Sociologist on the afd east election campaign: system collapse has influenced

The AfD presents itself as a new civil rights movement and compares the Federal Republic with the GDR. Where does that come from? David Begrich attempts an explanation.

Bjorn Hocke tries to trigger voters by talking about a "Wende 2.0" Photo: dpa

taz am wochenende: Mr. Begrich, if you drive through Brandenburg at the moment, you constantly come across slogans like "Complete the turnaround," "The Peaceful Revolution with the ballot," or "We are the people" – all three election posters of the AfD. What’s going on there?

David Begrich: In its election campaign in eastern Germany, the AfD is rhetorically connecting to the historical experience of the Wende and the period of upheaval in the GDR. This is happening on two levels. First, there is a parallelization of today’s social circumstances with the agony in the final phase of the GDR.

And second, the AfD gives the impression that it is the legitimate steward of the historical legacy of the peaceful revolution. It does so in a variety of allusions that seek to tie in with the cultural memory, especially of the middle generation in East Germany.

This trend has been evident for quite some time, for example in speeches by party leader Alexander Gauland, who equates the federal government with the Politburo, for example. But why is this on the rise right now? Does the AfD need a new identity theme because migration no longer has the same appeal?

In terms of contemporary history, the topic is at the top of the list. We are in the thirtieth year after the upheaval in the GDR and are heading toward the anniversary in the fall. And in the fall, state elections will be held in three eastern German states.

So it makes sense for the AfD to want to occupy this topic. In doing so, it very cleverly taps into the memory spaces, experiences and narratives of many East Germans – and does so very subtly in some cases.

The election campaign in Brandenburg can’t exactly be described as subtle. What do you mean?

For example, the video by Maximilian Krah from Saxony, who called for election observation in the spring and took up the slogan of the GDR opposition on May 7, 1989, "With felt-tip pen and ruler we go to the polls." That was very common at the time. After that, there were protests in the GDR on the seventh of each month; many East Germans can remember them. The video establishes a proximity between the elections in the Federal Republic and those in the GDR. This suggests that, then as now, there was electoral fraud in the interests of the rulers.

Born in 1972, social scientist and theologian, grew up in Magdeburg and Brandenburg/Havel. Since 1999, he has worked at the right-wing extremism office of Miteinander e. V. in Magdeburg, which promotes democracy.

Begrich is considered an important East German author and intellectual. He regularly analyzes East German society. His "Letter to my West German Friends" after the riots in Chemnitz was widely quoted.

Similar to the discussion about the non-admission of part of the electoral list of the Saxon AfD.

Exactly. According to the motto: Anyone who grew up in the east knows what’s going on here. Here, too, it is suggested that the decision of the election committee has the same significance as the election fraud in the last local elections in the GDR.

How does it fit in that the Identitarian movement plays Eisler songs or that Bjorn Hocke refers in his book to the GDR writer Franz Fuhmann, who was critical of the regime?

You have to distinguish between the two. For the IB, this is probably provocation. After all, she only plays the Eisler songs, which have a heroic marching music character.

And Hocke?

Whenever the AfD draws on the GDR’s arsenal of rhetoric, the party can count on there being an instant recognition effect among the middle generation. And that causes people to remember. The AfD is trying to reach those who have the impression that their memories and experiences are not represented in the political culture of the Federal Republic. And that is indeed a problem.

The predominant patterns of interpretation are West German. This is not a problem for the younger generation, but it is for the middle and older generations. They have the impression that their memories and experiences are not represented.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Whether it’s pop music, soccer, literature, or whatever else, the GDR ekes out an existence as a closed collection area in political culture. For most people in the East, however, it is not a closed collection area, but part of their biographical experience.

Give me an example.

It’s a question of the time-historical guiding principles of perception. Everyone knows Fix und Foxi, Donald Duck. But in the East, the Abrafaxes defined the world of comics. No one in the West knows them. They are not part of the canon either. The same goes for actors, writers, soccer players and pop stars. This shows: Cultural memory in East and West Germany does not operate on an equal footing.

