Populism is having its moment around the world — to the chagrin of many artists. The shake-up of the political landscape in Saxony and Brandenburg is already impacting cultural institutions in eastern Germany.
The results of Sunday's state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony are certain to stir up Germany's political elites — possibly for years to come. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made momentous gains in both states, doubling its share of the vote in Brandenburg to nearly 24% and nearly tripling its gains in Saxony to 28%.
Other traditional parties have meanwhile lost significant shares of the vote, with the Social Democrats (SPD) — the junior coalition partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) — dipping to single digits, barely snatching 7.7% at the ballot box in Saxony.
The importance of the two elections is perhaps best reflected by the fact that in Saxony alone, more than 1,100 journalists from around the world were accredited to report on the polls. But it's not just the political consequences that matter after this vote. The states of Brandenburg and Saxony have both long been regarded as important German cultural centers: Brandenburg's capital, Potsdam, is a UNESCO world heritage site that styles itself as a "City of Culture," while Saxony's capital, Dresden, with its rich cultural heritage, is an applicant city for European Capital of Culture in 2025.
The changing political landscapes in these states are likely to influence the mindset at landmarks like Dresden's Semperoper concert hall, Potsdam's Museum Barberini, or events like the annual East European Film Festival held in Brandenburg's second-largest city Cottbus or the Leipzig Book Fair, Germany's second-largest annual book fair held in Saxony's largest city.
What kind of questions might such pluralistic institutions and many others want to ask after these elections? After all, a quarter of the electorate gave its support to a populist, anti-immigrant political platform that wants to cut public funding to creative projects that oppose its worldview.
Growing polarization at the heart of society
The election results have revealed that nearly three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany's subsequent reunification, large swathes of eastern society still feel disgruntled with the status quo.
According to a survey in Saxony and Brandenburg by German public broadcaster ARD, 72% of those polled said that western and eastern Germany still have a considerably different culture and mentality; 66% of east Germans said that they felt like second-class citizens when compared to west Germans.
In fact, the AfD's slogan "Vollende die Wende" (translation: "Finish the Transition") reflects the firmly-held belief among their supporters that the working class was largely left out of the transition process from communism to democracy that began in 1990. Many in the formerly Communist east consider themselves to have been forsaken compared to the economically more stable Western states. The "Ostalgie" phenomenon, a nostalgic yearning for culture from the communist days, is just one way in which this divide plays out in eastern Germany.
Director-General of Potsdam's Hans-Otto-Theater Bettina Jahnke said the AfD election gains came as a "shock" to her, adding, however, that in the end she also was relieved to see that Brandenburg still managed to "get off lightly" — without an AfD-majority. "I feel distressed that 30 years after the transition (to democracy) we have to deal with such issues as dictatorship, freedom of expression and (… ) open borders once more now," she told DW.
"The fact that these issues are being propped up and given such political relevance now unsettles me to the core because it's not just a few people but rather many who suddenly seem to want to turn back time," Jahnke said, remembering the widespread human rights abuses under Germany's Nazi dictatorship.
Marion Ackermann, Director-General of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) cooperative, which incorporates 15 museums and galleries, agrees with Jahnke's views. Ackermann told Germany's DPA news agency that preserving the freedom of art against such threats is a priority for her, as is defending the pluralistic spirit behind many cultural initiatives today.
"Our international outlook has been part of our cultural principles (in Saxony) since the 18th century. What purpose are our cultural institutions supposed to serve if we were to take a step backward now?" Ackermann said about the AfD's isolationist views.
Award-winning Russian-German Pianist Igor Levit meanwhile refrained from deeper analyses of the election results and rather sent out a simple tweet to express his feelings towards the surge in right-wing support, saying "Nazis are Nazis are Nazis are Nazis are Nazis."
Xenophobia as a cultural marker
This sense of growing polarization and subsequent cultural isolation is, however, more than just an expression of the east-west divide in Germany but also a reflection of recent cultural currents within Brandenburg and Saxony. The election results in Brandenburg, a state that surrounds Berlin in its entirety, show that a quarter of all voters don't appear to share the same liberal ideas that you might expect to encounter in the German capital, even though parts of the state are considered to be an extension of Berlin's commuter belt.
Meanwhile in Saxony, anti-immigrant sentiment has surged in recent years, leading to political violence verging on culture wars in the streets of Dresden and elsewhere. Before the rise of the AfD, the far-right PEGIDA group had already sowed the seeds of these social divisions with its weekly protests in Dresden since 2014, opposing a perceived "Islamization" of the West.
These beliefs were boosted by Merkel's decision to welcome more than one million migrants and refugees to Germany at the height of the 2015-16 refugee crisis. Many voters — especially in eastern Germany — now say they worry that such foreign influences may dilute or even destroy traditional German culture, much to the AfD's advantage. The populist party has hijacked these concerns in its election campaigns, further stoking fears that Muslim immigrants could overtake European culture.
Joachim Klement, Director-General of the Staatsschauspiel Dresden Theater, stresses that the arts have to pay attention to such xenophobic sentiments, not just out of a sense of public duty but also because right-wing parties like the AfD have repeatedly tried to muzzle those critical of their anti-immigrant views.
When his theater produced a play based on xenophobic quotes uttered by supporters of contemporary far-right movements, the AfD reacted by picketing outside the building, demanding that public funds should not be spent on such artistic projects.
"We produce whatever we deem to be right and necessary within the framework of freedom of art, and will not allow any party to dictate what we can and cannot do," Klement told DPA in response to the AfD actions. He underlined that Saxony is a place with a rich cultural scene, "which has to remain free to assert its self-expression." In a separate interview with DW's Andrea Kasiske, he stressed that his institution was receiving public funds "precisely because of our independence from government."
Jahnke, meanwhile, told DW that she has also had to brace herself for xenophobic currents trying to influence her theater. Although she "has not been directly affected so far, there are these famous enquiries (at theaters) in other cities like, 'how many foreign actors work there?' (…) And that can easily set the course for cultural policies to come."
The AfD says it wants to "stop Islamization," and panders to its voters with elections posters like these
Not all doom and gloom
There is however a silver lining to the current upheaval, according to some leaders in eastern Germany's cultural scene. After all, there also were significant gains for the vastly liberal Green Party in both Saxony and Brandenburg, highlighting the fact that not all sections of society appear to share the same views as the AfD.
Martina König, artistic director of the Theaterschiff Potsdam — a traveling stage that sails along the River Havel in Brandenburg showing politically-charged plays — told DW's Meike Krüger in Potsdam that people attending their shows in the runup to the elections were united in their desire to express their support for Germany's mainstream political values.
"Everyone came to our boat with a desire to talk about what positive contributions they could make to preserve democracy and peace. (…) No one ever seemed to want to go home right after our performances but preferred to stick around to discuss these issues — sometimes for three or four hours."
König added that the current political climate could, in fact, bring about unexpected opportunities, stressing that she had never witnessed so many public discussions about politics before in her life. "If things stay this way and every single citizen continues to take their participation in our political processes seriously (…), this (election result) will offer a massive opportunity for the future," she told DW.
Jahnke shares the same view, saying that "we are all becoming more political. I see that with my friends, I see that at cultural institutions and in public life. And I think that this is a very good sign."
Whether such golden opportunities will emerge will once more be put to the test on October 27, when another eastern German state, Thuringia, goes to the polls.