GERA, Germany — In 1989, East Germans took to the streets to protest against the injustices and tyranny of the German Democratic Republic. Their “Peaceful Revolution,” a series of protests started in the Saxon city of Leipzig, eventually toppled the Communist regime and ushered in the fall of the Berlin Wall and a reunited Germany.
This fall, as politicians from the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) campaign across three former East German states 30 years later, they sound almost like they’re reliving those events.
At a recent campaign event in this city of about 100,000 in the eastern German state of Thuringia, reminders of the legacy of 1989 were everywhere. A massive party banner hung next to the event declared: “The East Rises Up!” Awaiting a speech from Björn Höcke, head of the party in Thuringia and leader of the AfD’s far-right “wing,” they sat in AfD-branded beach chairs with the tagline: “1989-2019: Be There When History Is Made.” And the stage where Höcke spoke had a massive backdrop that read, “Peaceful Revolution With The Ballot.”
With the sound of counter-protesters’ voices and whistles in the background, Höcke decried what he called the lack of freedom of expression in Germany and criticized the country’s leaders for the current sorry state of affairs. “We’re taking back our democracy, our constitutional state—we’re taking back our country!” he said in closing as the audience began to chant his name. “We’re completing the revolution!”
This fall, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the enduring differences between East and West are on full display—particularly at the ballot box in Thuringia and the two other eastern German states, Saxony and Brandenburg, that went to the polls on Sept. 1. (More from Saxony, where I spent the month of August, here, and from Brandenburg here.)
As a result, the party is pitching voters here with an explicit argument that the promises of 1989 remain unfulfilled—and that voting for the AfD is the only way to finally bring them about. Campaign materials, candidate posters and party events are all branded with the slogan Wende 2.0, a phrase that refers to a second coming of the fall of the Berlin Wall; the party calls for a Vollende der Wende, a phrase that loosely translates to “Complete the Revolution.” And it’s not uncommon for party leaders to declare Wir sind das Volk! (“We are the people!”), a central rallying cry of the Peaceful Revolution in 1989.
While the AfD has not significantly expanded its overall support since the 2017 elections, its voters are increasingly concentrated in the East. In this May’s European Parliament elections, the AfD won 11 percent nationally; in four of five of the eastern German states, it won nearly or more than double that. Its lowest result in eastern Germany was in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where it brought in 17.7 percent of the vote—still significantly above the national average. (By contrast, the party had just single-digit support in all but one western German state.) September’s elections in Saxony and Brandenburg were further proof that the party has cemented its place in both states: 27.5 percent of voters in Saxony and 23.5 percent in Brandenburg voted for the AfD.
Here in Thüringen, which goes to the polls on Oct. 27, the AfD has had similar success: It won 22.5 percent here in both the 2017 federal elections and this May’s European elections. Gera in particular is an AfD stronghold: the party won 29 percent in the 2017 elections and 29.6 percent in May, more than 10 points ahead of any other party.
That clear eastern German strength is a big part of why AfD leaders have recently tied the party’s identity so strongly to the East. “In 1989, I went out into the streets in Erfurt, like many East Germans,” an elderly man says in the AfD’s official campaign ad in Thuringia. “Even today, I still don’t understand how our generation could be so mislead. Freedom, self-determination, mutual respect—every day, I see how we’re losing that yet again.”
In a series of social media posts, the party uses the frequent construction of: “We wanted freedom, and we got…” Some of those have to do with the economic situation in east Germany (“We wanted freedom, and we got poverty for the elderly”) while others are explicitly xenophobic and stoke anti-Islam fears (“We wanted freedom, and we got Islamization,” one post reads, featuring a woman wearing a blue burqa, the most restrictive Muslim clothing).
And a post calling for election-day volunteers, echoing the branding at the Gera event, boldly declared: “Be there when history is made.”
