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.

Response to: These Racists in the East …

This post/response originally appeared on Hate 2.0


Dear Professor Wilke,
as one of the Editors of ““, which is (among other topics) a watch blog concerned with monitoring Neo-Nazis in Germany, I read your article with great interest. However, I would like to dispute your central argument:

There are also Neo-Nazis and other violent racists in the West for sure, but neither as widespread nor as influential as in the East. In my opinion, this East German “phenomenon” indeed differs profoundly from the rest of the country. It demands a special explanation and cannot easily be mixed with other forms of discrimination or racial slurs uttered during the UEFA European Football Championship (which, by the way is a story on it’s own). Just three starting points open for debate.

The success of the Neo-Nazi-party NPD in regional elections in the East is not even remotely echoed anywhere in the West. Never in their long history since 1964 in Western Germany did they manage to re-enter a state parliament in consecutive elections. But they did exactly that in Saxonia in 2009 and then again in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2011. This was not only unprecedented, but nowhere in the West is the their share of the vote higher than 1,6% (Bremen) in regional elections and 1,3% (Saarland) in general elections. While election results are not the only thing that matters, in my opinion the difference is far too striking to simply dismiss it.

In some (or some might say in many) of the rural areas of Eastern Germany, Neo-Nazis or “right-wingers” represent more or less the dominant youth culture (the German Term “rechte Jugendkultur” is a bit hard to translate). This too, is not the case in Western Germany. We acknowledge that some Neo-Nazi groups (for example in Dortmund) have managed to establish themselves in one area in the West or another. But the aggressive dominance of music, haircuts, fashion outfits and brands closely associated with Neo-Nazis in youth culture is almost unique to East Germany.

Sadly, this is also reflected in hate crimes crime and other statistical data: The risk of becoming a victim of a hate crime is significantly higher in the East. The numbers are even more stunning in relation to the significantly lower numbers of immigrants living there. Just one example (see the provided sources): While only 1,8% of the population in Saxony-Anhalt is of “foreign” descent (the lowest of all German states) the state still tops the list for violent hate crimes (2,84) committed per 100.000 inhabitants.

You say:

“To me, the danger in the rush to declare the NSU an East German product is to miss the broader social connections that enable these terror networks to operate. This is not only dangerous for those whose security is endangered by Neonazis. It also does something else: those who affirm that Neonazis are an East German problem and blame it on specifically East German causes (the GDR education system, legacies of authoritarian ideologies) affirm the immunity of their own West German communities from the “virus” of Neonazi ideologies and violence.”

To me, quite on the contrary:

For “those whose security is endangered by Neonazis”, it is very dangerous to downplay the specific risks for their health (and indeed life) in the East. These are by any means far graver than in the West. For example, it would generally be ill-advised for a dark-skinned person to travel rural areas of Saxony at night on their own, while the same behaviour would pose almost no risk at almost any given time in Northrine-Westfalia.

Even if I agree, that the above mentioned “specifically East German causes (the GDR education system, legacies of authoritarian ideologies)” do not sufficiently explain the reasons for the big difference between East and West, it is up to the social and political sciences to identify and explain the real reasons, so that we as a society might tackle them correctly. To me, “the search for the realistic causes of hate and violence” cannot possibly start by obscuring how grave compared to the West the East German problem really is.

In the light of the murders committed by the NSU terrorists I would therefore strongly suggest to put first things first: First explain why the phenomenon is so much more widespread and dangerous in the East, then find similarities between East and West in terms of forming and enacting identity, inclusion and the construction of the other.

Best regards

Andrej Reisin, Editor,

Hamburg, Germany

PS: I am sorry that all the sources I mentioned above are in German but maybe they can provide information anyhow (google or other translating tools online offer at least some insight).