Economic woes Plan to Study Far-Right Splits East Germans

The German government has commissioned a study looking at the reasons for the growth of far-right sympathies in the country's former communist east, which it claims are hurting the region's struggling economy. But local politicians think it will only antagonize the right.
Quelle: dpa
Far-right organizations such as Pegida have enjoyed growing support in states such as Saxony.
(Source: dpa)

The minister with responsibility for Germany’s formally communist states has commissioned a study to address right-wing extremism in the region.

Iris Gleicke, a Social Democrat in the Economics and Energy ministry, said she is worried about growing extremist views in the area that used to make up East Germany.

The problem has grown so great that it is making eastern states unattractive to potential employees and investors, requiring a scientific analysis of the underlying reasons, she said.

"A glance at relevant crime statistics is enough to see that the development of far-right, xenophobic and racist attitudes have a far-reaching and increasingly negative impact," said Ms. Gleicke, who is the federal commissioner for the new states, the way the region that was formerly the GDR is described in Germany. "The planned study 'Right-Wing Structures and Forms of Agitation in Rural Eastern Germany' should make a scientific contribution to the improvement of these problems."

It's madness that jobs can’t be filled because desirable candidates do not want to move to East Germany. Iris Gleicke, Junior economics minister

On behalf of the ministry, experts from the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena will analyse the role of vigilante groups known as Reichsbürgern (ethnic settlers), nationalist and other groups in fomenting xenophobia in the region. A focus will also be placed on the far-right’s methods of protest, which have been growing more prolific in the past two years, particularly with regards to the anti-Islamic Pegida movement.

Germany’s right-wing populist political party, the AfD, will likely also feature in the study, although it's not explicitly named in the ministry’s plans. Instead they refer to “current developments,” which includes the "mobilization of right-wing extremists with regards to the inclusion of refugees," along with propaganda and use of social media. Most important will be uncovering how these factors affect the establishment of right-wing structures in rural areas.

Right-wing extremism and xenophobia threaten not only social harmony but the economic position of eastern Germany too, Ms. Gleicke said. "It's madness that jobs can’t be filled because desirable candidates do not want to move to East Germany. We must make it clear, the right-wing extremists and xenophobes don't only tarnish our reputation, they also endanger the economy."

But not everyone will be happy about the commissioning of the study. Reiner Haseloff, the premier of Saxony-Anhalt, a relatively poor eastern German state, has spoken of Ms. Gleicke’s "simplification and generalization" of the problem, which he says actively antagonizes and promotes the right. And conservative lawmaker Eckhardt Rehberg, from the rural eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, has accused the minister of stigmatizing locals.

The state of Saxony, which borders Poland and the Czech Republic, is often cited as a hotbed of right-wing views. Nowhere else in Germany are there more violent acts per capita linked to xenophobic and right-wing extremism, and the consequences are felt by the economy.

"Job offers in Saxony are being turned down due to the perceived political environment," said Andreas von Bismarck, the spokesperson on the Management Board of the Economy for a Cosmopolitan Saxony association.  International candidates are affected as well as German ones, he said. The trustees of the association, which is linked to the Saxon state government, once called xenophobia the state’s "largest potential future barrier."

Saxony is highly dependent on immigration to fill 120,000 current job vacancies, according to Mr. von Bismarck. More than 25 years after German reunification the economic output of the former East per capita is stagnating at 72 percent of western German levels, and needs immigrant labour.

Favorable living conditions are therefore very important. "In addition to hard facts such as salaries, "soft facts" play an essential role when it comes to making a career decision, including of course whether the candidate feels positive about where their future life will be based," Mr. von Bismarck said.

This is a familiar problem in the former East. According to Marcel Fratzscher, the president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), some regions lack the diversity and tolerance to attract highly qualified, motivated young people. These regions would have to "develop a more welcoming approach to people of different races, religions and cultures." Otherwise the former East Germany will become "economically disadvantaged and unable to quell the exodus of young people.”

Joachim Ragnitz, deputy head of the Dresden branch of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, however, considers it "reductionist" to ascribe the difficulties in attracting foreign specialists "solely" to xenophobia. A lack of jobs for family members or unsatisfactory living conditions may also be a reason for turning down job offers.

It is therefore the task of the regions to enhance their attractiveness for migrants, rather than pointing at “an anonymous scapegoat (xenophobia) as the reason for missing immigration”.

The spokesperson for the faction of eastern German MPs in Germany’s parliament, Arnold Vaatz, shares Ms. Gleicke's concern, but considers a scientific report unnecessary.  It is true that any form of radicalism could have "devastating effects on economic development in eastern Germany, but more studies are unnecessary," he said. The problems are known, what’s missing is "a way of addressing young people so that they don't fall victim to right-wing propaganda."

Mr. Vaatz added that as there are still "tremendous ideological differences between East and West", which won’t be quickly resolved, it is also the West’s duty to help. He advised the West "not to behave arrogantly towards the East.” However, the lawmaker still regards general radicalization and the popularity of the AfD as a "warning sign."

After evaluation of the study’s findings, Ms. Gleicke wants to recommend action strategies, but the final report of the investigation will not be submitted until next March - six months after national elections. An interim report is expected in May.


Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]