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04 March

East Germany: Facing a summer of civil society

"What are the specific reasons behind the high level of support for right-wing extremism in East Germany?" The Freudenberg Foundation asked Prof. Matthias Quent, the founding director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society. His answer: East more

East Germany: Facing a summer of civil society

"What are the specific reasons behind the high level of support for right-wing extremism in East Germany?" The Freudenberg Foundation asked Prof. Matthias Quent, the founding director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society. His answer: East Germany is facing a summer of civil society.
Photo: Amadeu Antonio Stiftung
"When fear changed sides" is the title of a book by the Leipzig journalist Siegbert Schefke, in which the then-young freelancer and opposition member secretly filmed demonstrations against the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) regime in 1989 – at great risk to himself. The recording which was smuggled into the West and broadcast around the world not only helped to put pressure on the East German leadership, but also protected the democracy movement from violence. Moreover, it contributed to the regime‘s eventual downfall.

The AfD exploits the legacy of the East German democracy movement and equates liberal democracy with GDR dictatorship. For almost ten years, the self-proclaimed movement party and its leaders have been influencing and orchestrating public protests on a range of issues: from PEGIDA and other racist and anti-immigrant gatherings and demonstartions against Covid-19 measures, to pro-Russia actions and anti-government protests, and most recently protests by farmers and middle class people.

The AfD uses the power of images and street protests to present itself as the only viable opposition on the side of the citizens that opposes courageously a “GDR 2.0” (B. Höcke). And if that wasn't cynical enough, some democratic politicians are also jumping on the bandwagon of rhetorical populism by talking of a “heating Stasi” or comparing The Greens Minister for the Environment Steffi Lemke with GDR politician Margot Honecker.

“Intellectual refinement of the raw forms of citizen protests,” is how the secret AfD leader Höcke described the hegemonic strategy with regard to the racist riots in Chemnitz in 2018. Following the protests led by the AfD, the terror group "Revolution Chemnitz" was founded and the murderer of Walter Lübke stated that the protests inspired him to carry out the murder.

Riots and attacks on politicians, party offices and private homes occur not only in East Germany. The Greens – who are least-favored in East Germany – are particular targets of the attacks.

Right-wing extremism had plenty of time to rise and spread itself within the society

Since the 1990s, and to some extent even during the GDR era, the spread of right-wing ideology and the presence of right-wing extremist structures have been anything but weak. West German right-wing extremists have moved and continue to move to East Germany according to their plans. The brown seeds were planted back in the 1990s with money and agitation from former West Germany.

Whether it's the NPD and its magazine “Deutsche Stimme”, the strategically important node in the New Right think tank Institute for State Policy which revolves around co-founder Götz Kubitschek, ideologues like Björn Höcke and careerists in the AfD factions, neo-Nazis like Michael Brück of the Free Saxons, ethnic settlers and whoever belongs to the Reichsbürger movement: In East Germany, right-wing extremists believe they have found favorable conditions: cheap real estate, greater homogeneity, right-wing openness, weaker institutions and a defensive civil society.

But even in the remote village of Schnellroda in Saxony-Anhalt, where AfD cadres and right-wing extremist activists from all over the world come and go in and out of the Institute for State Policy, which has long been underestimated by the offices for the Protection of the Constitution, there are often protests thanks to the anti-fascist collective IfS dichtmachen (Shut Down IfS).

For the far right, East Germany is more than just a place of retreat and gathering: it is also an experimental laboratory and political lever for gaining power in West Germany. This is why the upcoming state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia are so important for German democracy. It would be naive to assume that the AfD are incapable of achieving as high a percentage of votes in West Germany as in East Germany. The strength of the extreme right in France, Italy, the Netherlands and the USA shows a rising trend. Combating right-wing extremism and its causes is a task for the entire nation. Although the propensity to vote for right-wing extremists is proportionately higher in East Germany, the vast majority of AfD voters live in the West German states. Effectively diminishing the appeal of the AfD is therefore an urgent task in the western German states. The empiricism and experiences gained from confrontations with the extreme right in East Germany can only benefit the West.

In recent months, the rise in poll numbers for the AfD and the first full-time AfD elected officials has been accompanied by a noticeable increase in fear of right-wing radicals and contributed to a collective burnout in democratic civil society.

The New Right learned from Antonio Gramsci that it must first take over cultural hegemony in society in order to prepare for the overthrow. The greatest weapon of the post-fascists is the passivity of the pious democrats: fear, resignation, powerlessness, doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic, differences of opinion, lack of time, recognition, money, structures and spaces - there are many challenges for civil society engagement. In rejecting the AfD's right-wing extremist ideology, a common position can be found that can provide the basis for successful mobilization.

