Low-paid Germans mind rich-poor gap as elections approach
With no national minimum wage and a fifth of workers in insecure mini-jobs, critics say German prosperity is being built on exploitation of the downtrodden
Kate Connolly and Louise Osborne in Berlin
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 15.03 BST
Going to the cinema or her local outdoor pool are treats Christa Rein can rarely afford. "I can't ever buy things like salmon or a bottle of sparkling wine," says the 55-year-old. "The fridge can't break, as I wouldn't be able to afford to replace it."
It sounds like another story from Europe's desolate southern rim, squeezed by three years of austerity and recession. So it might come as a surprise to find that Rein's financial hardship comes from the centre of Europe's economic powerhouse – and she is by no means alone.
As Angela Merkel leads her centre-right party towards crucial elections on a promise of economic recovery, sound financial stewardship and near-record employment, there is mounting dissent from a group which complains it is not sharing in Germany's much-vaunted wealth. Radical reform of the jobs market launched a decade ago has left around a quarter of the workforce in low-paid, insecure and part-time employment, belying the impression of an economic miracle with a flawless jobs success story that has become the envy of the world.
Rein's take-home pay, for which she works eight-hour days for a cleaning contractor, is €1,079 (£922) a month. "I've been doing this for 30 years, and you're seeing all the time the way the workload has increased as the pay has decreased," she says. "Fewer of us are expected to clean more square metres in ever less time. We get 15 to 20 seconds to clean a toilet – that's not a toilet I'd like to sit on."
Meanwhile, the company employing her is earning more money, she says, "but it's not being passed on to us women".
Rein, who lives in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, argues the situation reflects that of the wider economy and will affect how she votes in the elections on 22 September, which Merkel is widely tipped to win. "It's high time ordinary German workers got to participate in the success of the economy."
A survey for the European Central Bank in April showed that Germany's median net household worth was much less than that of Greece. In terms of GDP per head, Germany is faring reasonably well. But, contrary perhaps to popular belief, it is only just above the eurozone average. According to the Institute for Employment Research, the research arm of the federal employment agency, 25% of all German workers earn less than €9.54 (£8.15) per hour. In Europe only Lithuania has a higher percentage of low earners – those earning less than two-thirds of the national average wage.
The situation has fuelled a growing poor-rich divide as well as increasing resentment among those who see German prosperity being built on the exploitation of the downtrodden.
Daniel Kerekes, a 26-year-old student of history and religion at Ruhr University Bochum, is among the one-fifth of Germans dependent on a so-called mini-job. "I work at a supermarket for around 16 hours a week for €7.50 an hour on a very restrictive contract. Shifts aren't guaranteed, and if I don't do everything my boss asks of me he can cut my shifts, or give me the worst ones."
With his earnings – in addition to a small amount working in digital journalism – he struggles to pay his bills, including the €280 monthly rent for his 36 sq m (387 sq) flat plus obligatory health and liability insurance payments.
Sometimes referred to as McJobs, mini-jobs are a form of marginal employment that allows workers to earn up to €450 a month tax-free. Introduced in 2003 by the then Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder as part of a wide-ranging labour market reform when Germany's economic doldrums earned it the title "sick man of Europe", they keep down labour costs and offer greater flexibility to employers.
But critics say they have helped to expand the disparity between rich and poor and undermined many of the values that have traditionally underpinned Germany's social-market economy. Not only do they give employers no reason to turn them into proper jobs, but mini-jobs offer workers little incentive to work more because then they would have to pay tax. As a result, many remain trapped in marginal work and detached from Germany's much-hailed jobwunder, or jobs miracle.
Bochum, a poor city in the Ruhr valley, Germany's former industrialised heartland, is teeming with mini-jobs, according to Kerekes. "The woman living below me works on a mini-job basis in a discount supermarket, my girlfriend mini-jobs as a waitress. Employers enjoy the fact that they can get you for just €450 a month."
Despite government claims that mini-jobs are on the wane – they fell by 0.6% last year – thanks to the success of Merkel's labour market policies, the opposition is quick to disagree. "These are questionable figures," said Anette Krame, labour market expert for the Social Democrats (SPD). "I don't think a 0.6% drop is reason to celebrate and neither do I recognise a trend in that direction." She cites the glaring omission in the statistics of recently introduced work contracts, which have been held responsible for wage-dumping in several sectors, particularly the food industry.
