Until a few days ago, Görlitz was held up as a shining success story of German unification.
Famed for its beauty and abundance of historic monuments, the city in eastern Saxony was crumbling to pieces when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In the years since, western money and local labour have restored Görlitz to old splendour: its Gothic churches, Renaissance town houses, Baroque palaces and Art Nouveau stores sparkle as new, making the city a magnet for German tourists and American film crews.
Since Sunday, however, the world’s attention has been trained firmly on what goes on behind those pretty facades. Germany’s general election has shown Görlitz to be a national stronghold of Alternative for Germany, a rightwing populist party whose success has shocked the country’s mainstream politicians, and prompted soul-searching in Berlin, Brussels and beyond.
Across Germany, the AfD won 12.6 per cent of the vote, making it the third-largest group in parliament. In the east German state of Saxony, the anti-immigrant party came first, winning 27 per cent. In Görlitz, the AfD won the support of 33 per cent of the electorate, and in some surrounding villages its share exceeded 45 per cent. Not since the creation of the federal republic in 1949 has a rightwing party been so successful, and nowhere is it stronger than in the former Communist east. Twenty-seven years after reunification, the political gulf between east and west appears to be growing wider once again.
The causes of the AfD’s success are the subject of fierce debate: some point to Germany’s refugee crisis in 2015, which saw the arrival of more than 1m mostly Muslim refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. Others highlight the eurozone debt crisis, and the widespread feeling among German voters that they were asked to pay for the fiscal sins of their European neighbours. After four years in which Germany was governed by a grand coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats, a large group of voters also seemed keen to shatter the consensus-driven culture of the Berlin republic.
In conversations in Görlitz and the rest of eastern Germany, however, another theme emerges. Locals speak of a long-simmering sense of frustration, injustice and anger that reaches back to unification — a feeling that Germans in the east were and still are ignored and ridiculed by the richer, politically dominant west. There is talk of neglect, and a lack of respect and recognition.
Complaints swirl about salaries and pensions that are lower than in the west, and public services and future prospects that are poorer. The nutrients of the AfD’s success in the east are plentiful — a blend of small grievances and historic failures, fears of economic decline and cultural marginalisation, and an overwhelming desire to make the powers in Berlin feel the wrath of the German periphery.
“If the working and living conditions in the east had reached the levels in the west, this would never have happened,” says Sylvia Littke-Hennersdorf, a 61-year old project manager from Görlitz. A former activist for the Christian Democratic Union, she left Ms Merkel’s party in 2013 and went on to join the AfD.
The party’s success, she adds, has to do with the fact “that many people in the east never managed to integrate into and adapt to the social and political system of West Germany”.
Iris Gleicke, a Social Democrat who serves as the government’s special representative for eastern Germany, also points to specific fears and frustrations in the region: “For the people in eastern Germany, everything was turned upside down in 1990. They had to reinvent themselves. Many spent long years in unemployment, and salaries are still lower than in the west. Some people feel like second-class citizens,” she says.
“There is great fear in eastern Germany that the life they have built there, the little things they have acquired, could be lost once again.”
The differences between east and west indeed remain stark. After almost three decades of catch-up, eastern Germany’s gross domestic product per head is still only 73 per cent of the west. The process of convergence, moreover, “has slowed markedly in the past one-and-a-half decades”, as the German government noted in a report this year. Unemployment is two percentage points higher than in the west, at 7.1%. The average monthly salary in the west is €3,230, compared with €2,640 in the east.
Between 1990 and 2015, the five eastern federal states lost more than 2m inhabitants, or 15 per cent of the total population: the younger and better educated were first to leave, and women did so in larger numbers than men.
“There has been a brain drain with young flexible people leaving and older, less-qualified people staying behind. This creates a systematic imbalance. Men in particular feel left behind — and they often come to view migrants as competitors,” says Matthias Quent, the director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena. “If you look at rightwing message boards, you see sentences like, ‘They are taking away our women’.”
Political scientists also point to an east-west gulf in terms of democratic attitudes and political culture. Voters in eastern Germany are less likely to trust politicians, parties and institutions than voters in the west, and hold democracy in lower regard than their western counterparts. According to a 2015 study commissioned by the federal government, three-quarters of western Germans say they feel “at home” in the federal republic. In the east, the share was just over 50 per cent.
Geographically as politically, eastern Germany occupies a “place in between” the west and countries in eastern Europe such as Poland and Hungary, says Mr Quent: “There are many commonalities with the authoritarian leanings in Poland and the nationalist element in Hungary, for example.”
Nowhere is that commonality more evident than in refugee policy. Poland and several other eastern European countries waged a fierce battle against Ms Merkel’s open-door policy in 2015, and refused to take in their EU-mandated quota of refugees. That reluctance is mirrored in eastern Germany, where worries about scarce public resources is more pronounced than in the west.
“People here read that everything is done for the refugees, and they ask themselves: What is being done for us? Where does that leave the poorer and weaker from our community,” says Andrea Wiedmer, an independent local councillor in Kaltwasser, a village north of Görlitz. “Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. This is what the people feel.”
Jan Müller, a political scientist at the University of Rostock, argues that the 2015 refugee crisis was a “catalyst” that brought to the fore a deeper discontent in the east. “Purely economic factors cannot explain this result. You cannot explain this by pointing to an economic crisis because there is no economic crisis,” he says. “People feel like they are not listened to. They feel left behind.”
Ms Gleicke, the government’s representative for the east, says she warned about a rightwing backlash in the east for many years. But the rise of the AfD cannot be reduced to a problem of one region alone, she adds. Ms Gleicke also cautions western voters, some of whom resent the long years of financial transfers to their poorer cousins, not to glibly write off the east. “The people in eastern Germany made a peaceful revolution in 1989. The people in the east pulled down the wall. And they paid a high price for all this, not least in terms of unemployment. We should show our respect for this.”
Other voices from the east judge last Sunday’s vote more harshly. Hans-Wilhelm Pietz has served as the Lutheran priest of Görlitz since 1994, presiding over a lively community and four splendid churches in the town centre. He says he has spent the days since the election in sadness but also in anger at his flock’s “longing for simple solutions”.
Sitting in his small office overlooking the Neisse river that marks the border with Poland, he adds: “One must not play with far-right thinking, and especially not in a city that still has a synagogue but that no longer has Jews. This should weigh on people’s souls. To look for scapegoats and speak of the evil stranger who makes our life difficult has a tradition. I find this very depressing.”
As Germans in east and west struggle to come to terms with new political realities and old grievances, they agree on little except this: that it will take time — more time than the 27 years that have elapsed so far — to fix the social, economic and political challenges posed by reunification. “Changing the culture and changing values is the work of generations,” says Mr Quent. “But we have to keep at it.”
Mr Pietz, too, sees a long-term project that goes beyond politics and the economy. “When I listen to what AfD voters say, I hear things like, no one takes me seriously. No one respects me. I am not accepted,” he says. “As a priest I can only say: we are not dealing with a political problem here. We are dealing with a problem of life.”
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