One narrative that is increasingly cropping up in AfD speeches at the moment is that of the family at the dinner table, with parents thinking about what to say so that the children don’t blab at school. Of course, that’s also parallelism, as you call it. Do people really believe that?

"And that’s not what we did the peaceful revolution for, dear friends, we never want to see that again." Bjorn Hocke, born in 1972 in Lunen, North Rhine-Westphalia, AfD parliamentary group leader in Thuringia

"No one took to the streets in 1989 to think about (…) what do I say at the kitchen table so that the children don’t blab."Andreas Kalbitz, born in Munich in 1972, AfD state leader in Brandenburg

"As in those days, the regime consists of a small group of party functionaries, a kind of politburo (…)"

Alexander Gauland, born in Chemnitz in 1941, in West Germany since 1960. Party leader of the AfD

Hard to say. What matters is that it is repeated over and over again. Recently, for example, it was said: Look, Angela Merkel is trembling, just as Erich Honecker suddenly disappeared from the scene in July 1989, deathly ill. Then there will be no need to say that the Federal Republic as it is now is coming to an end. That’s for everyone to figure out for themselves.

The most influential AfD politicians in the east – Gauland, Hocke and Brandenburg’s top candidate Andreas Kalbitz – come from the west? That doesn’t really fit.

Obviously, this now plays only a subordinate role in the course of discourse. For the right wing of the AfD, eastern Germany is a place of longing. In their eyes, it is the more German Germany.

What is also important is that in West Germany there is the political infinity narrative of the success of the Basic Law. But the majority of the population in East Germany has experienced that narratives of infinity can very quickly come to an end. This is not a fantasy of the AfD. People have seen a system that thought it was the ultimate political system in the world collapse within weeks.

With this experience, people perhaps think it is not impossible that the political system of the Federal Republic could collapse. And then parts of the AfD come along and turn this experience into a political wish.

In the east, this whispering of a change of system, which parts of the AfD engage in, is particularly pronounced. It fits with this that they try to hijack the notion of "peaceful revolution."

Yes, but whenever the talk turns to how the AfD envisions the completion of the turnaround, it gets very nebulous. It doesn’t become clear what it’s supposed to amount to; it’s deliberately kept open. Because that’s how you can appeal to different recipients: Some can imagine the fall of Angela Merkel, others a fairer pension system, and some even a different political system. That’s the point of it all.

How important is the material level? In terms of pensions, wages and wealth, there is still a clear inequality between East and West.

Of course that’s important. People notice that the differences in wages and wealth are considerable. In the middle and older generations, as many sociological studies have shown, many feel that they are second-class Germans and that their own life achievements are not valued on a par with those of West Germans. Some, however, have in a way also settled into the feeling of being set back and are turning it into an anti-Western German resentment à la "The Wessis are to blame for everything."

AfD focuses much more on social policy in the East than in the West, volkisch social policy.

Attitudinal surveys in the East consistently show high approval ratings for social equality and security. At the same time, the desire for a homogeneous society is widespread across milieus in the east. The East German AfD picks up on both elements.

In the past, the Left Party, or rather the PDS, profited from this.

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Yes, in the East, loyalty to a party is much less pronounced than in the West. Parties are supposed to ensure that something specific is enforced. And if the elected party doesn’t deliver, people vote for another one. There are hardly any firmly established voter milieus in the east on which the parties could rely. And the AfD benefits from a very heterogeneous non-voter milieu in the east.

You have now mentioned the middle generation in particular. But is the awareness of being an Easterner waning at all?

The picture is mixed. The FAZ has just published a survey according to which a majority in the East sees itself as "East German." The degree of identification with the East varies with the generations.

Is this awareness really waning – or is it not being reproduced in parts of the younger generation? In much the same way that young migrants today again feel more strongly as Turks, for example.

You could say that the East German identity is an invention of the 1990s and has nothing or not much to do with the reality in the GDR. It comes from the transition phase.

