There’s something unsettling – call it utterly unhinging – about a fulminating mob screaming racist slogans in the streets, especially when the mob is in Germany. Such was the scene in the eastern city of Chemnitz over the summer, when a potpourri of hard-boiled extremists overwhelmed a series of demonstrations following a fatal stabbing, allegedly by an asylum seeker.
Mild-mannered Munich, like much of the rest of Germany, looked on horrified – first by the incident, then by the reaction to it.
The difference is that public opinion polling around Sunday’s state elections suggests that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will enter the parliament of the country’s largest region for the first time. This after the AfD won 94 seats in national elections last year.
The German media was quick to compare Chemnitz with Germany’s dark past, as was federal president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “Those that cry loud and strong for the ‘overthrow of the system’ must remember the consequences of the disgust felt for the first democracy on German soil [meaning the inter-war Weimar Republic],” he said.
But today’s fractured Germany only remotely resembles Weimar, the 14-year constitutional democracy overrun by the Nazis when Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Weimar faced a crisis of legitimacy because many Germans, at the time, felt humiliated by the diktat of the postwar settlement. Then came the dire economic and social consequences of hyperinflation in 1923, the crash 1929, and the extraordinary violence of Germany’s internecine interwar years. The assault section (AS), or “brown shirts”, established by Hitler from assorted thug elements in Munich in 1921, is seen by most historians today as an essential factor in his rise to power and they numbered in the hundreds of thousands by 1932-1933.
There’s no AS today. There is no sense of illegitimacy surrounding the government, whatever its problems. The German economy is the envy of Europe.
And yet, for historian Michael Wildt, writing in Die Zeit, “isn’t the lesson of Weimar that we should ban racist groups before they consolidate and develop … and clearly condemn racist violence (as in Chemnitz) when it’s perpetrated”, which the AfD did not do?
Despite all of this, the defining factor in current German politics is that Germany took more than a million asylum seekers at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-16. In the seven years up to 2014 – so before the war-induced refugee influx mostly from Syria and Iraq – Germany took another 1.15 million immigrants, of which official statistics suggest 600,000 are still here. Such a dramatic demographic change in just 10 years brings benefits around diversity and the labour force but also exceptional social pressure, and vast logistical challenges, for a country that some critics constantly describe – surely unfairly – as inward-looking.
Despite the influx, however, and partly because of it, Germany’s export-oriented economy continues to motor along, with high growth, low unemployment and a whopping budget surplus.
Bavaria itself could be said to exemplify the Germany that impresses. With 2.9 per cent unemployment – the lowest of any German state – it took the second highest number of asylum seekers of 16 regions; 20,000 arrived at Munich Central Station on a single weekend.
Bavaria is the Germany of the big name football team (Bayern Munich); the Oktoberfest; of Siemens and Allianz; Adidas, Puma, Audi and BMW; as well as numerous of the Mittelstand small and mid-sized firms, often family-run, that comprise the backbone of the German economy.
This weekend’s election will be a major test for German chancellor Angela Merkel because she is the European leader who opened her arms to asylum seekers (stepping up to the plate of the crisis, necessarily and humanely for some; mistakenly for others). But here, too, things are not quite as they seem.
Incensed by the chancellor’s creeping social liberalism (enabling a vote on same-sex marriage, measures to get more women into work and axing military service) the CSU, the governing little sister party to Merkel’s more centrist CDU, is polling 14 points below its score at the last regional elections in 2013. If the polls are correct, it seems that tacking further right on immigration has sent the CSU’s most extreme voters scuttling to the populists (why choose a copy over the original?) and more moderate sympathisers to other parties, such as the suddenly resurgent Greens, on 17 per cent. Co-leader Ludwig Hartmann said in an election TV debate last week that large-scale immigration had worked quite well.
On 10 per cent, the AfD looks set for a breakthrough – yet it was polling at 15 per cent, according to Bild, before Chemnitz. A “pacifist revolution” against a “political system”, is how co-president Alexander Gauland responded to events there, after television footage showed roughnecks chasing men of Middle Eastern origin in the streets.
“Before Chemnitz people were talking about immigration,” a Hamburg human resources manager now living in Munich told me. “Now they’re talking about the party and the kind of hardcore supporters who Nazi salute (German police opened several cases against far-right protesters in Chemnitz for the gesture, illegal in Germany).”
So far, the Bavarian election has confirmed – through the politicking, the polls, the public discussion – that the cold reality of both the AfD and Chemnitz lies in Germany’s most enduring contemporary problem: the east-west divide.
The extremists are strongest by far in the five states of the old German Democratic Republic, with fewer major firms, less investment, lower wages and many fewer foreigners (Bavaria boasts 1.8 million foreigners, or 137 per thousand of population; Saxony in the east, just 195,000 foreigners or 48 per thousand).
To quote Christian Hirte, the federal government’s special representative for eastern Germany, almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall many east Germans “see themselves as second-class citizens – as left behind”.
Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist and consultant based in Munich
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