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Far-right extremism

September 21, 2010

Along with many other prejudices, eastern Germany has had to contend with a reputation for neo-Nazism. It's not entirely unjustified, but right-wing extremism in the East has roots in economic hardship.

Neo-Nazi skinhead pictured from behind
Neo-Nazis gained ground in the East after the fall of the WallImage: picture-alliance / dpa

There was a dramatic surge in right-wing violence in the first years of the newly unified Germany, and all the big attention-grabbing incidents seemed to occur in the former East.

For three consecutive nights in August 1992, several hundred neo-Nazis - watched by up to 2,000 locals - attacked an apartment block for asylum seekers in the north-eastern town of Rostock. With the police unprepared and initially outnumbered, the violence continued unchecked until it culminated in an arson attack.

The Rostock riots quickly achieved international notoriety. Pictures of drunken, violent East Germans doing Hitler salutes were printed around the world. This was not the dawn of a new, hopeful country that had been celebrated less than two years before.

Asylum shelter on fire in Rostock 1992
The 1992 arson attack on an asylum shelter in Rostock became infamousImage: AP

Authority vacuum

Neo-Nazi violence was not just a stain on the former East Germany. Over 100 of the 370 rioters arrested in Rostock had travelled from the former West, where there was a string of horrific attacks on Turkish immigrants in the early nineties.

But Rostock cemented the reputation of post-Wall eastern Germany as a new haven for neo-Nazism, and that reputation stuck. What characterized the Rostock riots as specifically East German was the powerlessness of the authorities.

For two or three years after the fall of the Wall, state institutions in the former German Democratic Republic were weakened by the period of transition. Police officers suddenly found themselves associated with a discredited regime. Dierk Borstel, a researcher into right-wing extremism at the University of Bielefeld, described the precarious circumstances in the early 1990s as linked to a lack of functioning insitutions.

"The police force was destabilized and the church had little influence anyway," Borstel told Deutsche Welle. "The eastern German trade unions and the PDS, the successor party to the former ruling communist SED, had little authority, and the trade unions and industry associations coming in from the West were all very weak in the east."

Worst of many worlds

These semi-anarchic conditions were fertile ground for far-right activists in the former East Germany, and their cause was further helped by the disappointment and poverty that spread in the East after reunification.

NPD supporter demonstrates
The NPD has scored some electoral success in the last six yearsImage: AP

"The expectation of East Germans after reunification was: 'We're going to get the security of the East plus the freedoms of the West,'" Borstel says. "The result was that they lost the securities and couldn't afford the freedoms."

Even though the skinhead neo-Nazi scene originated in western Europe, it already existed in East Germany before the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was often linked to certain football teams, and occasionally broke out in extreme violence, such as the attack of 30 skinheads on a concert in a church in central East Berlin in 1987.

The far-right movement in the East capitalized on what many describe as the GDR's denial of its own Nazi history. Olaf Sundermeyer, author of "In the NPD," a book about the development of Germany's populist far-right National Democratic Party, believes the GDR's distanced attitude to Hitler's Germany helped feed the neo-Nazi movement.

"Communist leaders in the GDR said, 'We are an anti-fascist state and we have no responsibility for history. There are no Nazis here.' Of course that wasn't true. There were former Nazis in both East and West Germany, but there was no denazification in East Germany - the Nazi history was not dealt with," he said.

Imbalance and injustice

East German society was never particularly multicultural, and the government's immigration policies showed a determination to keep the population monotone. Immigrant workers from other socialist countries like Mozambique were sent home if they got pregnant, or as soon as their allotted time ran out. The lack of a multicultural foundation is still reflected in eastern German society today.

"Eastern Germany has a lot fewer immigrants - and it has long been acknowledged that where there are no immigrants and no Jews, there is more racism and anti-Semitism," Borstel said.

Anti-Hartz IV demonstration in Leipzig
Unemployment has caused unrest in the former GDRImage: AP

Neo-Nazis were also able to win over some East Germans with familiar ideas. "National Socialism often starts out with the idea of socialism, and then that is combined with frustration, unemployment, lack of opportunity, and populations moving away." This is the opinion of a former neo-Nazi who wants to remain anonymous, working for Exit Deutschland, an organization that helps people leave the far-right scene.

There is a widespread feeling that the West left the East behind economically. In the last 20 years, unemployment in the former East has been consistently twice as high as in the West, and the emigration of young eastern Germans remains a problem. Statistical evidence shows that German far-right parties tend to prosper in times of economic depression, and the NPD has aimed its electoral resources aggressively at the most neglected districts.

The Exit Deutschland representative, who has counseled numerous former neo-Nazis, said that the frustration that comes from being left behind after watching friends leave your home town is a factor common to many of those who turn to right-wing extremism.

"Those who stay, for whatever reason - because they can't find a job anywhere else, for example - feel an enormous frustration. That is fertile ground for far-right groups - and for extremist groups in general," he said.

Sympathy for the Left

This growing eastern German sympathy with the far-right chimed in with a study completed in 2003, which found that 16 percent of Germans had an extreme right-wing world-view - that is, they expressed chauvinistic, anti-Semitic, social-Darwinist or xenophobic opinions, and tended to trivialize the Nazi regime. In the East, this world-view was found in 23 percent of the population, compared to 14 percent in the West.

This showed a marked change from the early 1990s, when a similar study found far-right-wing opinion more prevalent in the West. Statisticians have linked this switch to a decline in economic expectation. Whereas easterners were more optimistic about their economic prospects in the early 1990s, by the late 1990s, westerners had become more positive about the economy.

Behind this turnaround lay a real sense of betrayal. In a study written in 2005, political scientist Richard Stoess wrote, "That the eastern German people overtook their western compatriots in sympathy for right-wing extremism lay in the fact that their initial trust in the western system of democracy and market economy had turned into particularly bitter disappointment."

Neo-Nazis for the new century

As state authority began to re-assert itself in the East, the far-right developed more subtle ways to organize. "The structures have become smaller," said Borstel. "They no longer rely on large parties like the NPD, but rather local cells, which are more difficult for the state to break up. They have become anchored in local communities in a way I thought would never happen."

NPD website with mouse and keyboard
The far-right has reinvented itself for the new centuryImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

This assimilation was mirrored in the far-right political parties, which have spent the past decade making themselves electable in the East. Although the NPD have steadily lost ground in the former West, in the East they have gained a foothold in several state parliaments.

"The Big Bang was the state election of 2004 in Saxony, where the NPD first gained representation in an eastern German state parliament," said Sundermeyer. "Since then it has very gradually established itself as a 'normal' party."

The NPD was re-elected to the Saxony parliament in 2009, with 5.6 percent of the vote. The NPD's membership figures had risen from 4,000 in 1995 to 6,800 in 2009.

The NPD has achieved this success by aiming its messages at young people, especially via the Internet, and appealing to sentiments shared by the far-left - anti-Americanism, anti-Israel, anti-globalization. It has worked to pick up the youth protest vote, targeting sub-cultures with an anti-system stance.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Andreas Illmer