The Unkept Promise of German Unification

The east’s economic hardships fuel the far right’s rise

The Unkept Promise of German Unification
In Thuringia, Germany, a former automobile plant is to be refashioned as a multifunctional venue for school, competitive and club sports. (Martin Schutt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

In some mansions, cozy alcoves jutted out, while in others rims of doors and windows were engraved with ornamental wine leaves. The architecture in Apolda, a small city deep inside Thuringia in what was once East Germany, bears a stamp of Art Nouveau and “Gruenderzeit” — the economic boom during the 19th century when hundreds of new businesses in the German Empire were founded. As one walks around the streets, traces of a bygone era of manufacturing are hard to miss.

Amid the renovated and repurposed villas that once belonged to the owners of the bell foundries and textile mills that made Apolda a manufacturing hub are decrepit homes that lie in ruins, as well as abandoned factories. They tell a different story — one of a long Soviet occupation and what many here call the unfulfilled promise of Germany’s reunification.

The spools are no longer turning and the streets are deserted. The only sound often breaking the silence is of an aging person trundling on the pavement with a stroller, either toward a large retirement home or a cafe often packed with older customers. Samples of bells and old weaving machines, relics of an earlier epoch, are parked in the “Glocken Stadt” (Town Bell) museum next to the cafe.

“There was a knitting factory everywhere, making clothes; they were everywhere,” said Loewig Ruth, who was born in 1935, 10 years before WWII ended.

The foundries that sculpted bells for church towers all over the country from the 18th to the 20th century have long been shut down. Hundreds of textile mills were merged under the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and later deemed inefficient by private companies.

Shortly after the wall fell in late 1989, an economic bloodbath ensued. Nearly 150,000 people reportedly lost their jobs within the first three months. As many as 64% of the workers of the GDR eventually lost their livelihood.

“Every family had personal job loss after the GDR economy was transformed,” professor Wolfgang Muno, the chair of comparative politics at the University of Rostock, told New Lines. “People lost faith in politics. Still they don’t trust political parties, the media, even the government.”

Such experiences — during the Soviet occupation and right after the socialist east collapsed — have affected the views of the past two generations here on Berlin’s policies, most recently on refugees.

They feel that neither the government in East Germany nor later the government of a united Germany has been fair to them. As born Germans, they believe they should have the first right on state funds for their well-being, ahead in line of people from war-torn countries.

“We don’t know how much money is being spent on refugees,” said Gerald Rosner, the owner of Strick Chic, one of the last standing knitwear factories. “There is so much wrong with our infrastructure, with schools, bridges and all that. That money would be better spent on these services.”

A German teacher at a local school in Apolda said she was gobsmacked with what some of the German students said about their Syrian and Afghan counterparts. “They repeat what their parents say. Things like ‘the refugees are here for our welfare money,’” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Apolda is now a sleeper city for those who work in the nearby university towns of Weimar and Jena. The main employers are two factories — which make frozen pizza and sausages — and a beer brewery. The youth, however, have run off to wealthier and trendier parts of the country.

“They have all taken off, haven’t they?” Ruth added.

An influx of younger refugees would presumably be a good thing for the city and the country, which needs 1.5 million immigrants each year to maintain its labor force, including 400,000 skilled workers. But the effect of the history of Soviet control is palpable long after the Iron Curtain fell. The occupation, experts say, shaped the attitudes of people here toward foreigners to a large degree.

In 2017, about 50 refugees marched in Apolda against the threat of deportation and poor living conditions. A year later hundreds of neo-Nazis attended a far-right music concert in Apolda, dubbed “Rock Against the Overflow of Foreigners.” This past June a refugee shelter caught fire and a 9-year-old child was killed, although the police ruled out arson. The Voice Refugee Forum, a grassroots activist group, claims regular racist attacks are driving asylum seekers to contemplate desperate moves, even suicide.

A local activist with another group that is investigating neo-Nazi networks’ in Thuringia and did not want to reveal his identity to make sure his work was not interrupted said that during his field trips to Apolda last year many refugees reported “racially motivated attacks,” including threats of physical violence. “Landlords in Apolda do not want to give refugees an apartment (to rent). This matter was brought to our attention and confirmed by many refugees,” he said. “The refugees are systematically intimidated. The responsible authorities, police, emergency services, immigration authorities, etc., are of no help but largely themselves have anti-foreigner attitudes.”

Underlying racism is one of the reasons holding back some people from accepting the newest arrivals, but a historical suspicion of foreigners has also exacerbated xenophobia in the former east. The GDR was a closed society and allowed negligible social contact between Germans and people from different cultures.

