Anger, resentment and the rise of the far-right after the fall of the wall
Published by The Mail on Sunday (3rd November, 2019)
Frank Schale was a child of Communism. He can remember clearly the stinking air, the smog-filled streets, the water in his local river turning yellow and the lack of fresh fruit such as bananas and strawberries in the shops.
At school he had lessons on the evils of capitalism – then at home watched Hollywood movies with flash cars, fashionable clothes and fine food on television. Like everyone else, he learned not to repeat family conversations in public for fear of the secret police.
Now aged 42, this affable man teaches political theory at his local university in Chemnitz, discussing democracy and dictatorship with students who have grown up in a free, modern and wealthy European state.
Frank personifies the astonishing changes unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, which sparked the reunification of Germany and collapse of the Soviet Union – the single most significant political event of my lifetime.
He has a good job and prosperous life. His home city of 247,000 people near the Czech border is clean and filled with new buildings. The shops are stacked with tasty food and enticing goods. His students are free to discuss anything they want.
Yet many of his childhood friends are disgruntled. He says: ‘They do not feel comfortable with the situation today, they talk about invisible walls that divide Germany. They are bright and well-educated but frustrated because they see others, sometimes less well-trained, enjoying a better standard of living.
‘And they are partly right, when all top positions in the economy, in academia and in politics go to West Germans.’
Chancellor Angela Merkel famously hails from the East but few other senior politicians, business leaders or university heads are ‘Ossis’ like her. Even the last World Cup football team had only one East German in its ranks – midfielder Toni Kroos.
Frank’s words puncture the myths of German reunification. On the surface, it is a stunning success after £1.75 trillion was spent repairing the carnage of Communism in eastern parts. Yet lurking below lies a fractious, fractured and fragile society.
For many Easterners, Germany remains two nations even if the razor wire and watchtowers have come down, the crumbling cities have been rebuilt and the sordid industrial disaster zones spruced up.
A recent government report found almost six in ten Easterners see themselves as second-class citizens, with barely one-third viewing reunification as a success.
Another survey discovered just 31 per cent of East Germans see democracy as the best form of government. They are also more likely to define themselves as East Germans rather than German, unlike most of those living in the West.
And look at the map of strongholds for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party: it mirrors almost precisely the shape of the former communist state, which highlights the bubbling anger and resentment in eastern parts of the country.
Even Merkel, hailing the success of reunification after 14 years at the helm, has admitted ‘there is still a lot to do’ to slash unemployment, raise wages and lift the mood for uneasy citizens in her home region.
‘We must all learn to understand why reunification for many people in eastern states is not only a positive experience,’ she said last month.
It was 30 years ago this month when 70,000 people, clutching candles and chanting ‘We are the people’, dared march past the headquarters of the dreaded Stasi secret police in Leipzig, the first crack that led to the fall of the wall on November 9, 1989.
At the scene of this historic march I visited a museum dedicated to the extinct German Democratic Republic. It had recreated a dour living room from the ‘workers and peasants’ paradise, to the delight of a visiting family from near Dortmund.
‘The fall of the wall was such a big thing for my family,’ said Nina Richter, who recalled sending food packages to relatives in nearby Gosnitz. ‘Now 30 years later the houses here look so nice. There does not seem any difference with our part of the country.’
Yet one hour’s drive south in Chemnitz, Saxony, where a massive bust of Karl Marx still looms over the city centre, it was not hard to find people with differing views.
‘It was not all bad in the GDR,’ said Jutta Kirst, 65, a retired teacher. ‘The schools were better, children had more free time and chances to do things like sport or music. Today there is lots of choice but you need money.’
Another elderly shopper, declining to give her name, complained about being ‘occupied’ by the West. ‘We have nicer cities but were not given the chance to develop our parts properly or do the top jobs in management,’ she said.
The last person to risk their life to escape dictatorship before the wall fell was Hans-Peter Spitzner, who persuaded a United States soldier to hide him and his seven-year-old daughter Peggy in the boot of a car to cross Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.
‘Today we have a problem,’ said Spitzner, 65, who lives in Chemnitz, back in the old East. ‘We have done so much in 30 years but there is a war in our heads between East and West.
‘People in both parts think untrue things about the other side. Some in the East think everyone in the West have stuck up noses, while some in the West think those in the East just complain all the time.’
One major problem for the East was the exodus of 1.9 million people after 1989, many of them young and well-educated. Chemnitz lost one-fifth of its population as decrepit factories were shut down and unemployment soared.
Among those who lost their jobs soon after the wall fell was Felix Jedlicka, now a white-haired pensioner. ‘It was a very difficult time economically,’ he reflected.
Felix returned to university, went on to teach computing and today describes himself as a ‘whisky ambassador.’ He believes reunification was largely a success, yet still told me that East Germans were ‘second-class citizens’ in their own country.
