Across the Atlantic: The View from Berlin

Across the Atlantic: The View from Berlin

Deidre Berger, Managing Director

September 19, 2004

The electoral success of the far right in two eastern German state elections on Sunday, September 19, was a jolt, despite the fact that it had been widely predicted. Riding on a wave of voter dissatisfaction regarding projected cutbacks in social welfare and unemployment benefits, two far right-wing parties entered state parliaments.

In the state of Saxony, which has been ruled by the conservative Christian Democrats since unification, the NPD (the National Party of Germany) easily scored just over 9 percent of the overall vote, bringing it back into a state parliament in Germany for the first time in thirty-six years. The NPD is considered the most extremist of the organized right-wing parties. The government's attempt several years ago to ban the party as unconstitutional turned into a political disaster when it turned out that lead witnesses were government informers, causing the high court to dismiss the case. Since then, the party has gathered renewed political strength.

In the state of Brandenburg-which is ruled by the two largest parties, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD)-the DVU (the German People's Union) garnered about 6 percent of the vote, putting the party back into parliament for the second time, despite its poor legislative performance.

In both elections, Germany's two largest parties, the CDU and the SPD, lost substantial ground compared to the previous elections. The Reform Communist Party strengthened its position as the second largest party in both states.

Can these elections be written off as a protest vote against social cutbacks and the continuing high rate of unemployment, particularly in eastern Germany?

These factors fueled voter dissatisfaction, but there are other worrisome elements to this vote. One such concern is that the strategies of the 1990s to stop right-wing groups have had only marginal success. A series of bans on smaller right-wing groups drove the right-wing political scene to change its strategy. Instead of cultivating high-profile organizations, right-wing strategists have built up a series of loosely linked cells that use cellular phones and the Internet to stay in contact.

Paramilitary training and right-wing hate music are hallmarks of these informal, but highly organized groups. For the past ten years, some of these groups have created self-declared "no-go" zones where foreigners are warned not to tread. These zones are "enforced" by occasional vicious attacks on foreigners, political opponents, the homeless, or anyone else deemed to be an enemy of the people.

Right-wing extremist violence that increased after unification has continued, particularly in the eastern part of Germany. The lack of civil society in the formerly communist part of Germany has meant that protest against such attacks has been limited, with protestors even fearing repercussions. Funds that were given to strengthen groups fighting right-wing extremism have been cut back at both the federal and state levels. There are no easy answers as to the best ways to combat hatred before it takes root in young minds, but the more that determined citizens fight the phenomenon, and the more that attacks are denounced by public opinion leaders, the less room intolerance has to flourish.

On September 8, an AJC fact-finding delegation headed by Board of Governor members Dottie Bennett and Nick Lane went to Saxony to learn more about the promotion of democracy in eastern Germany fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We found relatively little awareness of the depth of right-wing extremism among the officials with whom we spoke. Anti-racist activists told us that their work is financed almost entirely by funding from the federal government and the European government, because many in the state government do not believe that right-wing extremism is an issue that needs to be addressed.

In such an atmosphere, we were alarmed to hear from a member of the Dresden Jewish community that he had found anti-Semitic content in right-wing propaganda material distributed at a rally to protest impending social welfare cuts. There is seldom right-wing extremist ideology that does not have an anti-Semitic component.

However, we were pleased that the Saxon state minister of education was interested in closer contact with a group of Berlin educators who accompanied us on the mission. These teachers and administrators have specialized in recent years in combating racism and anti-Semitism in Berlin schools. They have created a highly successful CD to help teachers deal with manifestations of right-wing extremism, including the insidious messages of hatred contained in right-wing rock music. They are currently planning to do a CD on anti-Semitism, together with teacher training and peer leader training seminars. Furthermore, they have launched a German adaptation of AJC's core values curriculum program, "Hands Across the Campus," which should be completed in the next two years.

The shock of the recent German state elections have prompted politicians from all the established parties across the political spectrum to condemn voters for electing right-wing parties, often dismissing the vote as a temporary protest phenomenon.

Unfortunately, this response underestimates the degree of dissatisfaction many eastern German voters feel with capitalism and democracy. The NPD, not surprisingly, received 18 percent of the vote of those who are unemployed, and even more disturbingly, 17 percent of the vote of young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine.

It will take consistent work to promote democracy and pluralism to counter right-wing, anti-Semitic propaganda. A teacher's exchange between Berlin and Saxony is a small step in countering right-wing extremist ideology. But small steps taken often enough can contribute to a shift in societal attitudes.

In post-WWII Germany, right-wing parties have occasionally been elected to state parliaments. They have generally unraveled as soon as their politicians were faced with legislative responsibility. Furthermore, no charismatic leaders such as Jörg Haider or Jean-Marie Le Pen have emerged in Germany to unite the highly splintered group of right-wing ideologists.

While the most recent right-wing gains in eastern Germany remain a marginal political phenomenon, the situation needs constant monitoring by government officials and concerned citizens. Beyond that, it is necessary to support an offensive strategy against right-wing extremism wherever possible. Promoting pluralism and democracy have been hallmarks of the American Jewish Committee for nearly a century. This political prescription remains our best defense against anti-Semitism, racism, intolerance, and hatred.

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