Appeasing AfD: precedent for Chemnitz?

About the Nazis though…

This week around 6000 far right supporters and neo-Nazis gathered in the small city of Chemnitz in Saxony. They turned out in response to the killing of a 35-year-old Cuban-German man by two refugees. About a thousand left-wing demonstrators appeared as a counter with approximately half that number of police officers mediating between the two, who requested back-up from nearby Leipzig and Dresden. 

Chemnitz was formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt during the GDR, its most distinguishing feature is a huge bust of the revolutionary philosopher in the main square. Behind Marx’s massive head “Workers of the world, unite!” is written in German, Russian and French. In front stand the far right crowds with banners reading “Ausländer raus!” (Foreigners out!)

ChemnitzIn June I wrote this piece reflecting on the Bavarian Kreuzpflicht and the traction of Alternative für Deutschland ideas, which are seeping into the mainstream parties in Germany, leading on to a discussion of why the far right seems to hold such an attraction for the former East. I did not publish it at the time, but I now feel it has become relevant again following these events.

Bavaria, the largest in landmass of Germany’s 16 federal states and second most populous, has controversially decided to implement a bylaw requiring the display of the crucifix in all public offices, with the exception of colleges, museums and theatres who are only recommended to hang a cross on the wall. A report recently published by the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (Protestant Church in Germany) showed that at the end of 2016 over 50 per cent of the Bavarian population were Catholic and 18.8 per cent were Protestant. Despite the change in policy not having been urgently demanded by the majority of Christians, the legal obligation has 38 per cent support in opinion polls. However, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, has strongly criticised the move and a petition from a student at the University of Regensburg has already received over 52, 000 signatures.

Why then introduce mandatory crosses now? As justification the Christian Social Union (CSU) – a Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) – have claimed that the display of the crucifix is an “expression of the historical and cultural character of Bavaria” and draws attention to the “basic principles, rights and social order” of the state and of Germany. Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria is a practising Protestant, yet he stresses that in this context, the cross is about regional identity and not a religious symbol.

Several commentators have suggested that the motivation behind this shift in policy, if not religious, is to give a concession to would-be AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) voters in the run up to the regional election in October. It is certainly not about the Catholic Church, who can no longer be said to correspond directly with the CSU and who were in conflict with the Bavarian government throughout much of Söder’s predecessor and leader of the CSU, Horst Seehofer’s tenure. These tensions being particularly sharp regarding the state’s refugee policy; Seehofer strongly criticised Angela Merkel’s approach and this critique was then branded as lacking compassion and unchristian by leading Church figures including Cardinal Marx.

Modern Germany is far from a secular state; the Church, Protestant and Catholic, plays a significant role in public life and is integrated into the political system. Religion has power not only institutionally, but also personally, with Germany ranking as comparatively more religious in the context of Europe at large, regardless of confessional allegiance. However, the picture is also highly diverse, with the major cities such as Hamburg and Berlin reporting an atheist absolute majority and the former GDR states having the greatest number of people identifying as non-religious. The other federal states are mostly religious, with Schleswig-Holstein the only Protestant absolute majority and Saarland joining Bavaria as predominantly Catholic. Interestingly, religion in Germany is not on the decline, with young people actually more likely to express some sort of faith. This bucks the trend with the rest of Europe, which is becoming more secular.

Whatever changes are taking place, they are not radical but gradual and there is unquestionably no dramatic surge in religious zeal that could be used to justify the new law. There has, however been a rapid rise in support for the (relatively new) political party, the AfD. Yet the AfD could not be said to be a predominantly Christian movement, rather an Islamophobic one – they define themselves negatively against the Muslim/Arab other. The AfD are seen as a political threat to the CSU, who received their worst result since 1949 in last year’s federal election. In this way, Bavaria’s crucifix obligation can be seen as pandering to a potential electorate, who theoretically delight in the provocation of an increasing Muslim minority.

However, if we look at the picture as a whole it is clear that the AfD’s challenge to the established Christian Democrats manifests itself most strongly in the former GDR (this being one of the most atheistic areas in Europe) where Die Linke (the Left) trail a couple of percentage points behind in third. During last weekend’s demonstration in Berlin, supporters carried placards with, “Dresden, Cottbus, Kandel – Deutschland ist im Wandel” (Germany is in flux) written on them. They are clearly proud of their gains in the East. Die Linke, once the go-to non-mainstream choice for those living in the former GDR, is being supplanted by the far-right.

The question is: why has the East deserted the Left, or, in fact, have they them? Perhaps a little background is needed to attempt to answer this question. Die Linke rose from the ashes of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany or SED) after the collapse of real existing socialism in 1989 and were known then as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS); the party of ex-comrades who were really conservative under a socialist guise in that they had got used to defending a post-revolutionary status quo. Among the citizens of the former GDR there existed a latent potential for rightist nationalism; they had grown accustomed to a narrative of nation-building, the need to secure strong borders and the external, conspiring enemy, in which responsibility for the National Socialist past was glossed over and dismissed.

The question of who can combat this tendency is therefore not a simple one. AfD are directly trying to exploit it, the CDU have no qualms about appeasing it, the SPD are discredited through their collusion with the establishment and die Linke are hindered by their origins in the party that historically created these conditions. The leader of die Linke, Sahra Wagenknecht’s position is also not antithetical to the AfD’s. In a 2018 interview with FOCUS Magazin she said, “,Offene Grenze für alle’ ist weltfremd” (‘open borders for all’ is a fallacy), elaborating by saying that while she had sympathy for those in need of asylum, Germany needed to build more housing to accommodate new arrivals and that the regulation of capitalism takes place within single states. On the migration issue, it seems the two parties are fighting over the same ground, albeit from different perspectives.

Whilst the CSU may be pandering to the far right, it is perhaps more troubling that die Linke’s internationalist scepticism is a deeply rooted philosophy. Certainly, in the former GDR, die Linke are capturing the public mood more than the SPD, but is this at the expense of transnational solidarity?

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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