Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

East Germany and the Failure of Liberal Democracy

As AfD becomes the dominant party of the former DDR, East Germans find themselves slandered as antidemocratic by a ruling establishment that has systematically excluded and subjugated them

As with Covid infection statistics, so with political preferences:

You can easily identify the former DDR on a map of support for Alternative für Deutschland by federal state.

The AfD is now the leading political party in East Germany, commanding the plurality of support in Thüringen (32.9%), Saxony (33.4%), Brandenburg (30%) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (29%). Only in Sachsen-Anhalt (29%) do they trail the leading CDU by two percentage points. Because support for the approved mainstream parties is concentrated in the urban centres, these numbers entail more substantial – even majority – support in many rural districts.

Looking at support for the Greens, you can see the same phenomenon in reverse:

Aside from tiny, heavily-industrialised Saarland – where the SPD leads as nowhere else – it is only in the East that the Greens remain a minor party confined to single-digits.

For boring personal reasons, I’ve made many trips to Dresden this past year, and I write this on the left bank of the Elbe, where I’ve been living for the past month. My time in the East has given me a different perspective not only on German politics, but on Western liberalism more generally. The East is older and much less prosperous than Bavaria. Saxon towns have shrunk substantially from their pre-war peaks, and many are full of ruined vacant buildings.

Even the bustling cities of Dresden and Leipzig have their forlorn suburbs and their DDR high-rise blocks. Wages are lower and unemployment is higher.

The poorer East Germans comprise only 19% of the Federal Republic. The bureaucracy, the ruling establishment and the media are all guided by the international prosperity politics of the Western 81% – an 81% in thrall to the same pathologies of affluence we see elsewhere in Europe. Pro-NATO Atlanticism, climate change and the energy transition, electric vehicle mania, the wir-schaffen-das mass migration ethos, rainbow brigade positive rights and all the rest of it: These are the luxury beliefs that Westerners feel they are privileged to afford and perhaps even obligated by their prosperity to support. Many Easterners, meanwhile, find this political world not only baffling and hostile, but also profoundly indifferent to their daily concerns. Very few in the East can afford a Tesla, sympathy for the international projects of the American Empire is hard to find, and Green-supported heating ordinances threaten to impose renovation costs on many buildings in excess of their market value.

In his book on The East: A West German Invention, Dirk Oschmann describes the subordinate position of East Germany since reunification. The new states are “socially integrated” but “widely excluded … from discourse and political power.”

In the federal ministries, where the political policies are set and decisions are taken, those with an East German background have representation of less than 1%…

The editors-in-chief of all the major newspapers and media are headed by West Germans. ... At the beginning of the nineties, the staffing of the media with West German personnel was still partly comprehensible. But even then it had this flavour: “Two years after 1990, there was not a single TV station, radio station or newspaper in East Germany that was not operated by a West German editor-in-chief. The course of debate, political consciousness, social memory – the entire self-understanding that the [Eastern] population had just gained for itself – was suddenly reduced to discursive incapacity and lecturing.”1 This has been the enduring state of things ever since. The chief posts of all the major regional newspapers in the East are still filled by West Germans, with their perspectives, their convictions and their agendas. …

As for state leadership positions:

In the military, the proportion [of Easterners] is at the ideal value of 0.0 per cent, in academia at 1.5 per cent, in the judiciary between 2 and 4 per cent. Since 2016, however, these low percentages have stagnated or even declined! Apparently, the mechanisms … are only becoming more stringent and working ever more efficiently towards the goal of total exclusion.

Economic affairs are no different:

The major Eastern corporations are in West German hands; for a long time, the number of directors who grew up in the East has been below 1%… Large portions of the residential property in the East belong to West Germans, because only they have the capital to purchase it. In the East, on the other hand, there is neither much to inherit nor much to earn because of the [communist-era] ban on capital accumulation. Wages are [also] much lower in the East, and … East Germans do not achieve leadership positions in representative numbers in any of the necessary social sectors. In other words, they do not get where they need to be to acquire money and power …2

Many, including Oschmann, have compared the position of East Germans to that of “flyover country” Americans, and while there is much truth in that analogue, I think it understates the situation. The near-total exclusion of those raised in the East from positions of influence within the German economy, media and politics since reunification is more extreme than anything I know of elsewhere in the West. On various occasions, Oschmann has spoken of the “colonisation” of East Germany by Westerners, and it is hard to see how that is wrong.

