Photo Gallery: A Trip Through Former East Germany

Foto: Hermann Bredehorst/ DER SPIEGEL

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

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.

"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.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 46/2017 (November 11th, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

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."

Democracy Is Hard Work

Fürstenwerder in the Uckermark, in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, isn't a forgotten and ignored country village. It's home to just 650 people, but there are two doctor's practices, an elementary school, a bakery, a butcher's, a local history museum and a bookstore with a café, where ladies meet for a glass of sparkling wine and neighbors exchange eggs their hens have laid for coffee grown by Mexican Zapatista cooperatives.

In Fürstenwerder, the AfD scored 24 percent in the federal election.

One afternoon in October, Nils Graf is sitting down in his bookshop with the local mayor, Dirk Kammer, discussing this swing to the right. Kamme, a qualified carpenter, still can't believe it. "If you make an effort, the way you have to make an effort anywhere in Germany, then you can have a good life and make something of yourself," he says.

Needless to say, the government's refugee policy has also been an issue in Fürstenwerder. There's a young Syrian who appears to suffer from schizophrenia, and whose erratic behavior upsets locals. Nonetheless, the majority of them are not xenophobic. Five Syrian families have lived here, and were well looked after by the village's official welcoming committee and by the community at large. So why exactly did the AfD do so well in the election?

Graf explains that the far-right even had supporters among people who donate to refugee charities: "Self-employed skilled laborers who think that AfD has their interests at heart." They picked up on just one aspect of the AfD's program that suited them, "and they don't care about the rest of it."

Kammer has been mayor for a year. It's an unpaid position, but a full-time job. The 45-year-old says people often visit his office just to complain. "There's a branch blocking the road or they think the grass needs mowing somewhere," he says. But they don't want to do anything about it themselves. That's what you're there for, he's often told. You sort it out.

And once they've voiced a complaint, they want something to be done about it immediately, he adds. They can't understand that he needs to talk to other authorities. "Nothing's going to happen from one day to the next," he often finds himself saying.

He's a member of the local council and represents the grassroots Bürgerfraktion movement. He's keen to promote more open debate in the village. "No one should be allowed to just retreat and isolate themselves until the lid blows off," he says. "Democracy is about having to make an effort."

New System, New Problems

How does life in a dictatorship change people? It's a question that Wolfgang Freese has given a lot of thought. "Democracy can be incredibly hard work if in the past all your decisions were made for you," he says.

He's in the council hall of the district authority for Ostprignitz-Ruppin, northwest of Berlin. It's a big room with high ceilings and wood-paneled walls in the heart of Neuruppin. He's recalling the events of November 1989 - when outside, on the cornices of the building's masonry, thousands of candles flickered, a symbol of the peaceful protests against the East German regime. Inside, Freese was pushing for democratic co-determination rights for the opposition group Neues Forum. Freese still regularly visits the room. He's now a representative for the Green Party and discusses district matters here with other politicians.

Even then, he had concerns about how eastern German society would cope with unemployment and foreigners. The country was unfamiliar with either. Guaranteed jobs and no immigration meant that for many, the East German system was a comfortable one.

Neuruppin has come a long way in recent years. Unemployment is down, its arts and culture scene is thriving, many residents are involved with civic initiatives. The association "Neuruppin Bleibt Bunt" (Neuruppin Remains Colorful) has done a lot to bring together locals and refugees.

Even so, Freese, who works in special education needs and as a DJ, has, over the years, often been irked by people who tell him: "Wolfgang, I voted for you even though you're with the Green Party." Or that they voted for him, but that their second vote went to the neo-Nazi NPD.

In the last few months he distributed pamphlets against the AfD and tried to get into conversation with its supporters. Freese feels like he knows everybody in Neuruppin and was surprised to see a lot of people he didn't know. One day he ran into an old acquaintance he'd worked with in the East German civil rights' movement, who's now in the AfD. His former comrade-in-arms told him that whenever he sees Angela Merkel or Sigmar Gabriel, he's reminded of East Germany's Central Committee. "That's where a line is drawn," says Freese. "How can you argue with that?"

The local politician is now 61. He's eager to carry on working and looking to the future, taking a stance, both in public and as a private individual. However hard it may be. "Who wants to ruin a birthday party by correcting problematic statements?" he asks. But he also says that remaining silent isn't an option. He wants to reach out to people in their echo chambers, correct fake news and de-emotionalize hysterical debate. "Constant dripping wears the stone," he says, smiling cautiously.