Kerekes would like to see a new government abolish mini-jobs and introduce a minimum wage instead. "Mini-jobs are destroying ordinary workplaces, and for most people they do not provide a living wage. It can't be that even in the US most states have a minimum wage, while Germany, one of the world's richest countries, has none."
He is encouraged that the SPD has pledged to introduce a minimum wage – of €8.50 – but believes it is not going far enough – anyway, they introduced the mini-jobs in the first place.
Statistics from Germany's employment agency show that at the top end German workers' wages rose by 25% between 1999 and 2010 while salaries in the lowest fifth rose by a mere 7.5%, when inflation was 18%. That has led to what economists refer to as internal devaluation, significantly reducing their purchasing power and doing damage to the German economy.
Kerekes says his vote next month will go to the party he believes is doing most to tackle the McJob phenomenon. "I will vote for the Left party," he says, referring to the grouping of former East German communists and SPD rebels. "They're the only ones pushing for a €10 minimum wage, the least you should be expected to be able to live on."
Angela Merkel v Peer Steinbrück: the German election goes prime-time
Germany's chancellor goes head-to-head with her political rival in a 90-minute TV debate broadcast live on four channels
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 16.19 BST
Electioneering for next month's German polls will begin in earnest on Sunday, when Chancellor Angela Merkel goes head to head with her main rival Peer Steinbrück in a televised debate.
The prime-time duel – a relatively new event of the German election campaign – will see the Christian Democrat and the Social Democrat facing questions from four presenters, in a showdown broadcast simultaneously on four channels. At the end a poll of television viewers will choose the best candidate.
In 90 minutes the two politicians will face an array of questions on issues including the economy, family policy and foreign affairs. Steinbrück will answer the first question while Merkel will have the last word.
Each candidate has been invited to deliver a concluding statement to last between 60 and 90 seconds. No candidate may speak more than 60 seconds longer than their rival.
The euro crisis and the NSA spying scandal are likely to be prominent topics while it's also expected that the Syrian conflict will loom large over the debate, particularly after Steinbrück this week backed calls within his party for Merkel to urgently travel to Moscow to discuss the crisis with Vladimir Putin and press him to intervene. Merkel has stressed that the Syrian government's actions could not remain unpunished.
In a poll before the debate, 48% predicted that Merkel, who will become Europe's longest serving leader if re-elected on 22 September, would emerge as the winner of the US-style debate, while 26% favoured Steinbruck, a former finance minister who is known for his quick-wit and rhetorical skills, but sometimes comes across as arrogant. Kate Connolly
08/30/2013 04:44 PM
Rage and Refuge: German Asylum System Hits Breaking Point
By Charles Hawley and Charly Wilder
Germany has recently seen a significant rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the country. Its shelters are overwhelmed and opposition to new ones has recently turned ugly. Refugees themselves argue that the system is broken.
"Their villages are bombed, then they come here and they are called criminals," says Turgay Ulu, a Turkish journalist and former political prisoner who came to Germany about two years ago as an asylum seeker. He's sitting on a tattered sofa in a makeshift protest camp in the middle of Oranienplatz, a central square in Berlin's Kreuzberg district. Ulu and some 200 fellow refugees have been occupying the square since October of last year.
"Look around! These people are from Afghanistan, Libya, Mali," says Ulu, gesturing in turn at a group of men playing foosball under a blue-and-white-striped big top and two others helping a toddler blow soap bubbles in the middle of the square. "We are refugees, not criminals!"
The ongoing protest is meant to call attention to the significant procedural shortcomings of Germany's asylum policy. Recently, it has been joined by demonstrations of an entirely different sort. Earlier this month, a newly opened shelter in the eastern Berlin neighborhood of Hellersdorf became the scene of heated clashes between far-right protesters and hundreds of anti-fascist demonstrators. Dozens of political refugees -- mostly from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Serbia -- arrived at the shelter, established in an unused school building, only to see chaos unfolding outside their windows for several days running. Some reportedly left out of fear.
The protests in Hellersdorf have been orchestrated predominantly by the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) as it strives for relevance in the upcoming election. But they are symptomatic of a second significant refugee-related challenge currently facing Germany: The number of asylum seekers arriving in the country is rising rapidly and has far outpaced the ability to properly house them.
According to Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), more asylum seekers arrived in the country in the first half of this year than in any six-month period since 1999, with the total for 2013 expected to top 100,000. Thus far, 52,000 refugees have arrived in Germany, an increase of 90 percent over the same period one year ago. The newcomers are primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya.