The thing is, like many populist messages, there’s a basic truth to the frustrations behind the AfD’s campaigns this fall. It’s not just AfD voters in eastern Germany who feel they continue to lag behind their counterparts in the West, or that reunification hasn’t lived up to their expectations: From demonstrably lower wages to smaller pensions to a lingering lack of representation in politics, the media and business, eastern Germans still face significant disadvantages more broadly. Spending time in Görlitz this summer was helpful for understanding just how deep some of those divisions still go, and how dramatic a shift East Germans had to deal with after 1990.
“It’s hard for western Germans to understand just how completely the economy collapsed,” Uwe Walter, a journalist with the German broadcaster Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk in Görlitz, told me in his office one August morning. “In the last 30 years, there has been radical upheaval… it’s changing now, but at the start it was catastrophic.”
As a result of those experiences, as well as the kind of political conditioning one gets growing up in a dictatorship, Walter said: “I believe the AfD is an East German problem.”
The party’s argument that Germany has effectively become a sort of reborn GDR—hence the need to “complete the revolution”—centers on a few key claims. First and foremost, proponents contend that Meinungsfreiheit, or freedom of expression, is severely limited: People aren’t truly free to speak their minds, AfD politicians argue, a sentiment I’ve heard repeated by voters across all three states with elections this fall. What’s more, they often say, the mainstream press follows the government line without giving the AfD fair coverage.
Second, they talk about how the current government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has become what they label a quasi-dictatorship. Major decisions about the country’s future—from allowing an influx of refugees to enter the country to current debates about climate regulations and a carbon tax—have been made without the input of the people, AfD politicians argue. Having lived through a dictatorship in the past, eastern Germans are more sensitive to what they see as overreach by German politicians.
(There’s an inherent contradiction in the AfD’s insistence that democracy no longer functions, of course. Parts of the party—including Höcke’s far-right “wing”—have been placed under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence service, which monitors anti-democratic, extremist activity; the AfD’s rhetoric as a whole when it comes to issues such as immigration have led many to deem it, not traditional parties, the true threat to democracy.)
Those topics were a big part of my discussion this summer with Antje Hermenau, a former Greens MP who split with the party several years ago and has since served as a sort of explainer for Saxon resentment and frustration. Hermenau campaigned this summer for the Free Voters, an independent citizens’ movement that leans conservative, but has said she understands why many of the AfD’s arguments hold such weight in her home state.
“There are déja vus” from DDR times, she told me in Dresden. “And these déja vus are: The government is lying to us or doesn’t want to tell us the truth, and the press is complicit.”
She added that it’s not actually so outrageous for the AfD or the Dresden-based anti-Islam grassroots group Pegida to claim the heritage of 1989 because the Peaceful Revolution wasn’t a left-wing revolution. “When the Berlin Wall fell, completely diverse people took to the streets, from left to right,” she said. “All political colors were there, all schools of thought: liberals, conservatives, democrats, socialists, etc.”
Throughout the time I’ve spent in various parts of eastern Germany this year, I’ve repeatedly asked people if they believe there’s a concrete “East German identity,” and if so, how they would begin to define it. Many rejected the idea of such an identity, per se, but felt strongly about a set of shared experiences that unites East Germans who lived through the DDR and even their descendants.
Susanne Dagen, a bookseller in Dresden whose shop in the upscale Loschwitz neighborhood has become a sort of gathering place for the right-wing intellectual scene, sees such a shared past as a key part of the political behavior of eastern Germans. “We all had the same experiences,” she told me over breakfast back in August. “Sometimes I feel like a veteran—the way someone used to talk about the war is exactly how we talk today about the GDR.”
Dagen first garnered national attention in the early days of the Pegida movement for saying the group, as well as the AfD, deserve the right to share their opinions publicly. She drew the ire of critics of both groups, a time she said affected her bookstore’s business. Now a member of the city council from the Free Voters, Dagen told me she realized the difficulty of speaking one’s mind in the German public sphere—at least on the right side of the spectrum.
