A Country, Still Divided Why Is the Former East Germany Tilting Populist?

The Berlin Wall fell 28 years ago, yet vast divisions remain between the former East and West of the country. In the recent election, the populist AfD party did particularly well in the eastern states. But why? By DER SPIEGEL staff

Hermann Bredehorst/ DER SPIEGEL

It's a weekday morning in Thuringia's state parliament and the representatives are engaged in heated debate.

"Embarrassing," one of them shouts.

"The NPD couldn't have put it better," yells another, referring to the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany.

"I'm outraged!"

"How dare you?"

"I won't stand for your constant lies!"

"You couldn't even spell the word 'decency'!"

"Just shut up!"

"I think it's only right that we as the state parliament apologize for this comment."

The parliament is having a debate about the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a far-right terror cell that murdered 10 people across Germany between 2000 and 2007. Should there be a memorial to their victims? Two MPs from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) have seized the opportunity to provoke other parties.

Thuringia's regional government consists of a so-called "red-red-green" coalition of the Left Party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. One of the AfD politicians is arguing that this coalition wants to dictate to the people of Thuringia and indeed "the German people" that they are "basically stuck in the Third Reich." He maintains the coalition is out to convince the public that "people are rotten." Only victims of NSU terror are honored, he argues, and not those of Islamist terror. "We're expected to become loyal followers of a new so-called anti-fascism!"

The plenary assembly taking place in the newly-built, light-flooded state parliament building is attended by Bodo Ramelow, Thuringia's state governor, a member of the Left Party. He goes from staring at the speaker, incomprehension written across his face, to burying his head in his hands. Eventually he goes up to the podium himself.

"I am ashamed that such a speech is made here in the state parliament," says the state governor.

Something has changed in Germany. A country that until recently was crowned the most popular in the world in various surveys has become consumed by self-doubt and mired in a quest for identity. The rapid rise of the AfD has rocked the nation, including in the states of what was once West Germany and where the AfD are now represented in all state legislatures. Mainly, however, it has been the case in the states of the former East, where the AfD is now the second more powerful party. In Saxony, it's the strongest.

November 9 marked the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It wasn't a milestone anniversary as it was in 2014, when the country threw a jubilant party complete with fireworks and guests from all over the world. The unified country had grown up, was economically robust, modern and tolerant. The message was: finally, what belonged together had grown together, as former Chancellor Willy Brandt once predicted. But had it really? Is it still true?

What's going on in eastern Germany? In the wake of the elections in September, newspapers have been trying to figure out why the eastern states have lurched the furthest to the right, and why German nationalism and xenophobia appear to have be getting inexorably more overt there - from the anti-immigrant Pegida marches to the anti-refugee protests in Freital and Heidenau and the outpourings of anger at Angela Merkel during her election campaign appearances over the summer.

The theories put forward so far are based on two assumptions: That it's the result of economics and the wealth gap that still exists between the western and eastern states, or that it's related to some supposed collective psychological disorder spurred by the fact that the experience of two dictatorships was never properly dealt with.

But it's not that simple. In recent weeks, a team of DER SPIEGEL journalists met people who have been observing, encouraging or fighting the shift to the right in Germany's eastern states: voters, parliamentarians, state governors, regional politicians and representatives of grassroots society. It has created a multi-faceted picture showing nationalist, racist and anti-democratic elements, as well as lighter ones - and possible paths out of the populism trap.

Everyone seemed to agree that the September election was a cry for attention. Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is high time eastern and western Germany finally listened to one another, so that German reunification is not merely an excuse for fireworks, as it was on the 25th anniversary, three years ago.

Something for Everyone

The rubble has been swept into little piles, with plastic garbage sacks dotted between them. "Mineral wool can cause cancer," read stickers on the bags. "Wear protective clothing!" it says underneath, followed by a vivid exclamation mark and a gas-mask pictogram.

This is all that's left of an obsolete high-rise estate built in communist East Germany. Weisswasser in Oberlausitz, a region near the border between Saxony and Poland, is a deserted town. Many have left and those that have stayed can justifiably call themselves among the losers of German reunification. 28 percent of them voted for the AfD in the federal elections.

Nine kilometers to the east, on the River Neisse, is Bad Muskau. It's home to a palace and a park which was renovated to the tune of millions and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tourism is a nice earner for the small town and its inhabitants, and Bad Muskau is one of eastern Germany's success stories. Even so, almost one in three voted AfD in the election -- 3.6 percent more than in Weisswasser.

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"In actual fact, we're already just a perfectly normal mainstream party here," says Tino Chrupalla. In Oberlausitz, the AfD offers something for everyone - people who feel forgotten as well as those who've benefited from reunification. "Even pastors vote for us." In September Chrupalla succeeded in ousting the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) as the most popular local party, which they had been for the last 25 years, when he won a direct mandate and defeated Michael Kretschmer, the Saxon CDU's general secretary.

When 42-year-old Chrupalla talks, he comes across as friendly, open, frank. He waxes lyrical about Weisswasser's golden years in East Germany, when people worked in the lignite mines and the glassworks, and lived in ultra-modern high-rises.

"I had a lovely childhood," he says. "Very nice, very safe." Doors were left unlocked in the countryside, there were few break-ins and when they did happen, the perpetrators were soon apprehended by the East German police. "My parents never had to worry about where I was playing."

