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Critically examine the factors that have contributed to nationalism and xenophobia in Germany after reunification

Essay 2003 13 Seiten

Kulturwissenschaften - Europa



For at least the last two-and-a-half decades, critical theory in the humanities and social sciences has been concerned, amongst other things, with exploring the myths and fictions of nationalist thought[1]. Instead of the coherence of ‘imagined communities’, or even the unity of the individual subject, it emphasises the multiple, shifting, fragmented and often contradictory modes of identification that characterise what are referred to variously as the ‘postmodern’, ‘postcolonial’, ‘posthistorical’ or ‘postideological’ conditions of the contemporary world. Yet recent history, specifically the decade following the end of the Cold War, has seen a rise in nationalist sentiments and struggles, and numerous wars have been fought over inclusive and exclusive conceptions of identity. Far from disappearing, arguments about national belonging and cultural difference have had increased prominence in the 1990s. In Europe, the reunified Germany, which had been at the centre of the ideological struggle between the East and the West during the Cold War has seen a resurgence of nationalism often manifested in aggression and discrimination against minorities. Contemporary bias crime in Germany increased significantly after reunification and remained at a relatively high, though fluctuating, level for the past decade. In 1989 and 1990, immediately prior to unification, there were fewer than 200 violent incidents per year. That figure more than quadrupled by 1992 and reached its

contemporary peak in 2000 with more than 998 registered violent incidents[2] (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2001). As a consequence, Germany today is not only struggling to come to terms with its National-Socialist past but also with the recent uprisings in nationalism and xenophobia and competing demands of difference and unity as it seeks to reconstruct itself in more humane and equitable ways. In the following pages an attempt has been made to examine the causes and roots of the lasting crisis in German society by putting forward economic, psychological, political, historical, and cultural explanations.

General conditions for right-wing extremism in the new states

In 1997, the area of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a whole accounted for roughly 45 percent of right-wing acts of violence nationwide, though only 20 percent of the population lives here (Kim, 1998: 7). A common approach within the social sciences to explain the high numbers of assaults in the east is to attribute racism to the socio-economic effects of reunification on the East German population[3]. After reunification East Germany experienced what Weidenfeld (1993: 285) has called a ‘shock of modernisation’. High hopes of freedom and prosperity were dashed by the collapse of the East German economy and ‘learned socialist experiences were not in demand anymore’ (ibid. 285, my own translation). Full employment, which the regime of the GDR had guaranteed and which had formed a ‘central social value and an essential fundament for a stable identity’ was and still is scarce3 and many people, especially young unskilled workers, found themselves on the street. At the same time, the social institutions, like the Young Pioneers and the Free German Youth, that had provided low-cost meeting-places, as well as sporting and hobby activities for the youths, disappeared. Instead, ‘West German right-wing organisations set up shops in the East’ (Ostow, 1995: 89) and started youth groups, providing meeting places, comradeship and an ideology. An explanation for the fertile grounds right-wing propaganda found in the new states especially among the young is given by Watts (2001, 604):

For young Germans in the east, to be truly left was largely discredited with the fall of the Eastern German regime. This was particularly the case for skinheads, who were likely to see being right as the logical place for rebellion to take place in a socialist society.

In addition to this argument, Hagan et al. (1999: 165) register that there had been expression of right-wing attitudes by East-German youths throughout the 1980s, which they see as ‘perhaps partly in rebellion against the communist regime’. Hafeneger (2002: 71, my own translation) notes that right-wing cliques ‘also represent a youth cultural protest habitus which is directed against the establishment’.

A second approach in explaining nationalism and racism emphasises psychological factors. The collapse of the GDR left millions ‘feeling disenfranchised and bereft in an identity vacuum’ (Rodden, 2001: 69). Also, a ‘broad conviction that the country’s entire post-war history had been dismissed as sad, grotesque, or simply worthless’ (Byg, 1999: 16) left many ‘feeling like second-class Germans’ (Rodden, 2001: 69). The situation was complicated by the feelings of East Germans about their role in the GDR. Those who had believed the official ideology and worked hard to build ‘socialism' were now told that their life's work had been misguided. Many had been inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (unofficial collaborators) of the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police) and had spied on their neighbours, friends and even families. Others had taught the official doctrine at schools, or had joined the ruling party as a ticket to success. Since 1989, the collective guilt and the denial of the parent-generation have made it difficult for them to provide moral authority and guidance to youth. Rodden observes that,

Right-wing youth from the families of the “losers” have been particularly susceptible to cries such as “Germany for Germans!”. They proclaim their right to be German; they insist that they “just don’t want to have to feel shame about being German”.

(Rodden, 2001: 69, quotation marks his)

Hagan et al. in their study about the connections of hierarchic self-interest and right-wing extremism in market-driven societies found that,

In situations of rapid economic change and crisis, values emphasising success and competition can take on a survival-of-the-fittest aggressiveness. Self-enhancing orientations then can lead to a devaluation and exclusion of others or of minorities as a means to demonstrate one’s own value and superiority, to prove the significance of oneself in a highly individualised society.

(Hagan et al.,1999: 164)


[1] See, for example, B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983), E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition. (Cambridge, 1983), and T. Nairn, The Breakup of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (London, 1977).

[2] violent incidents include manslaughter, bodily injury, fire-and blasting agent crimes, breach of the peace and robbery.

[3] In this article I refer to the population of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) as East Germans and to the population of the pre-1990 area of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) as West Germans.

[4] recent figures show unemployment in the West stands at 9,5%, in the East at 17,2% (source: Wallace, C. P. (2002) “Why Germany can’t restart the engine” , in TIME, 11 November 2002, p55, 2p.) and GDP in the east is still only just over half that of the west (source: Economist, “The trouble with foreigners”, 01 July 2000, Vol. 356 Issue 8177, p48, 2p).


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University of Leeds – Trinity & All Saints College
Critically Germany National Global Culture



Titel: Critically examine the factors that have contributed to nationalism and xenophobia in Germany after reunification