Are the “East Germans” just bad democrats who mourn the GDR? And is the “West” completely blameless in the Erfurt debacle? Not at all — while Thüringen’s politics are indeed rooted in the memory of the GDR, the current far-right scandal is more than just a state-socialist hangover.

  • Ned Richardson-Little

    Ned Richardson-Little leitet derzeit an der Universität Erfurt die Forschungsgruppe "Das andere globale Deutschland: Abweichende Globalisierung und transnationale Kriminalität im 20. Jahrhundert". Sein Buch "The Human Rights Dictatorship: Socialism, Global Solidarity and Revolution in East Germany“ wird Anfang 2020 bei Cambridge University Press erscheinen.

Under normal circum­s­tances, the third round of voting to choose the minister-president of Thüringen is not the subject of national debate in Germany. Yet, the recent events at the legis­la­ture in Erfurt erupted into an inter­na­tional scandal as the Chris­tian Demo­crats (CDU) and Free Demo­crats (FDP) voted along­side the far-right Alter­na­tive for Germany (AfD) to prevent a left-wing coali­tion from forming a mino­rity govern­ment. As with all deve­lo­p­ments rela­ting to the far-right in Eastern Germany, commen­ta­tors invoked the spectre of the state socia­list past: Poli­tical scien­tist Herfried Münkler, for example, blamed the memory culture of the GDR for the whole fiasco. The then ruling Socia­list Unity Party (SED) had reduced the fight against Nazism to the problem of class struggle and thus incul­cated an anti-fascist ideo­logy in the popu­la­tion of the GDR that legi­ti­mized its own rule without truly dealing with the horrors of the Holo­caust. Demo­cracy in the former East, he argued, was still deformed by a dicta­tor­ship that fell 30 years ago and continued to suffer from a lack of good demo­crats. But the poli­tical dyna­mics of Thüringen cannot be reduced to such simpli­stic narra­tives. The long-departed state socia­list regime cannot be blamed alone for the current crisis. It instead origi­nates in the poli­tical and social processes that Thüringen has expe­ri­enced since 1989 – although the history of the GDR and how it is unders­tood today remains of vital importance. At the heart of the current poli­tical crisis in Thüringen are compe­ting histo­rical narra­tives rela­ting the Nazi and state socia­list past to present-day Germany and its future. This is not as simple as East versus West. Rather, Thürin­gian poli­tics demons­trate how hybrid poli­tical discourses of far-right revi­sio­nism, anti-communism and anti-fascism have emerged since reunification.

The far-right narrative

One parti­cular histo­rical discourse is espoused by far-right revi­sio­nists, led by the AfD. Thüringen has a long-standing, though not unique, problem with neo-Nazis: It was home to the National Socia­list Under­ground (NSU) terro­rist orga­niza­tion; it hosts the annual Themar far-right rock concert and the extreme right faction of the AfD’s Kyff­häuser meeting. As part of the 2019 elec­tion, the AfD sought to leverage East German memory through its slogan “Complete the Turn” (Voll­ende die Wende) in refe­rence to comple­ting the revo­lu­tion of 1989. The AfD’s message held that real sove­reignty was never returned to the former citi­zens of the GDR, but was instead given over to a cabal of unac­coun­table elites who are under­mi­ning the German nation through the mass impor­ta­tion of cultu­rally alien immi­grants. This echoed other far-right and popu­list senti­ments, like those within PEGIDA from nearby Dresden, which has also sought to claim the mantle of the East German dissi­dent movement.

None­theless, the histo­rical narra­tive advanced by the AfD is not exclu­si­vely East German-oriented and is melded toge­ther with the West German far-right’s long-standing rejec­tion of a memory culture focused on remem­brance and atone­ment for the Holo­caust. Björn Höcke, a history teacher origi­nally from Hesse (in the West) – described as a Nazi both by his oppon­ents and his fellow party members often invokes the GDR, but his broader histo­rical view­point is one of German revi­sio­nist nationalism. 

Holo­caust Memo­rial in Berlin; source:

As he said in 2017: “Until now, our mental state conti­nues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monu­ment of shame in the heart of their capital.” Similar senti­ments have been expressed by other AfD leaders such as Alex­ander Gauland, who said that the Nazi era was but “bird shit” in the “glorious history” of the German nation. Gauland too made his career in the West, being a high ranking CDU func­tionary for decades before joining the AfD. Although the rejec­tion of Holo­caust memory culture is often attri­buted to the fail­ures of the SED to properly grapple with the Nazi past, the AfD is also a product of the West German far-right poli­ti­cians who moved East after 1989 to build a new move­ment in the ruins of the GDR.

