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Half of eastern Germans 'want authoritarian rule'

June 29, 2023

Islamophobia, antisemitism and xenophobia are widespread in eastern Germany. A majority of respondents to a University of Leipzig survey said they would like to see a "strongman" or a "strong party" leadership.

A street demonstration of AfD leaders and supporters holding a banner reading 'our country first!'
The far-right populist Alternative for Germany party profits from widespread disenchantment in eastern GermanyImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Right-wing extremist rhetoric finds particularly strong support in eastern Germany, according to a large-scale study by the University of Leipzig on right-wing extremist attitudes in eastern Germany.

The researchers found "a strong wariness" about democracy, adding that not even half of the respondents said they were satisfied with their everyday experience of democracy.

The team, led by the social psychologist Oliver Decker, surveyed more than 3,500 people in five eastern German states: Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Together, these states are home to around a fifth of the German population.

The results are politically explosive: Half of those surveyed called for an immigration ban for Muslims. Almost 70% supported the xenophobic statement that foreigners only come to Germany to exploit the welfare state. Antisemitism is also widespread: Almost one in three respondents say that the influence of Jews is too great.

Karte Deutschland vor der Wiedervereinigung EN

AfD appeals to right-wing extremists

"These results make it clear that extreme-right parties and their messages resonate with a large part of the population," the researchers write. "It is among AfD supporters that the most people with extreme right-wing attitudes can be found."

The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been particularly successful in the region surveyed. Last week, the AfD won a local election in Thuringia, where it will now field a district council leader for the first time in the party's history.

And pollsters believe the AfD has a chance of winning three important state elections in the east next year, where it has been scoring points with aggressive and sometimes racist campaigns against immigrants, Muslims, and political opponents. But the study found that the AfD has not even exhausted its potential in eastern Germany yet, as many people primed to support it still belong to the non-voter camp.

So far, the AfD's influence on German politics has been largely indirect, as all the other parties refuse to form a coalition with it. The AfD has also been defined as "suspected" far-right extremist by the Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence service. Parts of the party are even classified as "confirmed extreme right-wing," which means they are considered to represent a threat to the country's democratic order.

Why the AfD is surging in polls

The desire for an authoritarian state

The researchers in Leipzig chose to survey voters in eastern Germany due to its history. Until German reunification in 1990, this region itself lived under a totalitarian state: the communist GDR dictatorship.

After reunification, the region saw mass layoffs, high unemployment and a major brain drain to the west. That social upheaval was accompanied by a wave of violence against sections of the population. Racist pogroms flared up again in the region over many years — and even today, right-wing extremists regularly commit acts of violence.

The researchers from Leipzig found a widespread "conspiracy mentality" and the desire for "authoritarian statehood." A majority of respondents said they would like to see a "strongman" or a "strong party" leadership.

Nearly a quarter of respondents said that National Socialism also had its good sides, and support for "neo-National Socialist ideologies" based on the Nazi dictatorship under Adolf Hitler were found to be widespread. Some 33% of respondents agreed with the statement: "We should have a leader who rules Germany with a strong hand for the good of all."

The researchers also examined whether attitudes have changed over the decades since reunification. There have always been major debates in Germany following racist murders and smear campaigns in the whole country. In many places, including in eastern Germany, citizens' initiatives have been formed to support refugees and promote social diversity.

The Leipzig researchers' findings are sobering: Political attitudes appear to have remained relatively unchanged in eastern Germany for thirty years. Though right-wing attitudes have not increased, they remain at a consistently high level, something the researchers describe as alarming.

They see the number of right-wing extremist crimes, such as arson attacks on asylum seekers' accommodation, as a strong indication that anti-democratic resentment leads to acts of violence in everyday life.

This article was originally written in German.

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