After the Wall: what the UK can learn from the failing German radical centre

There’s no escaping the anniversary in the German media. 30 years ago, Günter Schabowski famously declared at the East German government press conference of 9 November 1989 that citizens of East Germany could travel outside the country using border crossings of the German Democratic Republic with a simple passport check and visa stamp, and thereby shot the starting pistol for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the GDR’s borders to the West,

German media is daily commemorating the fall of the Wall and the fall of communism in East Germany. Commemorating, but barely celebrating, if they are at all. Much is not right in the lands of the East of the Federal Republic. Much that worries politicians in Berlin.

The latest tremor in the socio-political landscape occurred in late October with the state election in Thüringen, the most “westerly” (geographically and in some ways culturally) of the former GDR provinces. The hope of the Christian Democrats to dislodge the Left and win Thüringen for the “democratic middle” failed spectacularly, with a loss of 11 points to just 22 per cent of the vote.

The Social Democrats, coalition partners in Berlin, fared still worse, collapsing to just 8 per cent of the vote. The two big winners of the night were the Left, the inheritors of the Communist party, and their very popular leader and Minister-President Bodo Ramelow, and the far-right AfD, led in Thüringen by the firebrand Björn Höcke (so controversial that the Federal constitutional protection authorities are investigating him).

The Left won 31 per cent of the vote, and AfD 23.5 per cent. This in the Land of Erfurt, Weimar and Eisenach, Luther, Bach and Goethe, in the most successful Land in the East post re-unification.

So why is the Centre failing so disastrously, not only in Thüringen but across the East? The problems are well known: depopulation of young people moving West especially from Eastern small towns and villages, a lack of investment from significant companies in East Germany (just 7 per cent of Germany’s 500 most valued companies, and none of its DAX30, are headquartered in the East), a lack of politicians from the East “making it big” in Berlin in the Federal government (Angela Merkel remains the exception and pretty much the outsider).

Also a lingering sense that the politicians and entrepreneurs of the West view the “Ossies” as inferior and less capable; and a lingering sense that not everything was by any means worse under the Communists.

The answer probably lies close to home, in an analysis of why the Brexit Party is set to do well in poorer Northern English towns, and why Dominic Cummings’ campaign strategy for Boris Johnson focuses on “Workington Man”, representative of disenchanted Leave voters, not so dissimilar to their counterparts in the old mining and productions towns of Saxony or Mecklenburg.

Western German politicians are in their bubble, not listening to the people; their policies say little to people looking for a positive identity; a coalition government pleases no one – the Social Democrats have badly lost their way, and both SPD and CDU seem more concerned with internal conflicts over who will lead them into the next Federal Election in 2021 than tackling the disenfranchised voters of Eastern Germany (the SPD is currently seeking a successor to its recently resigned leader, the CDU is questioning the fitness for purpose of party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose popularity is sinking rapidly).

There are no quick fixes to Eastern Germany’s malaise. The liberal young must find reasons to stay, but that requires more opportunities to develop professionally and culturally. More Westerners must take the trouble to get to know their countrymen in the East and reflect on their concerns: four times as many Eastern Germans have travelled West than Westerners to the East, and 17 per cent of the Western population has not travelled at all to Eastern Germany since 1989, according to the recent Deutschlandtrend survey for the ARD TV broadcaster[1].

Above all, the sense of social cohesion that appears to have been lost in the East since 1989 must be revived – without extremist political identities. In the Deutschlandtrend survey, 76 per cent of Eastern Germans asked believed that social cohesion was better under the GDR than in the Federal Republic. Socialism may have made many mistakes, but somehow community and neighbourliness seemed stronger under the Communists than they seem to be now.

Any people looking for a positive identity in complex times are open to extremist politics. The UK gives ample proof of that. But a people who defied their government and successfully and peacefully launched their own revolution for change, only to be treated as second class by many of their new compatriots and to be constantly reminded that “their country” had failed, such people are particularly easy to convince of the merits of far left and far right.

Not all is gloom. The Deutschlandtrend survey indicated more than half of those questioned believed that in another generation it would make no difference if a person will be born in the West or East. In Thüringen, it is likely that the government will continue to be led by Ramelow, the most capable and popular politician of the Socialist Left across the Federation, and that the AfD will be excluded from government.

But one thing is certain. Federal German politics is in a mess, and this is reflected in the East particularly. The CDU would do well to find a better candidate for 2021 than the hapless Kramp-Karrenbauer, a conservative Catholic from far-west provincial Saarland, and perhaps to look to the East for inspiration.

The SPD needs to find any credible leader – and soon! If not, political extremism will continue to flourish in the East of the Republic.

[1] Deutschlandtrend, ARD Tagesthemen, 7 November 2019

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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