A choice between the center and extremes?

Demons­tra­tion in Erfurt, 9.5.1989; source:

Conver­sely, CDU leader Mike Mohring is a local whose poli­tical career began in the Chris­tian civic move­ment at the end of the GDR. Reflec­ting the second prevai­ling histo­rical narra­tive circu­la­ting during the elec­tion, he frames his own role as a defender of 1989: “We fought for this 30 years ago in the peaceful revo­lu­tion, which is why I took to the streets at the time. […] The Left and the AfD want a diffe­rent country; we want better poli­tics.For Mohring, this elec­tion was a choice between the center and extremes, and The Left’s was as unac­cep­table as the AfD due to its state-socialist roots made. Five years ago, when Bodo Ramelow and The Left took power for the first time since the party was formed in 2007 through a merger of the Party of Demo­cratic Socia­lism (PDS) – the direct successor to Socia­list Unity Party – and a splinter group of left-wing Social Demo­crats (SPD), it sparked street protests by those who saw this as a return of the SED and possibly even the Stasi. Demons­tra­tors in Erfurt demanded “No Power to the Commu­nists” and some hauled out their posters from 1989, calling for the end of the SED. Ramelow was accused of being a “wolf in sheep’s clot­hing” hiding his socia­list extre­mism under a façade of moderation.

In the years since that elec­tion, however, this narra­tive has lost reso­nance as the Left-Social Democrat-Green coali­tion under Ramelow proved to be rather mode­rate – and popular. There are some former members of the SED in The Left, as well as some former Stasi infor­mants. But Ramelow himself is from the West, a former trade unio­nist, and a prac­ti­cing Chris­tian. He was moni­tored by the Federal Office for the Protec­tion of the Consti­tu­tion (the agency in charge of poli­cing the boun­da­ries of the free demo­cratic order) until, in 2013, the courts forbade further surveil­lance on the grounds that there was no evidence Ramelow was anti-democratic. His coali­tion part­ners include the Green Party’s Astrid Rothe-Beinlich, who was part of the church-based envi­ron­mental move­ment in the GDR and took part in the occu­pa­tion of Erfurt’s Stasi head­quar­ters in 1989. Wolf­gang Tiefensee (SPD) also has strong dissi­dent creden­tials – as a Roman Catholic, he refused compul­sory armed service in the National People’s Army and parti­ci­pa­tion in the near-mandatory Free German Youth. This unique confi­gu­ra­tion meant that the history of the GDR was a point of nego­tia­tion during coali­tion talks. The final agree­ment included the need for a critical enga­ge­ment with the past and the decla­ra­tion that “the GDR was a dicta­tor­ship and not consti­tu­tional state” („die DDR war eine Diktatur, kein Rechts­staat“). In Ramelow’s first speech as minister-president he apolo­gized for inju­s­tices committed by the SED.

One of the side-effects of the focus on the role of Left party members in the East German state was a renewed focus on the acti­vi­ties of Chris­tian Demo­crats in the GDR. Although East Germany did not have compe­ti­tive elec­tions, there were several “bloc parties,” inclu­ding an Eastern CDU that voted in concert with the SED. The two minister-presidents of Thüringen prece­ding Ramelow had been members of the East German CDU, and one previous Minister of Justice had held a seat in the GDR parlia­ment. Renewed scru­tiny led Mike Mohring to create an inde­pen­dent histo­rical commis­sion to examine the history of the East German CDU.

„Justice and solidarity”

As the CDU sought to distance itself from its East German past, Ramelow put forward a new – for our purposes here, third – kind of hybrid memory culture in the 2019 elec­tion. A tele­vised elec­tion ad entitled “History is the Frame­work of Our Iden­tity” featured Ramelow walking the path to the Buchen­wald concen­tra­tion camp memo­rial site outside of Weimar. Without mentio­ning the AfD by name, Ramelow says in a voice-over, “We cannot allow our history, the period from ’33 to ’45, to be dismissed as ‘bird shit’ or our memo­rials described as a shame.” In the video, he stops at the memo­rial, built by the SED in 1958, which includes a comme­mo­ra­tive statue of victims stan­ding in resis­tance to fascism. 

Memo­rial „for the victims of fascism“, Buchen­wald, 1958; source.