A Slow Process
Cities are struggling to keep up with the influx, but the problem has been particularly acute in Berlin. Many asylum seekers come here first and, even if they will ultimately be relocated elsewhere in the country in accordance with Germany's geographical allocation system, they have to be housed initially. But all the city's shelters are now full, and the reserve capacity established for spikes in arrival numbers has proved insufficient. Officials are currently rushing to establish new housing.
But it's a slow process. "If I want to create a shelter for refugees, it takes a half year, a year, or more, just like with any construction project," says Franz Allert, head of the Berlin city-state authority responsible for asylum seekers. "It doesn't go faster … just because they are asylum seeker shelters."
The protests in eastern Berlin can, in part, be seen as a side effect of the rush. Allert notes that his office generally seeks to open a dialogue with residents in neighborhoods where a new shelter is to open. This in fact happened in Hellersdorf, when officials invited residents to a public informational meeting led by district mayor Stefan Komoss, on Juy 9, less than a month before the shelter's scheduled opening.
The meeting, however, was hastily organized and poorly planned -- and was quickly taken over by right-wing voices. Organizers expected 400 to attend, a far cry from the over 900 who showed up. Chants of "Nein zum Heim!" (No to the shelter) echoed from the surrounding concrete block apartment buildings and the NPD made it clear that it would fight the refugee home, a pledge met with cheers. Local residents voiced concerns over rising criminality and worries that newcomers would receive greater benefits than locals. Since then, the NPD has organized marches, leading to the clashes earlier this month.
"There is sometimes no time to talk with people in the neighborhood," admits Allert. "That creates dissatisfaction among the residents, and I can understand that. But at the moment, we unfortunately have no alternative."
Limited capacity for new arrivals, and the protests in Berlin, are not the only serious problems that authorities now have to contend with. As Germany's infrastructure for taking in refugees buckles under the influx, its asylum policy is also coming under criticism. According to Germany's Basic Law, or constitution, the right to asylum is extended to all those who are "politically persecuted" in their country of origin. If asylum is granted, the applicant receives a temporary residence permit for three years, which can then be converted into permanent residency.
The problem is that the vast majority of asylum seekers in Germany get caught up in a kind of limbo. They initially arrive at one of 19 reception centers throughout the country, where they submit their applications. According to BAMF, it takes an average of about eight months for a decision to come down on an asylum application. But stories are plentiful of applicants waiting for much longer. Some say they have heard nothing for years.
"The long delay is unacceptable," says Bernd Ladwig, an expert on human rights and migration at the Berlin-based Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science. "Very often these people remain in an intermediate position regarding their status for an extended period of time, and in the interim they do not have any kind of clearly defined, respected status. If it is going to take so long, then they absolutely should have more rights extended to them."
While applicants await word, they are required to adhere to the so-called Residenzpflicht, or compulsory residence, which bars all asylum seekers or those who have been given a temporary stay of deportation from leaving the city or county where they filed their application. They are usually required to live in state-run shelters -- often in extremely cramped quarters in cordoned-off facilities resembling detention camps. In the past year, several asylum seekers living in a facility in Eisenhüttenstadt, the main communal housing center for the state of Brandenburg, went on a hunger strike to protest conditions there.
"As far as I know, compulsory residence is unique among European countries," says Ladwig. "This is something that needs to change. You can't conclusively show that this is a necessary restriction to fulfill the right to asylum. I've not seen any effort to justify this restriction."
'Stop Locking Us Away'
Another problem is that, while asylum seekers are given a moderate monthly allowance for "personal daily necessities" and are technically allowed to work, they are forbidden from earning more than €1 ($1.32) per hour. Furthermore, special permission must be granted for access to legal counsel and, if an asylum seeker leaves his shelter or area of compulsory residence, he faces potential deportation.
The result, Ladwig says, is that asylum seekers wind up isolated and often -- as with the new housing facility in Hellersdorf -- antagonized. "These people are already here," he says. "The work restrictions should be relaxed and they should be given freedom of movement. I see no compelling reason to concentrate the refugees into these compulsory residence camps."
"The solution is normalization," agrees refugee activist Turgay Ulu. "Stop detaining us, locking us away, isolating us."