This casts the escalating rhetoric of the (West) German press about the alleged extremist nature of the AfD, threats from the establishment to disqualify successful Eastern AfD political candidates and even to ban the entire party in an entirely new light. It hardly matters that the AfD has a leadership comprised mostly of Westerners; the party is closely aligned with precisely those Eastern political preferences which the dominant 81% wish to suppress. They have excluded as far as possible the East from their own political system, while accusing them of antidemocratic proclivities when their electoral preferences deviate from the late-stage liberal programme. Because liberal democratic theory holds that desired political outcomes are pre-determined by the liberal system itself, there is no other way to make the logic work. If the East will not voluntarily sign on to climate change, uncontrolled mass migration and trans ideology, that is because even 30 years after the demise of the DDR they have yet to be “normalised” and acquainted with the ways of democracy. The solution is more lecturing from the press, more indifference from the ruling establishment and more threats from the political police.

In a long (and flawed) article in Cicero, Matthias Brodkorb and Alexander Marguier offer a range of theses to explain the differing political outlook of Easterners, some of them very familiar but rarely explored by journalists. For example, they interview Wolfram Ackner, a builder from Leipzig who was 20 at the time of reunification. Ackner traces his political alienation to the financial crisis of 2008 – when, for the first time, he “had the feeling that [he] wasn’t being taken seriously by politicians.”

Instead of telling people what was going on, they played down the crisis. “For me, it wouldn’t have been a problem if the federal government had clearly announced that there was only a choice between several bad options.” Instead, the citizens were harangued with hollow phrases, as they were later in the refugee crisis. “And as someone who grew up in the DDR, I simply have a better bullshit detector than people in the West.”

The date of Ackner’s awakening is important, because it’s with the 2008 Euro crisis that our current era of an unravelling yet hardening liberal system begins. While Ackner won’t “equate politics in reunified Germany with conditions in the DDR,” he finds aspects of our current politics powerfully reminiscent of those times. Brodkorb and Marguier note in particular the decision of the political police at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, in the wake of the Covid protests, to investigate (and thus potentially criminalise) “delegitimisers” of the state –  a term which includes those who draw unfavourable comparisons between the Federal Republic and the repressive tactics of the DDR, as I’m doing right now.

… For former DDR citizens, words like this evoke bad memories. According to the DDR penal code as revised on 12 January 1968, anyone who publicly “holds in contempt or defames the state order or its organs, institutions or social organisations or their activities or measures...” is considered a “defamer of the state.”

It is not only their prior experience with authoritarian systems that has alienated many Easterners. Western Europe has been subject to a long-term postwar liberalisation programme, to which the inhabitants of the entire eastern bloc were only partially exposed. Between 1945 and 1990, their cultural and political sensibilities remained static, frozen in a kind of cultural and political permafrost. Decades of social engineering intended to pry political consciousness loose from the nation state and fix it on a higher, globalised world never happened in East Germany. Nor did the prosperity which made this broader perspective appealing in the first place. We’re confronted here with a natural political experiment: How will a liberal democratic state react to the preferences of a population whose views it has been unable to mould over many decades? Will it accommodate them, as its own rhetoric suggests, or rather shut them out, as liberal pessimists like myself would predict? The German experiment shows that we pessimists were right; the state remains undeterred, and if the political crisis gets bad enough, many East Germans will once again find their political views criminalised.

A vast majority of Easterners still regard reunification as a positive development. Even as the West bought up all their real-estate, assumed controlling roles in all their companies and took over their media, it rebuilt their decaying cities and towns, repaved their roads and modernised their infrastructure. Perhaps the sting of political exclusion hurts less if nobody remembers things being any other way. Still, as someone who grew up in the West, I have to say that the liberal system has never looked more indifferent and illiberal than it does from east Saxony. 1

The DDR dissident Klaus Wolfram, in a 2019 lecture. 2

All citations from ch. 4 (no pages numbers because I’m quoting from an electronic edition).