Once the Berlin Wall had fallen, Helmut Kohl - the CDU chancellor who went down in history as the father of reunification -- became his new idol. He joined the Junge Union, the youth wing of the CDU, and he and his friend and fellow party member Michael Kretschmer paid a visit to the chancellor. Chrupalla trained to be a housepainter and went on to set up his own business. His company thrived, he got married - reunification brought him nothing but good fortune.

But he felt increasingly alienated from Germany. Thousands of jobs were lost. Half the inhabitants of Weisswasser moved away. Bus routes in the surrounding countryside were cancelled. Stores and schools in local villages were closed. And gangs from Eastern Europe started crossing the open border to steal cars.

The region was changing, and so was Germany. The financial crisis, the euro crisis, the refugee crisis and then same-sex marriage. "No one ever asked us what we thought," says Chrupalla. He took part in the anti-Islam, far-right Pegida demonstrations in Dresden and eventually joined the AfD. Then he stood for election as a member of the German parliament.

"I never dreamt I would lose my constituency," says Chrupalla's erstwhile colleague, Michael Kretschmer. As the representative for Oberlausitz in the Bundestag, the CDU politician helped keep EU research funds pouring into the region and opened doors in Berlin for local mayors. "I believe I was a good representative," he says.

But during the election he got the impression that voters wanted to "make a point" - not necessarily to him, he says, but to the chancellor, to the CDU in Berlin. About refugee policy. "People had the feeling they weren't being taken seriously," he says.

In fact, protest voters have done him a favor, too. In December, he is set to take over from state governor Stanislaw Tillich, who is resigning in light of his party's disappointing performance in the September election. Kretschmer, who lost his seat in Oberlausitz, is now supposed to save the CDU in Saxony and indeed the state itself from the AfD.

His rival Tino Chrupalla, meanwhile, is also advancing his career - in Berlin. He's now deputy chairman of the AfD's parliamentary group. "As a humble housepainter, I am proud to have made Saxony's CDU lose its footing," he says.

So far, Chrupalla has not shown any signs of demagoguery, unlike AfD firebrands like Björn Höcke, a Saxon state parliament politician who has publicly questioned Germany's culture of remembrance for the Holocaust. He refers to an "erosion of democracy" and says that regional parliaments aren't consulted on important issues. "The genie's been let out of the bottle," he says. "People aren't going to stand for it any more."

The Sin of the Fathers

The Haseloff family has lived in or near Wittenberg for 600 years. Its members have been active in local politics through the generations, and right now it's Reiner Haseloff's turn. The 63-year-old is the current governor of Saxony-Anhalt.

As he leads the way through his hometown, which is southwest of Berlin, his every step brings him face to face with his past, and with Germany's history. Here's the linden tree at the Luther House where Haseloff proposed to his wife. There's the square in front of the university, one of the oldest in Germany, which was visited by Frederick the Great and Napoleon. And there's the church where Luther preached his sermons and the first mass was celebrated in German.

Haseloff still remembers how in October 1989 he and many others gathered here, not far from Luther's pulpit, to pray for peaceful change, and then headed outside to the market square to demonstrate.

Today radical right-wingers are setting the mood, and the CDU politician is asking himself how this could have happened. "God punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." That's what he heard recently in church on a Sunday, during a reading from Exodus. "You can work out for how much longer we will have to carry the twentieth century's burden of guilt," he says.

He is digging, layer by layer, to reach the roots of today's dissatisfaction. He starts with the economy. "Imagine if half the country's population had no regular work," says Haseloff, who was director of the local employment office in the 1990s. At the time, 49.3 percent of people in Saxony-Anhalt were registered as unemployed or were signed on with an employment initiative. "We veered from one insolvency to another."

At the same time, the birth rate in the region declined by 50 percent. "Social rupture on this scale was unprecedented in peacetime Germany," he says,

Every week for the last 15 years, opponents of the controversial Hartz IV labor reforms introduced in the early 2000s have demonstrated in Wittenberg. Haseloff has often talked with them. But this afternoon a different group has assembled on the market square. Angry Christians are protesting against the "Judensau," or Jewish pig - an anti-Semitic relief dating from the 14th century that adorns the facade of the church. They want it to be removed.

It's an issue that Haseloff is familiar with. In 1988, he was part of a group of Christians who succeeded in getting a memorial plaque to Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust installed in the ground below the relief. But he believes the Judensau shouldn't be removed. "If it's taken away we would no longer have this reminder that we must confront our history," he says.

The demonstrators aren't convinced. They see a connection between the relief and the state of current politics and the AfD. "Something is happening and we can't tell yet where it will lead," says one of them.

It's possible that issues weren't debated enough in recent years in the states of the former East. Perhaps because people were too busy simply sorting out their lives. "We were buffeted by change," says Haseloff.

But now that the unemployment rate is down, the economy is finally picking up and even the population is once again growing, the long absence of public debate and of questions about identity has become more conspicuous. The far-right is consciously exploiting this vacuum.

In regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt in March 2016, the AfD secured 24.3 percent of the vote, its best result in Germany at that point. The new representatives marched in step to the regional parliament. Back then, Haseloff seemed to be in shock in his office in Magdeburg. He said it reminded him of Weimar Germany in its dying days and that he had realized "how fragile democracy is in Germany."

And today? The federal elections saw a small sea-change in Saxony-Anhalt. Support for the AfD was 19,6 percent, 5 percent lower than it was in the regional election. "We don't need a shift to the right," says Haseloff. Properly implementing existing agreements and laws would be enough. "The others should not be given any opportunity to use our failings against us. We cannot allow them to accuse us of us not abiding by the rule of law."

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