Last October, Ulu and some 200 other asylum seekers broke their compulsory residence requirement and marched 600 kilometers (373 miles) from the Bavarian town of Würzburg to Berlin. In addition to the protest camp on Oranienplatz and their occupation of a nearby school, they have set up protest camps in Hamburg, Munich, Eisenhüttenstadt and Duisburg and have organized numerous marches and demonstrations calling for an end to compulsory residence, deportations, forced communal housing and the employment ban. It has been one of the largest, most visible protests by asylum seekers in Europe to date.
The protest camp at Oranienplatz includes a makeshift school, an information tent, a theater, a kitchen tent and a large round circus tent that serves as the main hangout. Banners bearing slogans like "No Person Is Illegal," "Repeal Compulsory Residence" and "Lampedusa Village" -- a reference to the Italian island in the Mediterranean where many African refugees land -- hang throughout the camp. With financial support from local charities and leftist groups, they organize German lessons, computer courses and legal assistance. But it's an uphill battle.
Far-right groups have staged counter-protests. The stabbing in June of a Sudanese camp resident by a young man yelling racist insults escalated into a confrontation involving more than 200 police officers.
It has been enough to awaken unsavory memories of the years immediately following German reunification. The early 1990s saw several right-wing attacks on refugee homes in the former East, including the infamous arson attack on the asylum shelter in Rostock in August of 1992. Nobody died in the days of rock throwing and fire-bomb lobbing that plagued Rostock that summer, but later that year, the home of a Turkish family in Mölln was lit on fire by neo-Nazi attackers, killing three. Another five people lost their lives in a similar attack in Solingen in 1993.
Allert is quick to note that public sentiment in 2013 is generally more welcoming. The protests in Hellersdorf this summer have taken him and many others by surprise. "We recently opened a facility in (the Berlin neighborhood of) Stieglitz and we didn't have sufficient time to notify the neighbors there either," he says. "Not a single one of them complained."
But the German general election, scheduled for Sept. 22, is rapidly approaching. And the NPD has struggled to attract votes in recent years. The asylum home in Hellersdorf has provided the extremist party with the perfect opportunity to mobilize -- and foment -- concerns, fears and latent xenophobia.
The man responsible for running the NPD campaign in Berlin is Sebastian Schmidtke, a 28-year-old who is classified as an active neo-Nazi by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. But he is also an experienced political operative by virtue of his role as head of the Berlin city-state NPD chapter. At a recent meeting with a journalist at a café in the center of Berlin, Schmidtke was on his best behavior, polite and neatly clad in black jeans and a black button-down shirt.
Even his message of intolerance was nicely wrapped in gentle, even tones, carefully calibrated so that the neighboring table wouldn't hear. "The people think, here come the foreigners and they get the same benefits as we do. Our children have no youth facilities and have to more or less play in the concrete jungle. ... Other people are given money even though they don't belong here," he says. "We have almost €2 trillion in national debt, eventually we have to think about our national interests." He makes sure to place the campaign brochures he brought along -- "Live Safely: Stop the Asylum Flood" -- face down so as not to attract unwanted attention.
'Sometimes We Have No Choice'
Yet Schmidtke is anything but passive when it comes to pursuing his vision of nationalism. Since last fall, he has organized several anti-asylum rallies in front of refugee shelters around the city. Recently, he and his followers have been hanging xenophobic campaign posters up in front of the Hellersdorf facility. In January, he attacked a counter-demonstrator with an umbrella, though he claims it was in self-defense.
He also promises that more anti-asylum rallies are to come. "We will definitely be going back to the asylum homes to establish contact with the neighboring residents," Schmidtke says.
Allert, meanwhile, is taking a closer look at what went wrong in Hellersdorf. One thing he pinpoints is that the meeting on July 9 was open to all comers, practically an invitation to the NPD to hijack it. He says that from now on, informational gatherings in neighborhoods will only be open to those who live in the immediate vicinity. He also notes that asylum facilities in Berlin often host events with locals where people bring toys for the children or warm clothes in the winter.
"This is done not because we as a state don't make enough resources available," he says. "It is done to create contact -- to reduce fear and barriers."
Human rights expert Bernd Ladwig, on the other hand, thinks the housing system itself is largely at fault. "When they concentrate refugees in these collective facilities, often without properly consulting the people who live there, it makes it easier for right-wing activists to mobilize against them. People get the impression that there are these huge numbers of foreign people with their foreign habits and appearances moving into their neighborhood. And of course some of the resentments articulated are shared by mainstream people who are not right-wing extremists but do share some xenophobic tendencies."
