rallying ‘Build the Wall’ mantra, a little known politician in Germany was encouraging authorities to shoot at immigrants illegally crossing into the country. That little known politician in early 2016, was the co-founder of the AfD Frauke Petry. According to a regional newspaper, Petry said, “I don’t want this either. But the use of armed force is there as a last resort.” That year saw more than 3,500 registered cases of attacks on refugees and refugee shelters across Germany.
In 2017, registered attacks on refugees dropped to 2,200 but saw the AfD break all records in national and regional elections and become the largest opposition party in Germany with a right-wing agenda since the 1960s. In the first half of 2018, there have already been over 700 registered attacks on refugees or refugee shelters. Whether Petry’s comments incited violence or not, it set a disturbing trend which was to see renewed right-wing political discourse and troubled social cohesion across Germany. German society risks being more divided now, than ever before in history.
For the government, these attacks were to soon become a political and foreign policy eyesore. Rumours abounded in 2016 of the government asking national and local media outlets to refrain from reporting these attacks, fearing further copycat attacks and a dent to the German reputation around the world. Gunter is dismissive of the statistics, describing them as left-wing propaganda to malign people like him. He has faith in the AfD, which was born out of opposition to the Greek economic bailout before finding its feet in the anti-immigration debate.
Method of teh madness: Politically manipulating Gunter wouldn’t have been that easy, had he not grown up in former East Germany. Today, much of far-right support base and that of the AfD’s lies in what was former East Germany (GDR). Many, former citizens of the GDR, who continue to live in today’s eastern Germany, form what is the heartland of far-right politics in the country.
It is no coincidence that an overwhelming majority still fondly remembers the days of the GDR – and there is a word to describe this particular sentiment. ‘Ostalgie’ or ‘East’algie derived from ‘nostalgie’ or ‘nostalgia’ – means to fondly remember life and times in East Germany before German reunification in 1989. The reason for their nostalgia is clear, upon reunification many East Germans felt alienated.
Gunter says his parents still complain how their East German values were being discarded by the larger state of Germany after 1989-1990. Gunter’s parents felt change was forced onto them, by way of capitalistic economic ideas and cultural values of West Germany, mainland Europe and the US. “The people of GDR were always left behind, we were ignored, second class citizens, the people from West Germany looked down at us like filth, they wanted us to be more like them,” says Gunter. According to social commentators, this fear of constant social, political, economic and cultural change attracted many in eastern Germany to the call of the far right.
Gunter, who comes from the town of Chemnitz, which lay at the heart of the former GDR, and was recently the scene of widespread violent race riots, is ripe for this kind of anti-immigration debate. He’s been exposed to victim mentality, societal prejudice, economic deprivation, and enforced cultural and social change from a young age.
There’s nothing new about his arguments, which are well worn talking points teetering on the edge of racism and xenophobia. He’s clearly not the brains behind a revolution, if anything he’s a foot soldier, or even cannon fodder – easily malleable by politicians.
While he understands that many Syrians and Iraqis don’t have much of a homeland left to live in, Gunter argues, “Why don’t they go live in other Muslim countries? Why do they have to come here? Their culture is different to ours; their food is different, and they pose a risk to our society and our culture.” But Gunter too is looking to belong, his current socio-economic strata coupled with the politics of fear and a presumed threat to Christian values have pushed him and hundreds of thousands more into the arms of the right-wing. If he had a decent job, a more refined friends circle, perhaps even a slightly healthier lifestyle, he’d probably vote for someone else.