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Extremism in Germany

Heiner Kiesel / ccNovember 21, 2014

On the surface of it, Germans are becoming more tolerant. But the authors of a long-term study aren't as pleased with this development as one might expect.

Neo-nazis in Merseburg
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germans haven't exactly gone all sweet and cuddly, but over the past two years there has been a big change in attitudes toward right-wing extremist ideology.

According to the study "Fragile center - hostile conditions," the proportion of people who approve of xenophobic ideas has sunk from 25 percent to 7.5. The number of those who think chauvinistically - i.e. that Germany is somehow a superior nation - has gone down by a third. And acceptance of anti-Semitic statements among respondents has also dropped significantly, from 8.6 to 3.2 percent.

"What we may well be seeing here is the massive amount of educational work having an effect," comments Andreas Zick, director of studies at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence Research at the University of Bielefeld.

But the sociology researcher doesn't think the figures are a reason to give the all-clear.

"Norms are fragile, and there's a strong polarization between clear agreement with - and clear rejection of - statements hostile to particular groups," he says.

Zick also points out that people with a closed, right-wing extremist worldview are more likely than previously to resort to violence.

According to the researchers, opinions are less stable beyond right-wing circles. Another questionnaire done at a later point on the subject of anti-Semitism showed how quickly opinions in German society, which the researchers describe as characterized as fragile, can change.

Andreas Zick
Opinions are unstable, warns Andreas ZickImage: DW/H. Kiesel

For the current study, around 2,000 randomly selected people were interviewed over the phone between July and August by the Social Sciences Polling Agency in Duisburg. The follow-up interviews were done in September, against the backdrop of military action and killings during the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. In early autumn there was a noticeably more agreement with negative statements such as, "Jews have too much influence in Germany" and "The Jews bear part of the responsibility for their persecution." The respondents were also no longer as prepared as before to separate criticism of Israel from classic anti-Semitic attitudes.

Marginal groups, marginalized

Forty-four percent of respondents had an emphatically critical view of asylum seekers. When asked whether new arrivals in Germany should make do with less than those who have been here longer, as many as 60 percent agreed. Forty percent felt it would be good if the long-established population had more rights than the new. Forty-two percent did not believe that asylum seekers were genuinely politically persecuted in their home countries. In the eastern German states, rejecting asylum seekers is even more pronounced (52.8 percent) than in the west (42.4). Once again, this study proves that the greatest prejudice is found in precisely those areas where people have least contact with foreigners.

In this study, only the long-term unemployed and the socially needy come off worse than asylum seekers. Almost half of respondents believe that the majority of long-term unemployed people have no interest whatsoever in getting a job. A similarly high number agreed with the statement that the long-term unemployed were having a good time at the cost of the community. Around a third would approve of the homeless being removed from the pedestrian zones in town centers.

As Zick observes with alarm: "In some instances, the devaluation of various weak social groups would be capable of securing a majority."

Obdachlose im Winter
Almost one in two Germans still wants homeless driven from city centersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Interviews done over the phone

For 12 years now the Bielefeld Conflict Research Institute has been investigating mainstream hostility to particular groups in German society. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is linked to Germany's Social Democratic Party, has been publishing its "Center" studies at two-year intervals since 2006. For the current study, respondents were interviewed over the phone, whereas in previous years the interviews were done face to face. Theoretically, some of the results could be influenced by the change in interviewing methods. However, Frank Faulbaum who is responsible for carrying out the survey, believes the altered data collection method to be of negligible influence.