But with the pressure on to rapidly expand the numbers of asylum homes in Berlin, Allert also noted that his first priority is to house the newcomers. "We don't carry out a survey and if the residents say yes, we do it, and if they say no, we don't," he says. "Sometimes we have no other choice than to simply take a building and say: 'Okay, we are going to do this here now.'"
08/30/2013 10:59 AM
Flats over Shelters: Asylum Seekers Embrace Alternative Housing
By Maximilian Popp and Sven Röbel
New shelters for asylum seekers in Germany often face protests from local residents or from right-wing groups. But an alternative housing model that gives families their own flats has proven effective in Leverkusen.
The Asif family lives in a 60-square-meter (645-square-foot), three-room "palace" with a fitted kitchen and laminate flooring. It's more or less empty, because the Asifs are asylum seekers from Pakistan and haven't bought much furniture yet. Nevertheless, they say, their home is currently the "nicest place on earth."
Nadeem Asif, a computer scientist, fled from Lahore to Germany one-and-a-half years ago to escape the chaos and terror inflicted by the Taliban. The 36-year-old, his wife Asma, and their two young sons Abdullah and Sami lived in a refugee shelter in the western city of Leverkusen until the family was able to move into an apartment in the city's Opladen neighborhood five months ago. Now the children are no longer awakened by other people's noise and they have their own room and a clean bathroom. The Asifs call their new home a palace. "Our lives have been radically improved," says Asma.
The family is benefiting from a model project sponsored by the city of Leverkusen. As a rule, asylum seekers in Germany are housed on the outskirts of cities or in "group accommodations" in rural areas, as provided by law. The authorities believe that they can monitor refugees more effectively this way, as well as expedite deportations. In Leverkusen, however, asylum seekers or people with a suspension of deportation can move into their own apartment after only a few months.
But could the Leverkusen model be effective for housing asylum seekers nationwide? It's a pertinent question at the moment, when public attention is focused on a school in Berlin's Hellersdorf neighborhood that was converted into a refugee shelter. The first refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and the Balkans had hardly moved into the new facility last week when protests flared up in the neighborhood. Agitators with the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) and Pro Germany Citizens' Movement soon appeared on the scene to capitalize on local residents' resentments. The police had to protect the shelter at times, and some of the asylum seekers fled the building within hours.
Since then, Hellersdorf has become emblematic of a broader problem in German asylum policy, which almost always calls for herding refugees together in empty buildings or, more recently, in repurposed shipping containers, thereby creating ghettoes. Protests almost inevitably erupt at these sites.
In Wolgast in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, racists scrawled right-wing extremist slogans on a refugee shelter, the NPD announced a torchlight procession and children were taunted with racist songs. In Butzbach, a town in the western state of Hesse, a citizens' initiative was established to protest the housing of refugees in a local gymnasium. In nearby Mainz, the right-wing populist "Pro" movement collected signatures against a new shelter for asylum seekers.
Experts believe that while the individual housing of asylum seekers won't prevent racism, it could avert the worst excesses. After the recent incidents in Berlin, the German Charities Association recommended that apartments be made available to refugees in the future. The Greens, the Left Party and the Pirate Party hold similar views. "For years, we have been saying that refugees should be housed in decentralized, urban apartments. They have a right to live in decent conditions," says Hakan Tas, the spokesman on refugee policy for the Left Party's parliamentary group in Berlin.
Leverkusen has been trying out the model of decentralized housing for 11 years. When the program began, the existing shelters were dilapidated, and plans for a new shelter had to be shelved, partly because of local protests. This led the city to decide to place at least individual families in private apartments. Today, 200 refugees live in apartments in Leverkusen. The city pays the rents, which cannot exceed €256 per person, not including expenses. The Catholic charity association Caritas and the refugee council help them find apartments.
According to calculations by Frank Stein, the head of the city's social services department who spearheaded the project, the model is also easier on the city budget. Over the years, says Stein, Leverkusen has saved more than €1 million, because it no longer has to pay the costs of personnel and renovating the shelters.
Berlin too has shown a recent interest in housing more refugees in apartments instead of shelter. Franz Allert, head of the Berlin city-state authority responsible for asylum seekers, says that increasing the share of refugees housed in flats is "a stated goal" of his organization. Some 800 asylum seekers are currently housed in apartments in Berlin.
