EXTREMISM The Origins of Hate

A new study examines the origins of right-wing extremism in eastern Germany, and the social divide that lives on decades after the fall of the wall.
What's the matter with Saxony? Picture source: Reuters.

Saxony has long had a reputation for right-wing extremism. For years, it was one of the few states where the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, or NPD, had representatives in the state parliament.

Voters kicked the NPD out in 2014, but that same year the far-right PEGIDA movement, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of West, formed in Dresden. At its height in January 2015, some 25,000 people joined PEGIDA to protest in the streets of Dresden. It was the largest rally against Muslim immigration in all of Germany.

Then, the migrant crisis came in full force when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom were Muslims fleeing war in the Middle East. Saxony became the site of some of the worst incidents of right-wing extremism. In February 2016, crowds in the village of Bautzen cheered after a building planned for use as a refugee shelter was set in flames.

The right-wing terrorist group National Socialist Underground, alleged to be responsible for a series of migrant murders across Germany, had its safe house in the village of Zwickau. The group went on a decade-long, nationwide killing spree that took the lives of nine immigrants and a policewoman.

This had Germans elsewhere in the country asking, "what is wrong with Saxony?" Political scientist Franz Walter, under the auspices of the federal government, sought to find out what exactly is going on in the eastern state, which borders Poland and the Czech Republic. Mr. Walter studied two small villages, Heidenau and Freital, as well as the Herrenberg district in the city of Erfurt.

During the communist era, people in Saxony had little contact with foreigners. Vietnamese guest workers were invited to East Germany, but they were strictly segregated from the local population.

Right-wing extremism, of course, is not unique to Saxony and there are many people who are fighting back. In fact, thousands of counter-demonstrators turned out to protest against PEGIDA during the height of its rallies. But Mr. Walter's study found that right-wing extremism and xenophobia do have a stronger presence here than in the western part of the country. This is largely due to the cultural and economic legacy associated with the collapse communism.

In the study, the researchers make a clear statement about their intentions: "This is not about stigmatizing Eastern Germans." Rather, the aim was to uncover the origins of extremism to better combat it.

During the communist era, people in Saxony had little contact with foreigners. Vietnamese guest workers were invited to East Germany, but they were strictly segregated from the local population. To this day, the foreign-born population in Saxony is low compared to much of Germany. The lack of daily experience living with people from different cultures, combined with social alienation and frustration, creates fertile ground for extremism.

Indeed, the collapse of communism brought social disruption from which some communities have never fully recovered. Labor organizations once served as a key pillar of society, but the onset of capitalism brought the decline of state industries that could not compete. Unemployment and the diminishing power of labor organizations left many people alienated and alone. And municipalities such as Freital and Heidenau lacked the resources to step in and fill the vacuum with new meeting places, such as youth centers.

Then came the refugee crisis in 2015. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants entered Germany, and the federal government provided billions to help the new arrivals. People living in desolate communities felt a sense of resentment. In the case of Freital, this resentment expressed itself through a deep suspicion of outside intervention in the municipal government.

In the end, fighting extremism is largely up to the local leaders, the study concludes. Fortunately, there's hope. Heidenau has an engaged mayor who takes clear positions against right-wing extremism. And the district of Herrenberg has been able to contain incidents of right-wing extremism more quickly than other communities due to the intervention of local politicians. These communities show that the best antidote to right-wing extremism is more youth outreach, more police and more cultural life.

Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]