Talking about East and West: Causes and Responses

This post originally appeared on Hate 2.0

I really welcome Andrei Rejsin’s response to my thoughts on the geographies of racism and blame in Europe. I’m in the early stages of the project, so I really want thoughts, arguments, and challenges.

There are lots of Neo-Nazis in East Germany, and there are lots of people who support them. The dangers are not trivial, and the statistics, as Andrei Rejsin points out, are alarming. The more interesting question is, however, how we all, in discussions about the problem we agree on, talk about causes and responses. What accounts for the rise of Neo-Nazis in specific regions? Who can do anything about them?

The discussions about the causes of high levels of support for right-wing parties and violent Neo-Nazism in East Germany veers between two poles: between suggesting that there is no difference between the regions, and between locating the causes all in the East, the East German population. Both options seem insufficient. East Germans are not genetically predisposed to be Neo-Nazis. Just ask the many East Germans who are not at all right-wingers, and please also ask them about how it feels to be from the East and always having to talk about why there are so many Nazis in the East.

Not all explanations for the rise of Neo-Nazis are self-serving: There are those who talk about social conditions and processes that account for the rise of right-wingers in East Germany: high unemployment, out-migration of educated young people, especially women, and the lack of civil society infrastructure that offers alternatives to Neo-Nazis. Alienated, unemployed white men engage in “compensatory subordination” (Nancy Ehrenreich): they insist that their whiteness and masculinity should get them privileges they are not able to claim, and take out their frustration on those who are even more marginal than they are. As a friend of mine working with youth in Vorpommern observed succinctly, happy people with a good sense of humour and empathy don’t become Neo-Nazis.

Identifying the causes is one thing, talking about responses, it turns out, quite another. If we agree that there are social processes that create conditions under which it is easier for young people to think that their whiteness entitles them to something they don’t get, and that they have the right to decide who can live in their community and who can’t, we also need to talk about reasonable responses to these social conditions.

Current newspaper and blog reporting about Neo-Nazis in small cities and rural areas stresses two actors that could confront Neo-Nazis but often fail: civil society and the police. Yes, there are many people who could do more, who could be more sensitive and perceptive, and who could be more courageous. But many are courageous, or would be courageous if they could only find a job that would enable them to live in the places where their presence would make a difference. And yes, the police would do well to transfer some of their insistence that currently goes into pursuing those who bike in the dark without lighting to investigating Neo-Nazis and protecting those who are under attack from right-wingers. But we know from other context that simply increasing police presence might not make a community safer.

Yet the blame on civil society and the police obscures something: if we agree that certain social conditions enable the rise of Neo-Nazis, shouldn’t we do something about these conditions? Now that’s harder. It’s easy to tell East German villagers to step up against armed thugs, and to roll our eyes at the incompetent police in some provincial backwater. But what enabled the rise of Neo-Nazis was not police incompetence but the fall of an entire society into massive unemployment and precarious employment. It wasn’t just indifferent neighbours but a state that disappeared — replaced by one that promised riches and blooming landscapes and occasionally sent welfare cheques — that bred cynicism and hate of “others” in the East. Neo-Nazis are surely more present, more accepted, and more feared in the East. Yet the conditions that produced them are not only of the East. If we just keep telling local civil society to stand up to Nazis, nothing much will happen. To stand up to anyone, you first need a job and a reason to stay.

If we understand the rise of Neo-Nazis as a product of processes of marginalization and alienation that were the by-product of the unification process, we can start to understand that responsibility for the rise of Neo-Nazis cannot only be placed where the Neo-Nazis in fact appear.

These are my initial thoughts on what’s at stake here: it shouldn’t be about denying violence and exclusionary attitudes, but about suggesting responses that match with the causes we have identified. Blaming those who live in the East for the Neo-Nazis is easy but not sufficient.

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