In the ad, the figures are mostly out of focus in the back­ground – reco­gnizable to the many Thürin­gians who visit the site on personal and school trips, but likely unfa­mi­liar to viewers from further afield. Blen­ding toge­ther the discourses of Western Holo­caust memo­ri­a­liza­tion and socia­list rhetoric (refe­ren­cing a song by Bertolt Brecht) he concludes, “Never again and never forget: Justice and soli­da­rity” („Nie wieder und niemals vergessen: Gerech­tig­keit und Soli­da­rität“). The message empha­sizes a demo­cratic respon­si­bi­lity based on Nazi crimes, but also incor­po­rates cultural aspects of the East German past (the anti-fascist memo­rial, the language of soli­da­rity) rather than simply erasing them. Simi­larly, in respon­ding to criti­cism that he refuses to label the GDR a “Lawless State” (Unrechts­staat), Ramelow published a long article on the concept and its usage to describe Nazi crimi­na­lity by the Jewish West German prose­cutor Fritz Bauer, who initiated the Frank­furt Ausch­witz trials.

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A Bundes­land Divided

During the 2019 elec­tion, none of the three narra­tives prevailed. The AfD managed to more than double its previous results (reaching 23.4%). After five years of a popular Left-Social Democratic-Green coali­tion govern­ment, the CDU’s vote share dropped from 33.5% to 21.7%. Finally, The Left increased its vote share to 31%, beco­ming the largest party, but was stymied by the entry of the FDP into parlia­ment and the weak­e­ning of the SPD, which meant that the coali­tion lost its overall parlia­men­tary majo­rity. The AfD’s second place finish was only due to a large turn-out by those over the age of 60 who – contrary to stan­dard expec­ta­tions – over­whel­mingly voted for The Left. Those who had been socia­lized in the GDR were the only ones to prevent younger gene­ra­tions, parti­cu­larly those grew up in a reuni­fied Germany, from making the AfD the stron­gest party in Thüringen.

Further­more, the center-right’s decision to vote along­side the AfD was largely engi­neered by indi­vi­duals with roots in the West. Both the local AfD and FDP leaders were born and raised in West Germany. The effort from within the Thüringen CDU to build bridges to the far-right has been led by Karl-Eckhard Hahn, also origi­nally from the West, with ties to the New Right dating back to the 1980s. The CDU’s decision to vote with the AfD was defended by Bern­hard Vogel – the former CDU minister-president of Thüringen (1992-2003), who was previously minister-president of Rheinland-Pfalz (in the West). Another key actor in the debacle was Hans-Georg Maaßen, a Rhine­lander who had been in charge of the Federal Office for the Protec­tion of the Consti­tu­tion, the office that moni­tored Ramelow for anti-democratic beha­vior, before being fired after down­playing far-right violence in the city of Chem­nitz and for inap­pro­priate ties to the AfD. Maaßen has become the face of the Werte­Union (the Values Union, a right-conservative faction of the CDU) and has worked behind the scenes to midwife colla­bo­ra­tion with the AfD in Thüringen and elsewhere.

Although the Federal Repu­blic is often lauded for its memory culture, equated with a strong sense of national guilt and atone­ment for the Holo­caust and a total abhor­rence of natio­na­list revi­sio­nism, this senti­ment has never been universal. In the 1980s, during a state visit by US Presi­dent Ronald Reagan, West German Chan­cellor Helmut Kohl insisted on laying a wreath at a ceme­tery where soldiers of the Waffen-SS were also interred – despite inter­na­tional outcry. The Historian’s Dispute (Histo­ri­ker­streit) of the 1980s was sparked by promi­nent conser­va­tive scho­lars seeking to down­play the guilt of the Nazis by clai­ming that the Holo­caust was a reac­tive measure to Soviet crimes and that the German war effort on the Eastern Front could be unders­tood as an hono­rable defense of the home­land. This West German national-conservative tradi­tion, which views commu­nism as a threat greater to the dome­stic order than that of far-right ethno-nationalism, conti­nues into the present.

Hybrids of reuni­fi­ca­tion over eastern stereotypes

It is all too easy to reduce the current poli­tical crisis in Erfurt to a coll­ec­tion of East German cari­ca­tures. The Left Party is cast as reac­tionary Stali­nists seeking to bring back both the Wall and the Stasi. The far-right in Thüringen is simi­larly patho­lo­gized as the end product of a state that failed to incul­cate demo­cratic values (in contrast to West Germans who learned demo­cracy under the tutelage of Western occu­p­iers). Yet the poli­tical situa­tion in Thüringen, as in the rest of Eastern Germany, cannot be reduced to a mere histo­rical hangover of socia­lism, but must be examined in light of the multiple processes of reuni­fi­ca­tion that have gene­rated new pola­rized (and pola­ri­zing) hybrids of East and West.