Like many populist messages, there’s a basic truth to the frustrations behind the AfD’s campaigns this fall. Eastern Germans feel they continue to lag behind the West, or that reunification hasn’t lived up to their expectations: from demonstrably lower wages to smaller pensions to a lingering lack of representation in politics, the media and business.
“That was the first situation where I noticed how it is when you invite people from the ‘wrong’ side,” she said. “When you’re labeled with such a stigma, and as a result people who come to my shop or our events have to justify that to their friends and acquaintances… You have to have a strong character. It’s very hard.”
Such sentiments are common among AfD voters in the East. Over my months of conversations with the party’s eastern German supporters, some told me the lingering east-west inequalities have led them to lose faith in all mainstream political parties. Others argue their experience in the East German dictatorship has made them especially sensitive to what they believe are similar tendencies in today’s Germany.
Marion Schmidt, a 73-year-old retiree I spoke with before Höcke’s speech in Gera, described with tears in her eyes about how, while visiting a family member in the United States in November 1989, she watched coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall on television and could hardly believe it was happening. Like many others, she was in awe of the kind of freedom and possibilities German reunification promised.
But today, her reality hasn’t lived up to those promises: Schmidt struggles to get by, continuing to work part-time because her pension isn’t enough to cover her basic living costs. Like Gottfried and Helma Thielsch, the former small business owners I met in Görlitz who also struggled to make ends meet in retirement, Schmidt said the AfD is the only party that takes her concerns seriously.
“These 30 years, they haven’t changed very much in eastern Germany,” Schmidt, who lives in nearby Hermsdorf, told me. “The differences between East and West are still there: our wages, our pensions—our entire standard of living.”
Back in late April, when I visited local AfD politician Marianne Spring-Räumschüssel in Cottbus, a city in Brandenburg, echoed the idea that growing up in Communist East Germany predisposed people to be more “sensitive” about perceived authoritarian tendencies in politics.
“We’ve already brought down one state, the GDR, and as a result the people have become incredibly sensitive,” Spring-Räumschüssel, who has since won a seat in the Brandenburg state parliament, told me at the time. “They say to themselves, ‘Something isn’t right here.’”
She was among the many AfD voters and politicians in Cottbus who explicitly tied their support for the party to their identities as East Germans. Benno Bzdok, a local-level candidate for the AfD at the time, told me he only recently became active in politics because he felt the promises of 1989 were far from achieved: “In 1989, we went out in the streets as GDR citizens to change something—and what we wanted to change we’re seeing again today,” he said.
Echoing the party’s current slogan almost verbatim, he continued: “We need to finally complete this reunification between the GDR and West Germany.”
Toward the end of Höcke’s speech in Gera, Schmidt—the retiree with whom I’d spoken earlier—found me in the crowd and tapped me on the shoulder. Smiling, she handed me two AfD-branded pens: “We’re writing history!” they read.
That really is how the party bills itself to supporters: Voting for it and helping it gain influence in eastern Germany will turn a new page in German history, one that will bring the East what it finally deserves.
The recent focus on eastern Germany, brought on by the approaching anniversary of the fall of the Wall and this fall’s state elections, is unlikely to abate anytime soon. A week’s worth of celebrations is planned in Berlin in early November leading up to the anniversary of the fall of the Wall; next year, which will mark 30 years since Germany’s reunification—culminating in German Unity Day on Oct. 3—is sure to bring about continued discussions about the enduring east-west disparities in the country.
Which means we are sure to hear more on this front from the AfD and party leaders like Höcke in particular. Julian Göpffarth, a researcher at the London School of Economics who focuses on the AfD and the far-right intellectual scene in eastern Germany, told me it’s the perfect messaging strategy for the AfD: “All of this is coming together” for the party, he said.
“You have the anniversary [of the fall of the Wall], you have this more general reassessment of history breaking out at the moment, then of course this populist moment,” he said. “It’s really playing into the hands of people who use it strategically.”
Lead photo: Björn Höcke, leader of the AfD’s far-right “wing,” speaks to supporters at an October rally in the eastern German city of Gera