Rewriting the Past

Bodo Ramelow is sitting in the Thuringian parliament's canteen in Erfurt, shortly after the debate about the NSU memorial. The state governor is talking about the first time he saw a fully-veiled woman in Thuringia - here in the parliament, of all places. It was Wiebke Muhsal, an AfD representative, protesting against what she sees as the debasement of women.

He goes on to describe the pig heads left on the construction site of a new mosque as a protest by people who think Muslims are to blame for more crime, more rapes, and that everyone will be having to wear veils soon. "I have to hear these blues all the time," says Ramelow.

"There's a lot of adrenaline about," he says. The mood in the AfD is becoming increasingly autocratic, which other parties interpret as them saying: You'll be gone soon - we'll have driven you out.

Ramelow gets out his phone. He's got three color-coded maps of Germany saved on it which supposedly explain the malaise gripping the eastern states. The first one shows where incomes are lowest and where the minimum wage is most common. "It's the old East Germany," says Ramelow. "Marked the darkest." He switches to the next map, which shows in which states the most foreigners live. Thuringia is home to the second lowest number of foreigners in Germany. "There aren't any foreigners there," he says, opening the third map. This one shows where support for the AfD is strongest. The whole of eastern Germany is dark blue.

But how do these maps correlate? And why are so many people expressing their frustration in nationalistic, xenophobia terms?

Anyone who grew up in communist East Germany knows "Sister Agnes," a film made by the state-run DEFA studios in 1975 which tells the story of a plucky district nurse in Oberlausitz who looks after the needs of the villagers and can solve every problem, even when it involves taking on the authorities.

Ramelow recently began referencing the film in public appearances. "It still works," he says. He talks about the time he - a West German - first saw a postcard depicting Sister Agnes. He laughed uproariously - he thought it was hilarious. "Later I realized it was all about identification, about one's 'homeland', and that the figure of the district nurse is still relevant." The film shows a world that many miss, but doesn't reflect the realities of East Germany under longtime leader Erich Honecker: A society where medical care was available in every community and there was always a village store around the corner. The way people remember it, the store's shelves were perfectly well-stocked.

"The longer ago something was, the happier the memory," says Ramelow.

Anger takes several forms. One of them is quiet, expressed behind closed doors, and another is loud, bellowed on market squares. And these days, in parliament, too. Ramelow and his colleagues have to ask themselves how they should respond to this form of dissatisfaction, both in society and in the assembly.

Almost every party is now addressing the subject of heimat, or "homeland," including Ramelow and the Left Party. It's not about insulting AfD voters, he says, but about taking people seriously, and addressing issues such as child care and poverty amongst the elderly.

"In Berlin, the parties need to form a government soon so that we in the eastern states can start to negotiate with them about injustices that are specific to us, but also improved social services and more investment," says Ramelow. Parties other than the AfD need to come up with solutions fast. "If we underestimate these people, it will harm democracy."

Taking a Stand

It's Tuesday evening at the Karl Liebknecht stadium in Potsdam-Babelsberg - the "Karli," as it's affectionately known. But the floodlights are switched off, the stalls are empty and just a few of the SV Babelsberg 03 football club offices next door are lit up.

Katharina Dahme, 31, sits in front of a wall decorated with trophies and pennants, explaining how the relationship between football and politics works here in Potsdam, in Brandenburg just outside Berlin. "We organize sit-down protests against neo-Nazi demonstrations, against the AfD and work with refugees," says Dahme, a member of the supervisory board. "This is all matter of course."

In 2014 the club founded a team for refugees, Welcome United 03, and registered it for official game activity. It was promoted in the very first season - but not everyone was pleased. "People made ape noises, wore t-shirts with abusive slogans, and insults from fans and other teams are unfortunately not uncommon," says Dahme. At one game last year, several players with a rival team wore t-shirts under their jerseys with the slogan 'Refugees not Welcome', the mood was very aggressive."

She's believes the success of the AfD has encouraged people to be more open. "There's been an increase in people braying anti-Semitic chants or making 'Heil Hitler' salutes directly to the camera," she says. And she thinks that's partly due to the AfD. "If people are saying these things in parliament, then I can say them too," is the thinking, in her opinion.

But the Welcome United team recently played the team that had been so aggressive last year, and this time there wasn't a trace of overt discrimination or disrespect. "Our campaign is working," says Dahme.