The discussion about how this phase went in the new federal states is beginning quite hesitantly, and even here there is a danger that it will be conducted according to West German rules. Many West Germans still do not realize what this phase means.

Compared to other countries like Poland or Hungary, the process of change in the GDR ultimately went very, very quickly. Is that part of the explanation?

The consequences of the upheaval are still underestimated today. As long as there is a common perception in the East that they were taken to the cleaners by the West Germans, there is no need to deal with the question of what homemade mistakes were made here in the 1990s.

What about the inner-East German debate about all this?

First of all, you have to ask: Where would it have its place or public representation? West German models dominate the major media. As long as that doesn’t change, there’s an impulse in the East to withdraw and say, "We’re of no interest there anyway."

In the feature section of the FAZ, there is currently a small debate on 30 years of the Wende. There it is being discussed what role the GDR opposition really played in the demonstration in Leipzig and afterwards. What is currently happening in the East does not come up. The two discussants, Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk and Detlef Pollack, are East Germans …

… but they are debating in a West German medium. What is the scope of this debate? Of course it makes sense to make the question of the actors of the Wende and their ideas the subject of debate. You can complain that the AfD is appropriating the topic, but I would advise against that.

The experience of the upheaval in the GDR does not belong to anyone alone; it is part of a social debate. And this debate is taking place in the east. The question is whether there is an independent East German tradition of democracy and what it looks like. And it’s about learning how to deal with conflict. I hope that these questions will be discussed controversially in the fall. But I am skeptical that festive events and speeches will achieve that. There would have to be some kind of democracy workshop.

How can these discussions be encouraged?

There would certainly have to be a different perspective on the events of the time and their actors. In the public perception, the focus is on the civil rights activists and the demonstrators. Rightly so. But 30 years later, one could turn the perspective around or broaden it: It was not only those who demonstrated who contributed to the peaceful course of the revolution, but also those who stood on the other side: in other words, the combat unit commanders who did not let anyone shoot. They, too, are part of this history. And there should be a debate about that.

Can the AfD also tie in so well because the movement back then was a national movement? It went from "We are the people" to "We are one people" very quickly.

In the East, AfD and Pegida see themselves as the sole representatives of the "people" against the "old parties" in the wake of 1989. Taking this rhetoric at face value would be wrong.

But that is not yet a counterargument.

The fact that some of the euphoria in the wake of reunification turned nationalist is just as true as the subsequent mobilization of racist violence and right-wing youth culture. But it is also true that the entire process of change in the GDR was more diverse and contradictory as a democratic awakening than is perceived today.

How do you explain the fact that some of the civil rights activists, such as Vera Lengsfeld or Angelika Barbe, slid so far to the right? Barbe now sits on the board of trustees of the AfD-affiliated foundation..

My impression is that these people feel a deep sense of grievance, which they recognize in the lack of recognition – from their point of view – of their personal life in the GDR by the Federal Republic of Germany. Some have sought a different resonance space and found it among the right-wingers. There they are backing those who think that the Federal Republic is a GDR 2.0. That is absurd.

At the AfD election event last Saturday in Prenzlau, stewards wore blue vests with the words "dissidents" and the AfD logo. Why aren’t former civil rights activists fighting back against this instrumentalization?

There is no such thing as "the" civil rights activists. Since 2015, many have voiced vehement opposition to Pegida and its "We are the people" rhetoric.

Would it help if the East were not permanently described as a crisis region, but more as a success story, which it is?

The people should be the focus, not cliches that circulate about a region. When I read in the site: "Bautzen is known for its neo-Nazi scene," that’s true, but would that be written about Dortmund? Bautzen is also known for mustard.

There are these images of East Germany that are trapped in cliches: Plattenbauten, the unemployed, neo-Nazis. There is still this exotic view of East Germany. It reproduces these images, even if it is not intentional. Because of the upcoming state elections, East Germany is currently a hot topic in the West German media. But many reports read as if they came from a very distant country.