Communal reluctance to accept more refugees in Germany's former communist east is plausible, according to Berlin's new commissioner for the regions. Christian Hirte says openness is less common than in Germany's west.
Hirte, the German federal government's new voice for Germany's five eastern regions and like Chancellor Angela Merkel a Christian Democrat (CDU), sought Friday to excuse anti-foreigner sentiment.
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Almost three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hirte, 41, told Germany's Protestant news agency (epd) that it was understandable when overstretched eastern local bodies called for halts to refugee arrivals under Germany's nationwide system of sharing out asylum seekers.
Attacks on refugees, however, were "completely unacceptable," said Hirte, a Catholic, jurist and taxation expert with experience as a parliamentary state secretary in the federal Economy Ministry.
His remarks follow tensions in Cottbus in the state of Brandenburg and a halt to arrivals declared by the city council in Freiberg in Saxony state, in the wake of localized halts declared last year in the western state of Lower Saxony.
Until 1989, even with the isolated presence of "guest workers" from former communist regimes in Vietnam, Cuba and African nations, foreigners rarely came into contact with residents in the former communist East Germany (GDR), Hirte told epd.
"Before 1989 one hardly encountered foreigners," Hirte said, telling the newspaper Die Welt as well that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Germans experienced the collapse of their "presumed stable political system."
"It is fairly normal that first one reacts cautiously or even adversely to something unknown," Hirte told epd, adding that reluctance by communal authorities was understandable.
"I believe one must take these very seriously and look carefully at the situations of the respective communities," said Hirte, adding that residents in eastern Germany did not harbor stronger xenophobic or far-right views than those in Germany's 11 other western states.
"The calls are emerging not without reason in the east as in the west. They amount to expressions that locally [communities] are on the brink of what is achievable," said Hirte, who is also the CDU's deputy chairman in Thuringia state.
"When 1,000 refugees are about to be put in a village of 500 residents then it is a [normal human reaction] to say that it is too much of a good thing," he said.
Extremism noticeable, says predecessor
Hirte's predecessor since 2014, Iris Gleicke, a Social Democrat (SPD) also from Thuringia, faced criticism last year over a study highlighting disproportionate right-wing extremism in Germany's eastern states.
On March 14, she told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper: "Fifty percent of [right-wing extremist] crimes occur in eastern Germany – which amounts to hardly 20 percent of the total population [of Germany]."
"Therefore one must clearly say," Gleicke said: "We have a problem."
ipj/kms (epd, dpa, KNA)