Using migrants to bash east Germans

The migrant crisis has exposed the deep east-west antagonism in German society.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics World

For a few weeks, Germans lived through a period of political fantasy. There was much talk of a ‘September fairytale’ as cheering crowds welcomed refugees in Munich and other cities. So great was people’s enthusiasm that surprisingly little attention was paid to an important anniversary: 25 years ago, on 31 August, the reunification treaty was signed. It sealed the fate of the former East Germany, which henceforth became part of a reunified Germany by accession. It is a pity that this anniversary was ignored because one of the things the refugee crisis has brought to light is that, 25 years later, Germany is still divided.

Reinstating border controls: a return to reality

The term ‘September fairytale’ was coined by leading Green politician, Katrin Göring-Eckhardt. She said that this was the first time she felt proud of being German, adding that Germany was now the ‘world champion of helpfulness’. But politics is not a fairytale. The reality check came abruptly on the eve of 13 September, when the government announced it would reinstate border control with Austria. It is now clear how shortsighted and wrong it was to abuse the refugee crisis (and the goodwill of many volunteers) as a way of sprucing up Germany’s image and promoting a feel-good factor. By playing the New Germany card, politicians resorted to cheap posturing while ignoring the consequences of their actions.

Now, we are left to ask what is more worrying: the fact that a border could be shut so quickly, leaving thousands stranded, only a few days after chancellor Angela Merkel had promised them safe passage? Or that our political elite engaged in fantasies, rather than confronting reality? The truth is that the borders were closed for political, rather than administrative reasons. Though the administrative challenges were significant, it was politicians’ fear of discord and divisions that led to the closure. Sadly, the September fairytale heightened tensions, rather than overcoming them.

Creating divisions: the dark side of the fairytale

It was German president Joachim Gauck who showed us the truly dark side of political fairytales. In late August, he gave a speech outside a refugee shelter that had been attacked several times by anti-immigrant protesters. Gauck praised the volunteers who, he said, showed that ‘there was a bright Germany shining in the face of the dark Germany’ – ‘dark Germany’ being a reference to anti-immigrant sentiment. He added that the volunteers were giving refugees back their sense of self-worth.

While attacks against asylum-seeker accommodation are indeed terrible, the counterposing of a dark to a light Germany is problematic. In fact, the term ‘dark Germany’ has become a codeword for the former German Democratic Republic. It carries with it the image of economic backwardness and provincialism. Though Gauck later claimed not to have been speaking about an east-west divide, this was how his speech was interpreted. It served to confirm prejudices about the ‘Nazi east’ which are as old as reunification, and run like a red thread through the past 25 years. (These prejudices were hardened in 1991, after violence against asylum seekers in the eastern town of Hoyerswerda.) And, by using such a black-and-white frame, those in the neither-nor camp, those, that is, who were opposed to the attacks on anti-asylum seekers but who didn’t identify with the volunteers, were tarred with the same brush as the anti-asylum-seeker sections of society. They were painted as bad Germans. And it just so happened that many who fell into the neither-nor camp were from the east.

Blaming the east: a culture of evasion

The irony is that Gauck’s speech turned history on its head. The reunification anniversary should have reminded us that it was the former East Germany that shone brightly, as a place where democracy and freedom triumphed. In the autumn of 1989, thousands upon thousands of people (in Leipzig alone there were 100,000 on the streets) were outside shouting ‘we are the people’ and braving government threats. It was the courage and enthusiasm of these citizens that brought down a divisive and repressive border. So how can it be that now, only 26 years later, people in eastern Germany stand accused of being narrowminded and bigoted? One commentator claimed that ‘these people’ seemed to have forgotten what it was like, when they came in their multitudes to the West. But such comments only show how deep the divisions and misunderstanding are: 26 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are no longer looked at as history makers but as problem makers.

