The number of east Germans with far right or xenophobic views has increased dramatically over the past two years, according to a report published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on November 12. The percentage of east Germans with a “cohesive far-right world view” has more than doubled—from 6.6 percent to 15.8 percent since 2006—with most of the increase coming in the past two years. Meanwhile, in west Germany that percentage has fallen from 9.1 to 7.3.
“This trend is alarming,” the report states.
What the report termed “Islamophobia” is prevalent in both east and west. Over 56 percent completely or mostly agreed with the statement “Islam is an archaic religion, unable to adapt to the present.” The study also examined both “traditional” anti-Semitism and what it called “secondary” anti-Semitism. To measure secondary anti-Semitism, the foundation asked questions like, “Jewish people use the memory of the Holocaust to their own advantage”—which nearly 32 percent of respondents agreed with.
The report found that those in the east were more “Islamaphobic”—41.3 percent compared to 35 percent, but there was little difference in “traditional” anti-Semitism—12.6 percent in the east, compared to 11.3 percent in the west. In fact “secondary” anti-Semitism was higher in the west—24.9 percent, compared to 18.8 percent.
But why is right-wing extremism growing in the east? One of the report’s authors blames the economic situation, saying the far-right thinking is “strongly connected to a widespread feeling of hopelessness and lack of opportunity.”
While this is probably true, the study indicates there is something more to the figures than that. The percentage of east Germans who said their financial situation was very good or good rose from 36.7 percent in 2010 to 47.9 percent today. The percentage who said their situation was poor or very poor fell from 19.1 percent to 16.2. Unemployment in east Germany, as of February this year, was going down.
East Germany is unquestionably poorer than the west. Unemployment in the west is 6.2 percent, while in the east it’s 11.9. History has shown us that when times are bad, people can rapidly pivot to the right. This is happening right now in Greece. Those figures could explain why east Germany is further to the right than the west. But it doesn’t explain why east Germany has become more right wing, while its economy is improving.
Another possible factor is the surge in immigration. The net inflow of migrants to Germany in 2011 was the largest since 1996. In west Germany, where unemployment is around 6 percent, this may not have impacted people much. But with unemployment around 12 percent, east Germans may have responded more strongly as they saw foreigners taking jobs while Germans remained unemployed.
Perhaps most importantly, world conditions have deteriorated in the last two years. The euro crisis has gotten worse. The Arab Spring has allowed radical Islam to spread into North Africa and take over Egypt.
West Germany has had nearly 70 years of stability. The east only emerged from communism 23 years ago. With a shorter history of stability, combined with higher unemployment, the easterners may be more sensitive to the new dangers.
If this reading of the statistics is true, it paints an alarming picture. It shows that as world conditions become worse, and as radical Islam spreads, the German response is to turn quickly to far-right ideas.
As the world becomes more dangerous, watch for west Germany to move in the same direction. ▪