Most refugees in Leverkusen feel positive about the project, although some initially find it difficult to cope with suddenly having to fend for themselves. In addition, says Stein, it is difficult to find low-rent apartments in cities with housing shortages. Nevertheless, not a single refugee has returned to a shelter in the last 11 years.
Nadeem Asif doesn't waste much thought on the issue, as he proudly shows off his apartment. His sons, six and nine years old, are playing in the hallway. Since they moved out of the shelter, they have been able to interact with the neighbors' children -- and their German has improved considerably.
A neighbor recently invited the family over for dinner. Asif says that he now feels welcome in Germany.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
08/30/2013 03:45 PM
Goodbye Ossi: The Demise of Eastern German Identity
An Essay by Stefan Berg
For years following reunification, those from the communist east saw themselves as "eastern Germans." Now, more than two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, that identity is rapidly disappearing. East Germany is almost completely gone.
When Wolfgang Thierse, a parliamentarian who grew up in the former East Germany, spoke in the Bundestag for the first time, he asked his fellow lawmakers to be patient with eastern Germans: "We need time and support to acquire independence and personal responsibility, and to overcome the paralysis caused by total control."
Today, more than 22 years later, a request for patience in the parliament would seem curious. The cameras would pan to the chancellor, who is from the eastern state of Brandenburg and pushed aside a number of rivals from West Germany on her way to the top. Commentators could point to the German president, who is from the eastern region of Mecklenburg, and who is helping Germans forget his two failed predecessors, both from the west.
The sentence Thierse uttered in 1990 has lost its subject. There is no longer a "we" for whom anyone has to ask for sympathy and understanding.
The end of a country is on the horizon, a country that never formally existed: East Germany. A demographic group that also never formally existed is coming to an end, as well: the East Germans. It's time for an obituary.
Goodbyes are in the offing. Thierse, who once referred to himself as the "East Germans' big mouth," was long the president and then the vice-president of the Bundestag. Matthias Platzeck, who was an interpreter of sorts in domestic German debates and, according to polls, the most popular eastern politician, stepped down this week as governor of Brandenburg. The solidarity pact, which steered money eastwards for the costly project of developing former East Germany, is expiring. The only disputed issue remains whether the so-called solidarity tax should be abolished or whether the money should be used in the future for development programs throughout Germany.
The Concept of Eastern Germany
Years ago, the demise of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) -- as East Germany was formally known -- and German reunification prompted Germans to reflect on how much or how little an impact the communist state had made on Germany. Jens Reich, a former Green Party candidate for the office of president, once said that there was more of an East German identity after the end of the GDR than during its actual existence. Many East German citizens yearned for the big, wide world of the West, and yet they were afraid of losing the small, manageable country in which they had learned to live.
Many Germans did not see their everyday experiences reflected in the heated debates over the "second German dictatorship" and the "rogue regime." Eastern Germany as a concept, and as a new identity, developed in that tense environment. A sense of cohesiveness emerged in the east that defiantly defended the achievements of East Germans, even though it was consistently interpreted in political discourse as a defense of the system. In contrast, the geographic term "eastern German" enabled people to acknowledge their origins while simultaneously disassociating themselves with political and ideological categories or preconceptions. Eastern Germany was no longer the GDR, but it wasn't the Federal Republic yet, either. The term reflected an unfulfilled desire for autonomy on the path to reunification. Those who no longer saw themselves as GDR citizens but not yet as citizens of the Federal Republic were simply eastern German. Eastern German meant autonomy without separatism. It was a transitional identity of sorts, and on the political stage it was articulated by Thierse and Regine Hildebrandt, who died in 2001 (both members of the center-left Social Democratic Party), as well as by Left Party politician Gregor Gysi. When his Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, the forerunner of the Left Party), simply printed the word "We" on posters in an election campaign, there was no need to explain what "We" meant.
Not everyone wanted to see eastern Germany as a transitional phenomenon. In the resentful cultural scene of the GDR, which was deprived of its special status, "Eastern German" became a label without an expiration date. "The eastern German" was declared the better person, and "the eastern German" became a permanent label that would undoubtedly be passed on for generations to come. This interpretation was the mirror image of views of eastern Germany that prevailed in the west, where negative phenomena such as xenophobia and high expectations of a strong state were seen as typically eastern German. Germans in the west feared an "easternification" of the country as a whole. Polls and election campaigns reinforced views on the differences and special phenomena.
