Xenophobia in East Germany

Jaylin Small

Jaylin Small is an intern at the AICGS for the Fall 2021 semester. She writes media reports, briefings on immigration and defense, and prepares background research for the AICGS fellows. She is a junior at the University of Georgia and hopes to attend law school after graduation.

Jaylin is majoring in Political Science and English at the University of Georgia. She was a student staffer for Johnathan Wallace’s State Representative campaign in Fall 2020. Her on-campus leadership includes being an ambassador for the Pre-Law program and School of Public and International Affairs. At AICGS, Jaylin hopes to enrich her understanding of foreign relations and the complex history between the United States and Germany.

A commonality found between the former communist state and a current AfD stronghold?

In recent years, global politics has seen a rise of far-right and far-left ideologies that seek to overtake the center-right and center-left in many countries. East Germany is no stranger to these trends; during the last century, the region has experienced political swings from the extreme right to the extreme left and now back to the extreme right. This political trend in East Germany is particularly fascinating because both the far-left and far-right shared similar populist rhetoric. Xenophobia has been a major link between the policies advocated for by the former communist state and the Alternative for Germany, a far-right nationalist party that is extremely anti-immigrant. Due to this, it is important to consider how xenophobia has been a major problem that has persisted in East German political rhetoric.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) attempted to form bilateral relations with other socialist states. As a result of agreements made with these countries, contract workers were allowed to come to East Germany and work in kitchen, coal mining, and consumer goods industries in efforts to promote both the economy and foreign relations. Despite the GDR presenting itself as “internationally minded,” contract workers from Vietnam, Mozambique, Cuba, and Angola experienced vicious xenophobia. In the GDR, foreign workers worked in dangerous, unskilled positions, were not guaranteed funds to return home after their contracts ended, had to go through security entering and leaving residences, had access to minimal social infrastructure, and for the most part, were kept away from East German society. Unskilled workers blamed foreigners for taking their jobs and for shortages in consumer goods. While contract workers barely made up 1 percent of the population, economic insecurity from east Germans contributed to more anti-immigrant rhetoric that increased even after reunification. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, anti-immigrant rhetoric led to right-wing mobs attacking foreigners in the street frequently in the GDR.[1] Violence towards foreigners was also kept under wraps by the GDR media.

The legacy of the GDR’s communist regime that excluded foreigners from society helps to explain why the region has become a far-right stronghold decades later.

Following Germany’s reunification, conflict intensified when native Germans began to see foreigners in Germany as a threat, leading to even more violence.[2] While many foreigners living in East Germany hoped a united Germany would guarantee them more rights, security, and equality, the opposite happened. One of the most infamous examples of anti-foreigner violence in unified Germany is the Rostock riots of 1992, where bombs were thrown at apartments housing asylum seekers. Similar incidents occurred across other parts of Eastern Germany. The legacy of the GDR’s communist regime that excluded foreigners from society helps to explain why the region has become a far-right stronghold decades later.

Nearly twenty-three years later, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was founded. The party prided itself on nationalist policies and sought to undermine the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the 2017 federal elections, the party entered Bundestag after winning 12.6 percent of the vote and become the largest opposition party. A large part of AfD’s success is credited to the party becoming more xenophobic in its messaging and policies following backlash to Merkel’s decision to accept one million predominantly Syrian refugees. While some argue that economic insecurity is to blame for the AfD’s rise in this region,[3] many AfD supporters believe that competition for resources from migrants is the cause of their region’s woes. But, foreigners have never compromised a large enough proportion of the population in this region for that to ever be the case. Despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, the communist GDR and the right-wing AfD are virtually indistinguishable in the xenophobia that continues to linger in East German society.

[1]Patrick R. Ireland, “Socialism, Unification, Policy, and the rise of Racism in Eastern Germany,” Sage Publications, Inc 31, no.3(1997): 549-553, accessed December 8, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1177/019791839703100301.

[2]Dale Tuttle, “The Assimilation of East Germany and the Rise of Identity-Based Violence Against Foreigners in the Unified German State,” Berghahn Books, no. 31 (1994): 72-76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23736285.

[3]John A. Clark and Jerome S. Legge, Jr., “Economics, Racism, and Attitudes toward Immigration in New Germany,” Sage Publication, Inc. 50, no.4 (1997): 901-914. Accessed December 8, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/448992

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.