Germany Fears Renewed Nationalism

Germany is fed up with her troublesome past: more than half of the 83 million Germans do not want special relations with Israel. But as more and more people say it is time to move forward, ghosts from the past appear to haunt the country’s youngest generations.

Nationalism is on the rise all over Western Europe, but nowhere is it more noticeable than in former East Germany. Empty and derelict blocks of flats and poor infrastructure epitomize the exodus of millions of people who have moved westward since the communist state dissolved in 1990. Those who have stayed grow increasingly disappointed with the new reality that has failed to meet their high expectations, fortified by years of western movies that, although being banned by the communist regime, made their way into many households.

After eighteen years of free market economy, the unemployment in Germany’s eastern regions often exceeds 20 percent, twice as much as in neighboring Poland and the Czech Republic. Although the billions of dollars pumped by the federal government into the east resulted in artificially high wages, very few people agree to take permanent jobs east of Berlin. The lack of hands for simple works like picking up asparaguses – a delicacy beloved by all Germans – have caused farmers to invite seasonal workers from Ukraine or Russia who can earn even four times more than at home.

That foreigners are not always welcomed was learned by a group of six Polish workers whose flat was burned down last week. Farmers themselves, they had arrived in a small town in Saxon-Anhalt invited by a local producer who needed people to work in his factory. On the night of April 26 someone broke a window of their flat and threw a bottle with gas inside. The fire spread fast, but the Poles woke up early enough to flee uninjured. All of their personal belongings, however, perished in flames. In the morning the police caught four teenage Germans, including one girl, who admitted to setting fire to the Poles’ apartment. They said they wanted to purge their country of dirty foreigners.

It wasn’t the first such an incident in Saxon-Anhalt, the province located east of Berlin. In January 2007, several skinheads first accosted four African immigrants and then burned down their temporary flat. The immigrants survived unharmed but, advised by the local police, they left the town soon after. Resentment toward foreigners takes various forms. Jim Curtis, an English writer and teacher, who used to live in Saxon-Anhalt recorded an innocent if not worrisome regularity. Whenever he met a German he knew but who was in a company of other Germans, they would simply ignore his friendly gestures. “What the hell is it about this country’s social customs?” Curtis asked on his blog.

Nationalism, however, is not only limited to former East Germany. According to the latest polls published by Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper, thirty percent of teenage Germans think that there are too many foreigners in their country. What is more, one out of ten admits that he or she has at least once manifested anger toward other nationalities – for example, by drawing a swastika on a wall. Twenty percent feel hostility toward Muslims, whose number amounts to over three million. Among other least-liked nationalities those from Central and Eastern Europe were named most often.

On May 3, the national ZDF television channel reported that 53 percent of all Germans think that their country should give up special relations with Israel. The majority of those who argue that Germany does not owe any special debt to the Jewish state are relatively young people, between the age of 30 and 40, for whom such words as the Holocaust or Auschwitz belong to the distant past. Especially the last couple of years have recorded a negative change in Germans’ attitude toward Israel, what can be explained by the Iraqi war, which is extremely unpopular in Western Europe.

Although absent in the federal parliament, the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP) has its representatives in local assemblies. Only two years ago, the party acquired almost 1,000 new members, recruited mostly among young people from former East Germany. In the 2005 general election, the National Democratic Party won less than two percent nationwide, but managed to install its members in the regional parliaments of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Saxony.

The NDP draws its sympathizers among people who dread the European Union. Political scientists underline that right-wing parties usually succeed in regions with high unemployment and little infrastructure, usually on the border with Poland and the Czech Republic. As the prices in the latter countries go up, more and more Poles and Czechs seek cheaper apartments on the other side of the Oder River, where inexpensive flats are in abundance. In Szczecin, a Polish city half an hour from the German border, students are offered free transport and affordable accommodation in nearby German towns as German authorities’ fear many towns will soon completely depopulate and disappear.

With no border control, traveling in Europe has become easier than ever before. But although the majority of Germans welcomed the admission of their eastern neighbors to the European Union in 2004, they find it hard to accept new conditions. As wages in some regions of Poland, Lithuania or Hungary have already equaled those in eastern Germany, the residents of Saxon-Anhalt and other eastern regions feel left behind. But it is not the old who complain the loudest. Among victims of the EU enlargement are young Germans who, used to vast welfare services, lose competition with their more ambitious and energetic colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe.

On May 1, around one thousand members and supporters of the National Democratic Party of Germany marched through the streets of Nuremberg, the same city where Nazi apparatchiks were put on trial by the Allied coalition after World War II. Despite protests from local Jewish organizations, the mayor of Nuremberg could not stop the manifestation, arguing that the NDP is a legal party. In Hamburg, in northern Germany, the NDP organized a similar march which gathered over one thousand, mostly young, people.

Krzys Wasilewski
Krzys Wasilewski, while living in Poland, completing his masters degree in International Relations, was seduced by English Literature.