The Babelsbergers hope that it will also pay off elsewhere. In mid-September, they launched an initiative called "Nazis raus aus den Stadien" ("Get Nazis out of stadiums"). People across Germany have started wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan.

However, fans ran into problems on home turf when they responded to "Heil Hitler" salutes made by fans of the visiting team by yelling "Nazi pigs out!" The Northeastern German Football Association promptly slapped a fine on the club.

"We're not standing for that," says Dahme. "As far as we're concerned, there's an anti-racist consensus in our stadium and I'm proud of that."

Banging the Drum for Democracy

When Alexander Gauland set his sights on the Frankfurt an der Oder constituency, in Brandenburg, it looked like a direct mandate was his for the taking. Frustration was rife and the AfD's high-profile frontrunner was met with cheers when he spoke at taverns on the campaign trail.

But events took an unexpected turn. The man who talked on election night about "hunting" Angela Merkel and her party, lost to affable, elderly Martin Patzelt of the CDU, who's been in politics in the region for 20 years.

Asked what he learnt from the election, Patzelt recalls the day that Gauland praised and defended the exploits of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. "At that point, I switched from listening mode to fighting mode," he says.

Nearly all his campaign posters were defaced, with "Traitor to the Nation" and "Merkel's Marionette" scrawled across them. Patzelt, who ran a Catholic children's home in communist East Germany, was undeterred. He stuck to his convictions - the convictions he was known for.

In 2014, he had appealed to his constituents to take in refugees on the grounds that people in Brandenburg had enough spare rooms and spare cash to accommodate a few guests. Patzelt reminded them that Germans expelled from eastern and central Europe after the Second World War, such as his own family, had also been reliant on kindness and generosity. He himself took in two Eritreans. Then he received death threats.

Patzelt is vehemently opposed to the shift to the right that many in his party are now calling for. "That would be a seal of approval to all the sloganeering and then when in doubt, people might end voting for the extremist version," he says. His conviction paid off. Patzelt fared better on election night than his party did.

But what happens now? As mayor of Frankfurt an der Oder from 2002 to 2010, he urged the younger generation to head west for training. He hoped they would eventually return and start families and businesses. The plan didn't work out. Now, the generation that founded craft industry firms, businesses and farms after German reunification is retiring, and few of them have managed to find successors.

Patzelt himself is 70, and will be retiring in four years. Until then, he plans to armor his constituency against the sloganeering of the populists. Together with his colleagues from the SPD, Left Party, Green Party and pro-business FDP, he will be touring villages, visiting schools and taverns, banging the drum for democracy. "With the fall of the Berlin wall, we were given the privilege of being able to decide our futures ourselves," he says. "I want to reignite people's enthusiasm for that."

A New Division?

A few days after the federal election, the Bertelsmann Foundation published a study aimed at finding explanations for the erosion of Germany's mainstream parties. The social scientists who authored it found that society is divided into those who approve of modernization and those who are skeptical of it.

Modernization skeptics would like to halt the process of social, economic and cultural change. They yearn for some kind of harmonious and safe national order, with rising wages and a robust welfare system. Much like the old West Germany.

According to these findings, the election results would suggest that most modernization skeptics live in the eastern states, while western Germany is home to more modernization supporters - people who are, for the most part, well-disposed to the changes wrought in recent years.

If this is true, Germany faces a new dividing line running along the former intra-German border. But these findings might also just be another example of the typical, patronizing view western Germans have of a part of the country they don't understand. It's an area - between the Baltic coast, the Harz mountains, the River Oder and the Ore mountains - which has in fact undergone a radical modernization.

Reiner Haseloff has spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the AfD, with its prejudicial ideas, is more successful in eastern Germany than in the west. "Who founded this party? Who is at its helm, who are its intellectual leaders? Which society gave rise to it?" He points to Bernd Lucke, Alexander Gauland and Björn Höcke, who all hail from western Germany.

The governor of Saxony-Anhalt is a polite man. "West Germans like to come over here and philosophize about us," he says. He is keen to distance himself from that attitude, and doesn't want to pass judgement on the west. "I wouldn't presume to do so." He has enough on his plate understanding his own constituents.

And it's only one side of the story, adds Haseloff. "This debate should be conducted in the west honestly."

By Maik Baumgärtner, Markus Deggerich, Frank Hornig and Andreas Wassermann
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