Was ist los in Erfurt? The East German Past and the Democratic Crisis of the Present

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.

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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.

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?

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.

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.

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.