A tad more on the German refugee crisis and the reaction in Chemnitz

Back in early July, I wrote a post on the politics of the German refugee crisis. And the conclusion at that time was that Horst Seehofer was bluffing about blowing up the governing coalition. In retrospect, this proved right. But in the aftermath of the far-right and neo-Nazi protests in Chemnitz, I want to re-examine that piece from a different perspective since I have been writing about xenophobia recently.

Working class anger in Germany

Back in 2010, I wrote a piece about eastern Germany discussing so-called ‘Euro Populism’.

Here’s what I wrote that relates to Chemnitz:

…the economic side of re-unification was a complete disaster. For purely political reasons, Helmut Kohl, then the German Chancellor, rebuffed the advice of his economic advisors and decided to unite East and West Germany at an exchange rate of one for one. This represented a significant over-valuation of the East German currency….

To make matters worse, Kohl also pushed through the now infamous east-west Lohnangleichung (wage parity) whereby eastern German worker wages quickly rose to the level in the west. The east was a heavily manufacturing-based economy. So wage parity meant a pricing out of eastern German labour, high unemployment there, and an eventual move of German manufacturing to central and Eastern Europe instead of to the former East Germany.

In short, eastern Germany was uncompetitive. Forget about blühende Landschaften (a flourishing economy ) in the former East Germany. Try depression. I’m talking unemployment to the high teens, a rise in neo-Nazis amongst unemployed young males, huge municipality and state indebtedness to deal with the social costs, and a mass migration from east to west.

I was there. I saw it happen. I know some of the people who made the migration west in search of employment too. The point as it relates to Chemnitz is that those same economic and political grievances are still there some 25 years later. Not only that, many of those same grievances have moved west to places like Bochum, Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund in the heart of Germany’s manufacturing region.

Why is the east riper for right-wing populism?

At the same time, it can’t be ignored that neo-Nazis really are few and far between in the West. Whenever you hear about right-wingers on the march in Germany, invariably it’s somewhere in the former East Germany. A lot of that owes to the botched economic side of reunification. But a lot of it owes to the differences between west and east.

For example, if you lived in West Germany in the 1980s and watched television, you would have had a very limited choice of stations, most of those being public broadcasters for which you paid a TV tax at the risk of unannounced inspection by the TV tax inspectors. I’m not joking, by the way. See here on Wikipedia.

Seemingly every day there was some show or another about the devastation Hitler caused in Europe. And what was unsaid was that west Germans should feel deep and abiding shame for that legacy. They should never wave a German flag in public and they certainly shouldn’t be proud of being German. After all, since they were German, they were ‘by extension’ guilty for the crimes of the Nazis. (This is akin to the concept that white Americans are guilty for the sins of slavery in the US.)

In a post last week, I called this media blitz a ‘humility indoctrination’. And I wrote that east Germans never underwent this indoctrination. So not only are we seeing a new generation, removed in time from World War 2, whose parents never went through the war, we are also seeing a group of people who suffered mightily under Soviet rule and reunification and were never told to be humble about being German. After all, in the days of the Iron Curtain, East Germany was the gold standard for all of the Soviet-ruled area. They were the richest country that others aspired to emulate.

After reunification, East Germans’ Besserwessi (meaning: Better westerner, a play on Besserwisser, which means know-it-all) cousins in the west looked down on them. They laughed at their technology, particularly the Trabbi, the ubiquitous Trabant car manufactured in East Germany, since west Germany had Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Porsche. VW was better. And even American-owned Opel and Ford were better than the Trabant – by far.

So, these people went from the kings of the Soviet Empire to the laughing stocks of a united Germany. And the solidarity tax used to upgrade their infrastructure was a constant source of friction and tension between west and east – a reminder that Germany wasn’t really united yet.

As a young male, you were likely unemployed to boot. What do you expect to happen politically under those pre-conditions?

Well, after the 2006 World Cup in Germany, it was ok, even fashionable, to wear a German football jersey to wave a German flag and be a proud German in public as well as in private. So people did. And ever since then, Germans have been much more open about their pride in being German.

A lesson from the Netherlands

So, when we look at right-wing protests in Chemnitz, let’s keep this in mind. Let’s also look at the quote I reprised back in July from a Dutch voter named Arie Kempinga, who, despite working, had been forced to go to food kitchens because he couldn’t afford food. I originally translated this during the Dutch March 2017 election:

Arie and Harma Kempinga and their three children literally count every penny. The family from Oldambt in East Groningen has been in debt fort ten years, with no end in sight.

Arie and Harma have eighty euros a week left over, just enough groceries for half a week. To be able to eat in the other days, they go to the Food Bank. Like nine other families in Oldambt. Many of them feel abandoned by politicians. They will vote for the PVV.

Q from Niuewsuur: How is the Netherlands doing?

Arie: “Not so good. I think the world and the Netherlands are being torn apart, thanks to the government. All the rules that are coming and we have already — The Netherlands is being destroyed…”

Harma: “I totally agree. The crisis is over, they say, but not for us. And not for many Dutch people.I think it will all get worse. People with lots of money lining their pockets and those who have less, get…. even less.”


Q from Nieuwsuur: Who are you going to vote for?

Harma: “The CDA definitely won’t be getting my vote. The PvdA neither The VVD neither. I am still debating it. On the one hand I think that Geert Wilders says very good things. But sometimes he goes too far, about foreigners. We also have neighbors from Syria and they are hard workers. That does give me pause. But with some things he’s right.”

“He wants to do more for people who work, like us, and not touch the child allowance and help the elderly. I do not know if he will make it better, but maybe a tiny bit easier.”

Arie: “I will not vote, I’m fed up with politics. It will be a blank ballot. I have no confidence in politics – for years now”

Q from Nieuwsuur: Do you feel that the government has abandoned its citizens?

Arie: “Absolutely, they can send millions to Greece or a country at war, but if I ask for a stipend for my daughter’s studies for later, they say they can’t help. There’s no money for that.”

As I put it in March 2017: “So there you go. You can help refugees and bail out Greece, but you can’t give us money to help with my daughter’s future education. The tie to the Greek situation is crystal clear. Greece is not getting any forgiveness because voters in the Netherlands and Germany, who go to the ballot box this year, don’t want this. It’s as simple as that.”

What’s the solution?

I have some ideas about how to fix this. But none of these ideas are getting any traction in the mainstream. I feel quite chastened on offering solutions after the financial crisis and the way alternative solutions were shut down and the cracks were papered over.

But I know right-wing populism is dangerous. Let me be clear about that. Identity-based politics infused with nationalism is what led to the massacre in Rwanda and to the Yugoslav Wars. I had a front row seat to these atrocities at the State Department. And in the 25 years since then I have always remembered how these people had lived side by side for generations only to slaughter each other. That’s what nationalism does. It stirs up latent animosities and brings then to the fore. Often that means violence and war.

So, nationalism clearly isn’t the solution. At the same time, it’s also clear that working class people all around the west feel like their world has been destabilized. Personally, I look at this as a sort of ‘sellout of the middle class’. We’ve been sold a bill of goods where ‘openness’ is good: free movement of capital, free trade and freer movement of labor. Frankly, this system isn’t working for a lot of people.

Until politicians address that fundamental fact, working class people will continue to see some merit in politicians who espouse overtly nationalist platforms.

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