“Remigration” is the term used by the New Right to disguise its mass expulsion plans, which involve the violent reversal of a post-migration society. The goal of the right-wing extremists is to create an ethnically and culturally largely homogeneous national community. This not only violates human rights but is also unconstitutional. The remigration plan, which was exposed by the investigative outlet Correctiv at the beginning of this year, triggered a wave of protests against right-wing extremism and the AfD on a scale never seen before in the history of the Federal Republic.

According to Correctiv, the AfD parliamentary group leader for Saxony-Anhalt, Ulrich Siegmund, said at the meeting in Potsdam: The image of German streets must change. Foreign restaurants would be put under pressure. Living in Saxony-Anhalt should be made “as unattractive as possible for this clientele.” In other words: Migrants should be afraid and not gain a foothold in Germany, i.e. not “integrate”.

Prior to this, the constitutional lawyer Klaus Ferdinand Gärlitz stated that the purpose of banning the political party not only serves to protect the democratic process, but also to protect people's rights, dignity, freedom and equality. In a petition submitted to the Federal Council, more than 800,000 citizens called for a ban on the AfD. This is civic engagement that politicians should not ignore. Just like the diligent work of Correctiv, which is largely financed by donations. Civil society at work!

Civil society holds the key

With the considerable uprising against the right in the first weeks of 2024, fear has changed sides. Many people have come together not only in large cities, but also in small communities, where pressure is particularly high, anonymity is difficult and protest requires a great deal of courage. All those people unite to protest against the far right and to find new strength in togetherness for an essential marathon. For quite a few demonstrators, this was the first time they had attended a citizens’ rally or, as an older woman in Jena told me, the first time since 1990. The mass demonstrations are not always free of conflict: attempts at instrumentalization and differences of opinion, for example about the role of the parties, are contributing factors. The demonstrations have several functions: They show, even in disadvantaged regions of East Germany, that democratic civil society is also taking up the dispute over cultural hegemony on the streets.

The democracy protests connect and strengthen – they give the democrats new energy and trust. They set limits to the right-wing advance that are clearly perceived there. This is shown by the many unsettled reactions of those right-wingers who are already planning to take up government positions on the back of state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia this autumn. For years, the far right has portrayed itself as a popular movement and presented every protest, no matter how small, on social media as a sign of the coming uprising. The big anti-right protests, on the other hand, are depicted as fake, pro-government propaganda. The protests show that they do not represent the German people. While civil society fears the consequences of the anticipated AfD results in this year's local and European elections, in particular for the state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, the far right is now more unsettled because civil society protests are having an impact.

In Nordhausen, Thuringia, it was the unified uprising of civil society that turned the tide at the last minute in a run-off election for mayor that was previously considered a certainty for the far-right AfD candidate.

All's well that ends well? Not quite. The nationwide protests also had an impact in the run-off elections for district administrator in the Saale-Orla district: The CDU candidate, Christian Herrgott, narrowly won against the AfD candidate. Ironically, District Administrator Herrgott is now the first district administrator in Germany to force refugees to do community work for 80 cents per hour. The AfD is still riding high in the polls; it is unlikely that a few weeks of protests will demobilize resentment and ideologies that have been deeply rooted for decades and constantly broadcast via social media. The coming months and years will be challenging and accompanied by defeats - for this, civil society needs perseverance. Over the past 20 years, East Germany has managed to establish effective civil society structures against the strong presence of neo-Nazi structures and political trivialization. Using them to gain a local foothold plays a crucial role for the democracy movement. At the same time, democracy projects are (financially) vulnerable.

Companies and foundations are key players whose ability to make a difference is becoming increasingly important; especially at a time when public funds are scarce and the AfD is succeeding in excluding democracy projects from public funding. Perseverance requires long-term and reliable partnerships on an equal footing that are based on the needs of the local actors. Instead of striking image campaigns, which primarily serve to boost one's own reputation in the liberal urban environment, pro-democratic initiatives need unbureaucratic resources, spaces, skills development and encouragement to get involved in difficult situations and not to be silenced by hatred and mobs. Change cannot be achieved by investigative journalism or demonstrations alone. Many small steps can have a big impact – liberation will not come at once.

The next step is to connect locally and quickly to the wave of democracy: low-threshold and localized digital content for sharing on social media. The dissemination of images and stories of successful diversity, transformation and democratic development. Confidence instead of cultural pessimism and doom thinking. Events and spaces for meetings, free beer, bratwurst, music and clear messages. Buildings and open spaces for alternative (youth) scenes. Genuine interest instead of showmanship. Out of the trendy metropolises – into the grubby everyday life. Direct mail for rural households, many of which only receive free newspapers – such as those from the AfD. Positive representation of workers and employees – the “ordinary people” of the regions. This requires partnerships or sponsorships with local actors. Many already exist, others need to be revitalized or established. There is no lack of options for action to defend democracy, but there is often a lack of sufficient implementation. It's time for a summer of civil society. So that fear doesn't change sides again.

Prof. Dr. Quent is a sociologist. He is the founding director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena and Professor of Sociology for Social Work at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences since 2021.