What this summer has shown is that it is time for some hard thinking. Yes, there have been ugly incidents involving attacks on immigrants. And although it is far from clear that anti-immigrant feelings are stronger in the east than the west, the anti-Islam demonstrations from Pegida in Dresden, attacks against foreigners in several smaller eastern towns, as well as the National Socialist Underground murders can’t be ignored. However, talk of a specifically East German problem is itself symptomatic of our current culture of evasion.

As in other European countries, there has been a popular move away from party politics and a growing distance between the government and the electorate. This tendency has been particularly marked in the east (but is certainly not limited to it) due to its specific history and the way reunification was managed. As Sabine Reul explained on spiked, the unification process came at a time when the former West Germany showed clear signs of economic and political exhaustion. Rather than building on the dynamism that the overthrow of the Stalinist system had unleashed, the unification process became an administrative exercise. As East Germany was factually disbanded and became part of a reunified Germany, very few (if any) of the people who had been leading figures in the ‘peaceful revolution’ played a decisive role in post-unification politics. (Chancellor Angela Merkel, though from the east, had not been active in the opposition movement.) Everywhere, a short period of euphoria was followed by long-term disillusionment (which continues to this day, with voter participation at an all-time low). To rationalise the economic and social dislocations brought about by the process of reunification, the myth that people from the east were somehow different took root.

The myth of the east

Myth-building around easterners continues to this day. After the protests against refugee centres, Social Democratic politician Roger Lewentz said that people in the east had been shielded from foreign cultures for decades and were therefore not used to living with migrants. Sigmar Gabriel, vice chancellor and minister for economic affairs, said that the SPD needed to play the role of ‘carer’ and help all those who felt deeply insecure.

But Gabriel was silent when the hard facts of economic dislocation came to light. Figures published this month (at the height of the September fairytale) showed that the economy of the east has been stagnating for 20 years. According to Germany’s Institute for Economic Research, the east has lagged behind the west since 1995. The average GDP per person in the east remains at a mere 75 per cent of a person in the west, and is likely to remain at this level for the next 25 years.

The sad thing is that many self-appointed advocates of liberal immigration policies are often the source of anti-eastern prejudices. A comment piece in the Berliner Zeitung pointed to the huge opportunities that immigration could bring to many of the abandoned and empty areas of the former GDR. All these regions, the commentator said, needed to be rebuilt and cultivated (which is true), and the immigrants, he claimed, were needed for this task, because the indigenous population was either too old or spoiled.

The idea of easterners being ‘spoiled’ is familiar and has accompanied the reunification debate from the outset. As more and more east Germans moved to the west, many liberals in the west could barely conceal their contempt for the newcomers and their desire for better living standards. A particularly striking example was the former SPD interior minister Otto Schily (also a founding member of the Green Party), who, when asked why people were coming to the west, held up a banana – a rare delicacy in the former East Germany. Ironically, the belief that easterners were spoiled by reunification has a parallel in the anti-immigration debate, where opponents of immigration talk in a similar vein about ‘economic refugees’ who come to Germany supposedly to scrounge. It seems that 25 years after reunification the old prejudices persist. While some see migrants as the root of all evil, others blame their fellow Germans in the east. Both sides are wrong.

A first step towards arguing seriously for open borders would be to stop portraying refugees as helpless victims and ordinary Germans as their natural enemies. The talk about dark and light only serves to make some pro-refugee campaigners feel that they’re shining really brightly. The sceptics are right to ask what Germany can demand and expect from those who come. The history of reunification and the enthusiasm with which it was greeted 25 years ago show that people are willing to accept (and endure) much, if the future is felt to be promising. We need more than a fairytale September.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is head of the board of the liberal thinktank Freiblickinstitut e.V., which has published the Freedom Manifesto. She is also the organiser of the Berlin Salons.

Sabine is chairing an International Battle Satellite, ‘Is solidarity in Europe fading?’, in Berlin on Thursday 1 October. For more information, visit the Battle of Ideas Website.

Picture by: Martin Meissner / Press Association Images.

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Topics World


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