What does the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland tell us about Germany’s lasting division?

Today I’m going to give a quick primer on German politics, and why the results of the recent German parliamentary elections are an important indicator of lasting issues in Germany.

AfD election poster: “Face the truth. The Greeks suffer. The Germans pay. The banks pocket the difference.”

You may have read about the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD), a far-right party which won seats in the German parliamentary elections on September 25th. (You can find a link to the full election results in English here.)

First of all, let’s discuss the German multi-party system. There are two dominant parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). In American terms, you can think of the CDU as moderate to moderate-right Republicans and the SPD as centrist Democrats. Like centrist Democrats, the SPD has moved a bit to the political right over the last few decades, in part through long coalition periods with the CDU. In addition to these two main parties, there are hundreds of other, smaller parties. In order to gain seats in parliament, the party has to gain more than 5% of the vote. As of the last vote, four parties other than the CDU & SPD have gained seats in parliament, including:

  • Die Linke (The Left): far-left Democrats like Bernie Sanders
  • Die Grüne (The Greens): the green party (i.e. Jill Sanders)
  • Die FDP (Free Democrats): pro-business fiscal conservatives; the low-taxes, pro-business wing of the Republican party
  • Die AfD: populist right-wing; pretty much your typical Trump supporter

A closer look at who voted for the AfD gives a clear picture of a still-divided Germany – there is an overwhelming predominance of votes for the AfD in the former East. In order to understand this trend, we need to understand more about the reality in the states of the former German Democratic Republic in the last 28 years.

German reunification was not an easy process for either side. Special taxes (the solidarity tax) were introduced to help gain funds for rebuilding in the East, which led to animosity in the West. Meanwhile, the states of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), like other post-socialist and post-communist states, went through what some describe as neo-liberal shock therapy.

Whereas capitalist systems are based on efficiency predicated on market principles (i.e. assuming a free market and rational behavior, if the market for widgets shrinks, the price drops, which makes widget factories’ profit margin shrink. As a result, some factories which make widgets will close or reduce production, making the supply shrink and the price rise again), state-run economies seek to ensure that enough of everything which is needed is produced, and that the citizens all have jobs, housing, etc. This means that, at the time of German reunification, many systems and structures existed in East Germany which were not compatible with the market-based efficiency in practice in West Germany. To put it plainly, many manufacturing and industrial centers were closed down and/or privatized within a relatively short period. In addition, East Germans who dealt with the intellectual or academic side of the economy were largely disenfranchised in the new system as a result of their former conformity to party norms. This conformity was, of course, an absolute prerequisite for success in the GDR, as the Socialist Unity Party largely controlled access to school, training, and jobs. Thus over the course of the three years after reunification, functional unemployment in the former GDR (people out of work, but also those in trainings not leading to permanent employment) rose to a whopping 55%. Social, political, and structural disenfranchisement was so prevalent that a book describing East Germans as “symbolic foreigners” was recently published (see my article about this phenomenon here).

Back to the AfD. Populism often arises when a population experiences a downturn. It opens the door for political parties which are willing to put the local population’s needs first, recover lost prosperity, restore lost dignity, and empower those who have been disenfranchised or debased. (Americans, does any of this sound familiar?)

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the currently proposed coalition of CDU-Green-FDP will only further this tendency. Fiscal and social conservatism will continue to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, a trend which follows the borders of the once divided Germany very closely (in 2016, the average German made 52,000€ before taxes. In the former states of the GDR, however, the average yearly salary before taxes in 2016 ranged from just 37,701€ in Saxony-Anhalt to 42,865€ in Berlin). The votes which went to the AfD chipped away at the CDU’s and the SPD’s party share (the CDU’s representation in parliament shrank by 8.6%, the SPD’s by 5.2%), showing a clear lack of confidence in the status quo and those promoting it. These are clear warning signs, and ones which need to be addressed on a local level, in the communities which have lost the most and are clearly searching for a change. German politics need to provide a new path forward that will help stave off the further growth of disenfranchisement in the East (which is exacerbated by one-sided identity politics), reduce socioeconomic disparities throughout Germany, and thus deprive the Alternative für Deutschland of the discontent that they are exploiting with their populist message.

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