Already Long Gone
Richard Schröder's contribution was to search for a standard to evaluate "inner unity." The philosopher, who lives in Brandenburg, made a case for comparing Germany to other parts of Europe, such as Belgium, with its problems with separatist tendencies, or Italy and its separatist Northern League. Compared to those two countries, Schröder argued, Germany was a very strong entity. But those Germans who were nostalgic for the GDR were more media-savvy than those who had found their place in a united Germany. Nevertheless, the latter group grew and continues to grow. The term eastern Germany still suggested an eastern homogeneity and eastern conformity of interests when they were already long gone.
Today there is no question that the challenges Germany faces rarely or never have anything to do with the labels East and West. In terms of fiscal policy, Saxony has more in common with Bavaria than with the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. And the industrial Ruhr region needs a solidarity pact as badly today as eastern Germany did in 1990. Parts of Lower Saxony and the region of Ostvorpommern in the far northeast have similar problems with rural flight.
The conference of eastern governors -- a political assembly that has existed since reunification -- has become irrelevant. When the heads of Germany's eastern states met this April, one of the main topics of discussion was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, an "event with international standing," as was officially noted. In the first years after reunification, governors like Brandenburg's Manfred Stolpe and Saxony's Kurt Biedenkopf doubled as representatives of the east, and Platzeck also saw himself in a similar role. The others are simply governors, who no longer feel it is necessary to continue demanding billions in aid, solely for the development of their states, which have now been part of united Germany for well over two decades.
Within the foreseeable future, the largest special agency devoted to the east that features the GDR in its name could also be shut down. The Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Files of the State Security Service of the Former GDR is to be eliminated and its files transferred to the federal archive. More than 20 years after the demise of the GDR, the screenings of public servants for possible past connections to the former East German security service, or Stasi, have essentially come to an end. The acts of looking back and making reference to the GDR are losing their relevance.
A Nice GDR Childhood
In her unexcitable way, Chancellor Angela Merkel has helped remove the hysteria factor from the subject of the GDR. She has reacted drily to supposed revelations about her East German past. Oh yes, she says, she probably was a member of the Society German-Soviet Friendship. She also had a nice a childhood in the GDR, she adds. There is even something East German about the recurring accusation that she stifles contentious debates with her GDR-influenced yearning for consensus, as if the government were in charge of debates in a democratic country.
In early election campaigns, candidates prominently announced additional gifts for the east (as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder once said: "Developing the east will be a priority"). After the eastern states suffered flood damage in 2002, Schröder captured the support of those who had been adversely affected and, as a result, won the election. This year, however, the floods -- a quirk of nature -- affected cities in both eastern and western Germany, which then jointly called for federal support.
The 2013 campaign platforms refer to the east with token statements. Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) wants to "achieve stable and positive economic development in the new states" -- the term "new states" being a reference to the states of former East Germany. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), for its part, claims that it will "not shy away from pressing issues in the eastern German states." SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück's attempt to tie together Merkel's East German past and her supposedly unemotional European policy seemed somewhat flat, particularly in light of the passion shown by President Joachim Gauck, himself a product of East Germany, for Europe. How could someone who, like Steinbrück, has lived in the west for so long know so little about public relations?
The old eastern German issues have been dealt with. The adjustment of pensions to western German levels is almost complete, and hopefully a uniform minimum wage will clear away some of the absurd differentiation into east and west. Eastern Germany no longer means very much to high-school and university students today. When younger people are asked where they are from, they usually mention the name of a city, a region or a state.
Not Significant Anymore
Eastern Germans? Ossis? Nowadays, what sense of cohesiveness is supposed to connect a man from an upscale neighborhood of Potsdam, near Berlin, with someone from Vorpommern, a second-generation recipient of welfare? What up-and-coming writer will want to be called an "eastern German writer" in the future? The east-west logic also contradicts the fact that Gauck is more popular in the west than in the east.
The harmonization of standards of living proclaimed in Germany's constitution remains an ongoing goal. But how that goal is achieved will no longer be subject to east-west criteria. The Left Party also cannot divest itself of this development. Its "eastern wing" no longer functions as a society to defend eastern German roots. Young Left Party politicians haven't been influenced by the GDR in a long time, and they don't try to attract support by highlighting competence on "eastern issues." Sahra Wagenknecht, a former supporter of former East German Communist politician Walter Ulbricht, has completed the step out of the eastern niche more clearly than most. Today she simply behaves as a German, both privately and politically.
