Past isolation a clue to east German xenophobia: study

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Berlin (AFP) – Eastern Germany is a hotspot for far-right attitudes and racist hate crimes in part because it was long a closed-off communist society with few immigrants, a new study said Thursday.

The government commissioned the paper on why the region, formerly part of the Soviet bloc, has seen a disproportionate number of attacks against foreigners amid Germany’s large migrant influx.

The report, “Causes of right-wing extremism and xenophobia in East Germany”, was produced by the Goettingen Institute for Democracy Research after a request by Iris Gleicke, the federal commissioner for the region.

The authors point out that before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germans lived in a “literally closed society” with only few temporary migrant workers from fellow socialist states like Cuba and Vietnam.

The paper also notes a sense of collective victimhood and disappointment in many areas about the pace of economic progress in the quarter-century since German reunification.

The writers stress that xenophobia in Germany is neither a specifically eastern problem, nor does it equally apply across the east — but conclude that it is far more prevalent in the former German Democratic Republic.

Germany has since 2015 taken in more than one million asylum seekers, about half from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, fuelling an anti-foreigner backlash.

In eastern Germany, arson attacks on refugee shelters, or swastikas painted on their walls, recalled the years after Germany’s 1990 reunification when East Germans faced economic collapse and uncertainty, and the frustration exploded in several mob attacks against asylum shelters.

  • ‘Victim status’ –

In 2015, far-right violent hate crimes nationwide rose again, to over 1,400 offences from 990 the previous year. 

More than half were reported in the eastern states, although they make up just 17 percent of the national population.

The city of Dresden saw the rapid growth of its far-right PEGIDA street movement, short for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”, whose marches peaked at 25,000 people before ebbing off again.

Nearby small towns such as Freital earned notoriety as neo-Nazis and angry residents hurled abuse at people fleeing war and misery, and rocks at police sent to protect the refugees.

The study found that some of the region’s small towns had been both deindustrialised and “depolitisised”, now lacking both active local politicians and civil society to oppose far-right groups.

For Dresden, a Baroque city of over 500,000 on the Elbe river, the study pointed to a local sense of “Saxon exceptionalism”, mixed with a “culture of remembrance that mythologises its victim status” over the heavy Allied bombing in World War II.

The region’s political culture, it said, “cultivates a reflexive rejection of things foreign, different or external”, adding that in focus group interviews, “we observed a latent xenophobia, focussed especially against Muslims”.

    <figure><figcaption>This picture taken on October 13, 1976 shows the Heinrich Heine Strasse checkpoint between East (Soviet sector) and West Berlin (American sector)
        <span>Copyright AFP/File RALPH GATTI</span>
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