German election: continuing popularity of far-right AfD has roots in east-west divide

A sign at a protest reading 'FCK AFD'

Sunday’s parliamentary election in Germany will see Angela Merkel’s 16-year stint as chancellor come to an end. She was the first person from the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to rise to the post. The performance of the populist radical right party the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is also being hotly anticipated.

The AfD has, to date, seen its best results in the territories that comprised East Germany. It is polling strongly in the eastern regions and is in the lead in pre-election polls for Saxony, on 26% of the vote. It appears that the party will repeat its successes from the last federal election, where it gained 12% of the votes, further consolidating its position in the national parliament. As the first radical-right party in the parliament since 1960, the AfD has been able to normalise radical right politics despite the fact that no other parliamentary party will work with it.

The AfD’s strong performance in east Germany can, in part, be seen as a reaction against the imposition of the western fusion of capitalism and democracy after 1989. For many east Germans, this shift was associated with deprivation, social disintegration and the loss of a political home. Even today, many feel that they are still treated as second-class citizens. Under these circumstances, distrust in the political establishment is common – and populist radical right parties have rushed to step in.

Since coming to power in 2005, Merkel has done much for the symbolic representation of eastern Germans. But while some credit her for holding the eurozone together after the financial crisis, her austerity policies had a disproportionate impact on the eastern regions. It was her argument that “there is no alternative” to austerity that inspired the AfD’s name in the first place.

After the 2015 refugee crisis, the AfD radicalised, shifting from operating as a eurosceptic party to a xenophobic party defined by Islamophobia. This move was again shaped by east German forces, particularly PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) – a protest movement that emerged in Dresden and spread to other cities mainly in eastern Germany.

The AfD’s racism and xenophobia appear to meet less resistance in the east, where people have less experience with cultural diversity. Even in the early 1990s, radical right support in eastern Germany had culminated in deadly arson attacks on migrants and refugees, many of them Muslim.

Older people in the region also grew up under authoritarianism rather than experiencing democracy in their youth. This may make them more easily swayed by the AfD’s populist and anti-elitist rhetoric than people in western Germany. Alongside the impact of reunification, this has been used to explain the AfD’s success in the region.

Memories of authoritarianism and the transition period continue to shape people’s identities and political attitudes. These memories are also passed on to new generations and have an impact beyond the territories that comprised East Germany, as we are exploring in our research by talking to people who have migrated away from post-socialist countries.

Germany as a post-socialist nation

It is not only through migration that post-socialism plays a role beyond east Germany. By treating the rise of the radical right as an east German problem solely caused by post-socialism, German national discourse distracts from the fact that right-wing radicalism is a problem in all regions.

In fact, western German narratives of eastern Germans as lazy and poor have much in common with German narratives about Muslims. This, in turn, may prompt eastern Germans to insist on their “Germanness” in contrast to the “Muslim migrant”. So the way both Muslims and eastern Germans are treated as social outsiders, or “othered”, by western Germans may reinforce eastern German Islamophobia.

Indeed, the AfD is not merely an eastern German phenomenon. While its share of the votes is highest in the regions of the former GDR, the AfD is now represented in all 16 regional parliaments. In both sides of the country, the clearest predictor for voting for the radical right is nativism and xenophobia.

While only a few Germans have a consolidated radical-right mindset, many agree with individual xenophobic, particularly Islamophobic, statements when presented with them in surveys. Islamophobia also appears acceptable within mainstream political parties, including some parts of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Armin Laschet, the CDU’s candidate in this election, was labelled “Turkish Armin” by colleagues in his own party after suggesting that immigration should be treated as “a chance and challenge rather than a threat”.

A sign at a protest reading 'FCK AFD'
An anti-AfD protest in the western city of Bielefeld.

Treating Islamophobia and xenophobia as a problem restricted to the AfD, as well as treating the AfD as a problem restricted to east Germany, is therefore a dangerous oversimplification. It shows how east Germans continue to be “othered”, their memories and political attitudes treated as insignificant to the understanding of Germany as a whole.

This is also evident in the common unthinking classification of Germany as “western European”, when in fact it shares much of its recent history with central and eastern Europe. Understanding current political trends in Germany requires an understanding of how east and west are intertwined.

The Conversation

Charlotte Galpin receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union.

Maren Rohe receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).