The far-right AfD would have won the latest regional election in Germany if it had been chosen by young people. A new generation has inherited the East German identity, and some of them are unconcerned with a few bigoted politicians.
The Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) election victory in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt on Sunday was reassuring for Germany's centrist mainstream parties, but it also had an undercurrent that worried them: once the pollsters had tallied the results, it emerged that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) had come in first among voters under 30.
That demolished the government's argument, made before the election by the commissioner for former East Germany, that some people vote for the far-right because they grew up in a dictatorship. One out of every five voters born after 1991 supported the AfD. So, what went wrong?
Kerstin Völkl, a political scientist and election researcher in Halle, the capital of Saxony-Anhalt, observed that the AfD seemed to have a superior approach for young voters. "They attempted to project a 'caring' image, as if they were attempting to understand the difficulties of young people," she told DW.
She also said that the AfD was the only party in Saxony-capital, Anhalt's Magdeburg, that sent individualized letters to all first-time voters.
"Yes, that is correct," Jan Wenzel Schmidt stated in his office in the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt. "And you can tell that it was a success," he said, smiling.
Schmidt is the leader of the Junge Alternative, the AfD's youth group in Saxony-Anhalt, which helped design the party's election plan. The organization made a point of campaigning loudly on the streets of Magdeburg in the closing days of the campaign, despite its tiny membership of just 160 individuals.
Schmidt symbolizes the AfD's ambitious new generation, and it's maybe an indication of how much faith the party has in individuals like him that the 29-year-old is now one of the party's first candidates for the Bundestag. It's pretty likely that he'll go to Berlin in September.
Schmidt is still a local politician for the time being, and the native Magdeburger believes the AfD did well last Sunday because it understood what had been bothering Saxony-youth Anhalt's in the previous year: primarily, restrictions on freedom imposed for a virus that many young people do not believe can harm them.
These restrictions exacerbated a larger issue that affects poor, sparsely populated areas: a chronic lack of infrastructure, particularly public transportation (in Saxony-Anhalt, some villages have only two bus services per day) and "social infrastructure," such as youth clubs, which were once a staple of many eastern German communities.
"The younger generation is essentially disadvantaged," Schmidt said, "since many of the investments that are made no longer reach young people." "I witnessed it myself: there were a lot of youth clubs and places for young people to go while I was growing up in Magdeburg in the 1990s, and they've all vanished."
Young and Dissatisfied
Johannes Walter of the Kinder und Jugendring, Saxony-umbrella Anhalt's group for hundreds of youth assistance organizations, has the same concern, despite the fact that he and the AfD are political opponents. "In Saxony-Anhalt, funding for local youth work was drastically reduced in 2014 and has not been substantially increased since," he told DW. "In the meanwhile, operating expenses and wages have increased, and all of the youth groups have had to close down one by one."
Others who deal with young people in Magdeburg believe the solution is much simpler: the party does not need to explain its program in any manner; voters just transfer their own discontent onto the party.
"All you have to do is look at the AfD's campaign posters," David Begrich of Miteinander, an anti-racism campaign organization, stated ("Together"). "They were simply two red arrows pointing towards the other parties' posters with the slogan: 'You had 30 years' time.' That's not a political platform; it's just an expression of emotion."
When there's nothing to do, you can't afford a vehicle, and just two buses pass by your house every day, frustration sets in. However, there are impoverished, disgruntled young people in rural western Germany as well — so why don't they vote for the AfD in similar numbers?
Miteinander conducts weekly school sessions with young people from both eastern and western Germany, and there is a substantial difference in self-confidence levels, according to Begrich. "I find young people from the west to be much more eloquent and talkative, as well as more confident when meeting strangers," he added.
Even after 30 years of reunification, he thinks there remains a unique East German identity that is being passed down to younger generations, including (or maybe particularly) those who have gone west to study and work and subsequently returned in their 20s and 30s.
"We encounter a lot of young individuals who are looking for an identity," Begrich said. "We've seen that young people and young adults are increasingly returning to the subject of East Germany and East German identity; I see it in my own daughter, who is 18, but feels herself in opposition to 'West Germans.'"
The lack of trust also explains the former East Germany's catastrophic demographics: Saxony-Anhalt has lost a quarter of its population since 1990, mainly from rural areas, and those who have left are young, well-educated individuals, including many women.
Aside from the elder generations, "young men with a lesser degree of education" are left behind, according to Völkl. "And they've absorbed that status — and they're aware that they've lost, which makes you more susceptible to populist and authoritarian tones."
Although some economic indicators (GDP, average wages) show that eastern Germany is gradually catching up with the west, that new wealth is just that: new. It hasn't been gathered yet. Eastern Germans' average net fortunes remain less than half that of western Germans, implying that young eastern Germans do not inherit the same wealth as their western counterparts.
Against this backdrop, the elephant in the room — the AfD's growing right-wing extremism — carries less weight with voters.
"For starters, in the east, racism and right-wing extremism aren't as taboo, and there's a different connection to freedom of expression," Begrich said. "Students in the school projects I work on often tell me, 'I believe Adolf Hitler was a wonderful politician — he constructed the autobahn and gave many people money and jobs — and that's my view, and we live in a free nation where I can voice my opinion.'
So, what do you do if an adolescent says something like that to you? "Well, the most important thing is to respond with facts and convey my opinion that Hitler was a criminal," he added. "All too frequently, far-right viewpoints are not challenged; instead, people respond, 'Oh well, that's just your opinion.'"
Kerstin Völkl of Halle University thinks that young eastern Germans are less aware of both the significance of democracy and the need of a functional civil society for democracy. As a consequence, there is less indifference toward racism. "They are oblivious to the threat that far-right inclinations pose," she added.
Written By: Olivium's Editor