When the PDS failed to garner enough votes to enter the Bundestag in 2002, Thierse interpreted it as evidence of progress in internal unity. Perhaps it was a little premature. Protests were the consequence.
However, Thierse's own -- voluntary -- withdrawal in 2013 can be interpreted in that way. At the end of his political career, the powerfully eloquent man addressed the ongoing debate in Berlin over the influence western German Swabians now have over the former East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Specifically, the argument centered on which German dialect should be used when referring to a bread roll.
That too is a sign that the other problems between eastern and western Germany can't be that significant anymore.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
08/30/2013 10:29 AM
Popular with Populists: Euroskeptic Party Attracts Right Wing
By Friederike Heine
Since its launch in April, euroskeptic party Alternative for Germany has been accused of peddling right-wing sentiments. A new study establishes the party's centrist status, but shows that it still attracts right-wing populist attention.
As founder of the country's euroskeptic party, Bernd Lucke is among the most controversial figures in Germany. His political agenda -- which includes an "orderly dissolution" of the euro, a decentralized European Union and a move towards Swiss-style, direct democracy -- is often met with doubt, and sometimes outright hostility.
Last week, left-wing agitators stormed the stage at an Alternative for Germany (AfD) campaign event, pushing Lucke to the ground and using pepper spray on several campaigners. The attack came as little surprise, though, after a confrontation with Green Youth activists earlier this month prompted the AfD to apply for police protection on its campaign trail.
In its own mind, the AfD is classically liberal in philosophy and otherwise pro-European -- it intentionally avoids labelling itself as left- or right-wing. But the German media, ever vigilant against creeping populism and right-wing extremism, has taken to portraying it as one of several right-wing populist parties eating into Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union's voter base.
This spring, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper ran a piece on the hidden ties between the AfD and members of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD). The AfD's stance on Europe, a Berlin NPD official told the paper, was closer to NPD policies "than any other established party in Germany." Other German newspapers have taken a similar line.
Suspicions that the AfD may be moving into right-wing extremist territory were put into question last week, however. An Internet study published by linkfluence -- a Franco-German social media monitoring company -- shows that there is little or no overlap between the AfD's politics and those of the right-wing extremist NPD.
The study, which was overseen by the company's German chief executive Oliver Tabino, consists of two parts: an analysis of AfD and NPD supporters' Facebook "likes," and an evaluation of hyperlinks to and from the AfD's various regional party websites.
The Facebook analysis shows that supporters of the AfD and those of the NPD have little in common. While the former exhibit euroskepticism and a preference for direct democratic principles, their right-wing counterparts prefer pages relating to anti-Islamification, right-wing rock bands and the German military.
The second part of the study yielded similar results. "The AfD supporter base and the right-wing extremist scene are digitally very far removed from one another," says Tabino.
'Right-Wing Populist Interest'
The findings were well-received among AfD sympathizers, with many taking to the Internet to express their relief that the party's centrist status had been established once and for all. According to Tabino, however, the findings are not that straightforward.
"People are interpreting the report according to what they want to hear," he says. "Though the study on the one hand indicates that there is no overlap between the AfD and the NPD, it also shows that the party is attracting right-wing populist, reactionary and neo-Conservative interest."
Indeed, the hyperlink analysis conducted by Tabino shows that right-wing populist websites such as "Politically Incorrect" and "Christliche Mitte" -- which advocate anti-Islamification and tighter controls on immigration from Eastern Europe -- often link to AfD content. According to Tambino, the AfD is viewed in some circles as a legitimate mouthpiece for the right-wing populist cause.
A European Phenomenon
Indeed, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper recently asserted that the AfD was awakening "age-old nationalistic tendencies" in an editorial. "People are badmouthing Europe, neighbors and institutions," it said. "The arrogance, insecurity, resentment and political egotism that originated in 19th century Germany are once again coming to the fore."
A closer look at the AfD websites -- particularly those of its regional chapters -- reveals a certain degree of right-wing populist rhetoric, too. By advocating a break from consensus-oriented politics and decrying political correctness as a burden on free speech, the party is aligning itself with other right-wing populist movements across Europe. The party's Bavarian website, for instance, refers to "the destructive potential of political correctness."
Though Oliver Tabino is cautious in his assertions, he maintains that there could be a link between the AfD and similar movements in other European countries. "We've thought about conducting such a study," he says. "An inquiry into the AfD's affiliations with neo-populist movements in France, Holland and Belgium would yield interesting results.