“There is a higher level of xenophobia in east Germany due to historical reasons such as non-contact with foreigners. Soviet soldiers were in barracks, even the Vietnamese contractual workers had no contact with the general population,” Muno explained. “The more contact we have the less prejudiced we feel. Even after unification the number of foreigners is significantly lower in the former east.”

A concoction of past experiences and an ever-lingering feeling of being left behind while the west was flooded with international investments has turned places like Apolda into a perfect playground for Germany’s far-right and anti-immigrant political party Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD).

“The children who say unpleasant things about refugees, their parents are typical AfD supporters,” the schoolteacher told me.

A large loom stood behind the glass door of the Strick Chic factory, one of the few that managed to survive under the GDR and the subsequent economic restructuring of the former socialist system. It employs 25 people, including a Syrian and a Ukrainian.

Rosner, who inherited the enterprise, showed us into a room with shawls, sweaters and cardigans hanging in rows on stands and offered us chairs to sit.

Rosner regaled us with tales of a proud history of his family and what it took for his father and uncle to open the factory and keep it running.

“We are the biggest,” he said. “There are two others, much smaller.”

He said the city was neither poor nor old but did not appreciate the asylum seekers living off state funds and not yet contributing to the local economy.

“These people sitting in the city; they have nothing to do. And that’s irritating.”

When I asked what was irritating about it, since I had barely seen any even on a Sunday when many local families were out enjoying a mid-day ice cream, he responded, “to live at our expense and do nothing.”

“We deserve all this. We have earned all this with our taxes.”

Born and raised in the GDR, Rosner had a capitalist spirit. He wasn’t opposed to employing the asylum seekers but said he wouldn’t want to pay them the minimum wage, since they were not deserving of the same remuneration as German-speaking and Germany-trained employees, he suggested, at least not in the beginning anyway.

“We have a shortage of workers and there is a lot of work that any person can do, we need more hands,” he said. “But I can’t hire them at minimum wage because I have to train these people to do simple jobs.”

“I can work with both who have the skill and don’t know the language or know the language and don’t have the skill,” he added. “I have a Syrian who has experience in this kind of work. Or there is a Ukrainian woman who we hired in the beginning of August who came to me and said she can sew but not as well as my other people. She suggested I give her half the money in the beginning.”

Rosner said that if asylum seekers were allowed to work and hit the ground running, they would help local businesses and mitigate the negative feelings. In Germany asylum seekers are allowed to work after they have been recognized as refugees. That process can take a long time.

But once the paperwork is finished, most refugees are being employed and contributing to the economy. According to Herbert Bruecker, the head of research at the government-funded Institute for Employment Research (IAB), 62% of those who have been in Germany for seven or eight years have been employed. “That’s pretty good. That’s only about 10, 12 percentage points less than in the German population.”

According to a recent study by the IAB, 41% of refugees living in Germany for six years were underpaid for their qualifications.

However, Rosner is an ardent believer that the AfD “was the only alternative’’ to the current ruling politicians in the region, even though it calls for deportation of asylum seekers rather than enhancing their employment options. Instead of taking on the narrative of the AfD, however, mainstream parties are increasingly co-opting it.

At a public meeting in a beer hall in Apolda in 2020, Friedrich Merz, the national leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU), said that Germany “can’t accept” Syrian refugees. A few months ago he hinted at a local alliance with the AfD.

On a weekday last month an Afghan family pushed the pram on Bahnhofstrasse (Train Station Street), where the who’s who of the town once lived. The family was racing to the train station to see off relatives.

“We are so grateful to be here,” said one woman, who was wearing loose black pants and a full-sleeved black shirt. Two edges of a blue scarf loosely thrown on her head dangled in front and in back.

“It’s great. Our children go to school. We have no problems with anyone and no complaints,” she said.

The traveling family members were cautious and didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, and they made sure they expressed gratitude to their hosts.

When I asked about the rise of the far right, her male relative puckered his lips, then inhaled a large breath in a sign of anxiety, blinked and said, “We are very worried.”

Some 100 meters ahead, at a picturesque neo-Renaissance train station built in 1890, two Syrians — Mohammad from Deir Ezzor and Ibrahim from Aleppo — waited for a train to Erfurt. They are always on time for their German-language lessons, Mohammad told me. Both intend to work as soon as they are allowed.

When I asked them about the AfD’s rise and whether they were discriminated against racially, they looked tense. Mohammad paused, as if he has thought about this before, and responded with a question. “Why do they oppose us? Why? We are war refugees.”

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