‘Many people in the eastern parts feel cut off from the West and very angry at losing out. I think the West has let us down,’ he said.
Certainly major differences remain. The government’s annual report on reunification recently revealed average salaries and productivity in the East remain significantly lower than in the rest of the country, despite rising fast over recent decades.
Unemployment is also stubbornly higher, while another study by the Halle Institute for Economic Research found 93 per cent of the 500 biggest German companies are located in the West with just 36 in East Germany, including Berlin.
The rift was also exposed by a television journalist who examined all members of the federal government, heads of major firms, senior court judges and academic leaders since 1990 and found West Germans four times more likely than compatriots from the East to win top jobs.
Some activists have called for quotas in top jobs for East Germans. Others fear that feelings of inferiority and lack of ambition are a legacy of living under communism.
‘We have not been trained to sell ourselves and our abilities,’ said Nora Miethke, economics editor of a regional newspaper. ‘Exactly the opposite was expected of us – to think in the collective, not strive for individual self-realisation.’
Lower pensions in the East have also left many people infuriated, especially those that had well-paid professional or industrial jobs under communism who were then forced to find new, less lucrative posts after reunification.
It was noticeable that many of the shoppers buying cheeses, sausage and sauerkraut in the bustling Chemnitz market were elderly like Felix Jedlicka, and that several of the retailers serving them these traditional foods were from foreign backgrounds.
Chemnitz has been at the core of Germany’s far-Right surge as extremists sought to exploit tensions both over reunification’s perceived failures and Merkel’s decision three years ago to allow one million refugees and migrants to stay in Germany. The AfD, already the third biggest party in the federal parliament, won European elections earlier this year in Chemnitz. Last month it recorded its biggest-ever vote when coming second in state elections for Saxony with 27.5 per cent of the vote, then it shared almost half the vote with the hard-Left Die Linke in neighbouring Thuringia state.
There were violent protests in the city last year after a man was fatally stabbed by a Syrian. Meanwhile, eight alleged neo-Nazis in the ‘Revolution Chemnitz’ terror group have gone on trial in Dresden, accused of plans to attack immigrants and political rivals.
So why does the far-Right’s message of fear and loathing find such fertile terrain in these parts, especially given significantly lower influx of refugees and migrants than in Western states?
Nora Miethke argues that reunification needed social transformation alongside political and economic reform. ‘Politicians paid too little attention to communicating to people in the East the values of democracy and freedom,’ she said.
Frank Heinrich, whose parents used to smuggle bibles into GDR, is now the MP for Chemnitz and local chairman of Merkel’s centre-Right Christian Democratic Union party. ‘It’s unbelievable to see how the city has been remodelled,’ Frank said. ‘But some people expected more from reunification.’
He believes East Germans were unused to foreigners after decades under a closed dictatorship so when some arrived they presented a major culture shock, provoking fears that ‘alien’ attitudes were being imposed without sufficient debate. This was intensified by a lack of anti-Nazification projects under the Communists, making it easier for far-Right ideologies to take root again.
Yet Torsten Krauel, chief commentator for the Die Welt newspaper, believes many in the West have forgotten how their fellow citizens saw their world turned upside down with some families living through their fourth collapse of a regime in three generations.
He said: ‘No one is really interested any more, so the AfD have found a way to articulate their concerns. I do not agree with them but I can understand why some might feel concern and fear over their future.’
He added that the language restrictions of new identity politics on gender and race can resonate badly with people once indoctrinated with words and ideas they knew to be false under Communism, making them susceptible to conspiracy theories.
Georg Milbradt, an economist, was intimately involved with reunification as Saxony president for six years. ‘It was quite a challenge but it was a success,’ he said.
Yet even Milbradt, one of the architects of the extraordinary efforts to crunch a ramshackle communist country into a thriving capitalist economy, accepts mistakes were made and there are problems still to be eradicated.
‘I knew it would take a generation or more because I saw historic comparisons such as Italy’s reunification after 1860 or America after its Civil War. It is an illusion that you can do these things in a very short time.’
Without doubt, Germany is in gloomy mood as this key anniversary approaches. The long reign of ‘Mutti’ Merkel – often seen as mother of the nation – is coming to an end.
Politics has become fractured with 13 different coalitions governing the 16 states, while the economy is shedding jobs and sliding into recession.
Among those I spoke to during my time in Saxony was Thomas Bärsch, author of a book on life growing up under Communism, who told me of his first visit to the West after the wall was torn down three decades ago.
‘It sounds stupid but even the light seemed brighter than in East Germany,’ he said. ‘We could not dream the wall would ever come down. It seemed so much bigger than it really was.
‘I know some people are disappointed but I still think this is a dream come true for Germany, and especially for us living in East Germany.’