East Germany’s Far-Right Problem Is 300 Years Old

There are deep—very deep—historical reasons why far-right resentment has flourished in eastern Germany.

A statue of King Augustus the Strong in Dresden, Germany. (Via Getty Images)
A statue of King Augustus the Strong in Dresden, Germany. (Via Getty Images)

On the nights of Aug. 26 and 27, angry mobs flashing Nazi salutes and chanting “Foreigners out!” surged through the streets of Chemnitz, a city of 250,000 people located in the eastern German state of Saxony. The mobs, which attacked any dark-skinned folks they could find, were responding to reports on social media about the killing of a German man, who was allegedly stabbed by two Middle Eastern asylum-seekers. Many newspaper comments on this mob violence argued that it was no accident that it had transpired in Saxony. This state, after all, had registered the highest support (27 percent) for the xenophobic Alternative for Germany in the federal elections of September 2017. Moreover, a recent poll showed that while 20 percent of all Germans believed that their country had too many migrants, in Saxony that figure was 60 percent.

Meanwhile, Saxony’s capital, Dresden, had served as the birthplace of Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, in 2014. In weekly Monday-night demonstrations, PEGIDA followers marched through Dresden shouting, “We are the people,” thereby recycling an old anti-Communist motto for their newer anti-immigrant cause. In 2004, Saxony also became the first eastern German state to elect members of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party to its local parliament since reunification. And over the years, dating back to brutal attacks on foreigners and asylum-seekers in Hoyerswerda in September 1991, Saxony has witnessed more xenophobic violence than any other German state.

What is it about Saxony? Why is it so susceptible to xenophobic agitation? In trying to answer this question, most observers have focused on developments since German reunification in 1990, citing disillusionments and disappointments with life in the new Western-oriented society, as well as the abject failure of Saxony’s post-unification leaders to recognize and act decisively against emerging threats to democracy from the far-right. But it’s possible that, while developments over the last quarter-century have certainly heightened the problem of Saxony, they are only part of the story. You don’t have to search far for deeper historical reasons why today’s Saxons carry a collective chip on their shoulder.

Over the course of its long history, Saxony has hardly been without its moments of political glory, above all the much-celebrated reign of Augustus II the Strong, who ruled from 1694 to 1733 and built Dresden into a place of great beauty, twice became king of Poland, is said to have fathered over 300 children (only one of them legitimate), and, as a party trick, tore horseshoes apart with his bare hands. Ever after, Saxons chose to see in this man the very apotheosis of Saxonness. Yet Augustus’s rule proved disastrous in the long run, as he left his state militarily weakened and deep in debt. Under his hapless Wettin dynasty successors, Saxony-Poland became easy prey for predatory neighbors—Russia, Austria, and Prussia—which proceeded to tear the place apart. The stage was thus set, and a template established, for further disasters down the road.

The Kingdom of Saxony, which ran from 1806 to 1918, left behind a legacy of inept leadership, thwarted grand ambition, and diminished sovereignty. Elector Frederick Augustus III became king of Saxony in 1806 by virtue of siding with Napoleon in his wars of imperial conquest. While his posture brought momentary glory for Saxony, the king’s French connection ended in catastrophe at the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig, Saxony, in 1813. During the fighting, as the tide turned against Napoleon, most of the Saxon troops went over to the Prussians, and Frederick himself was carted off to Berlin as a prisoner of war. Further humiliation for Saxony came through the territorial rearrangement at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, whereby the kingdom lost 57 percent of its territory and 42 percent of its population to neighboring states, including Prussia. Saxons were especially embittered by the loss of Wittenberg, ground zero for their Lutheran identity and bragging rights.

Although Saxony developed a strong industrial economy in the early 19th century, its political culture remained notably stagnant, only marginally enlivened by a new constitution forced on the king by progressive civil servants in 1831. Seventeen years later, in 1848 to 1849, Saxony was caught up in the revolutionary violence sweeping across Europe; among the Saxons clamoring for change was the composer Richard Wagner, who as a consequence of the revolution’s collapse had to flee his native state for good. Fueling Wagner’s and other radical Saxons’ bitterness was the fact that their revolution was ultimately put down by Prussian troops. For Saxony, Prussia was again the culprit in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. As in the Battle of the Nations, Saxony’s king partnered with the losing side—Habsburg Austria. This time, Saxony did not lose territory, but it was forced to pay an indemnity and join Otto von Bismarck’s North German Confederation, which allowed Prussian control over Saxony’s postal system and railroads.

An even greater indignity in terms of Saxon sovereignty came with the establishment of the German Empire in 1871. Saxony retained its status as a kingdom, but its powers were purely ceremonial, Prussia being very much in the driver’s seat. Demoted to junior status behind Prussia in the Reich, Saxons responded by claiming they were actually “more German” than their upstart rivals. They used the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the House of Wettin in 1889 to point out that their dynasty was older than the ruling House of Hohenzollern, and more deeply embedded in German history and culture (think Bach, Wagner, and Robert Sputh, inventor of the beer coaster). It was largely out of injured amour-propre that in the late 19th century Saxony began cultivating a rabid German nationalism in place of its older, primarily regional, identity. An integral component of this worldview was an anti-Semitic movement centered in Dresden and Leipzig. A leader in Leipzig’s virulently racist Deutsche Reformverein was none other than Theodor Fritsch, a prominent popularizer of anti-Semitism.

When the German Reich went to war in 1914 to 1918, Saxony, seeing itself as the truest embodiment of “pure German” aspirations and ideals, put forth its own set of ambitious war aims designed to make up for territories it had lost in the past: The Saxon Council of Ministers demanded part of the “Reichsland” (Alsace-Lorraine), along with new lands in Poland, Lithuania, and Courland. Thus all the greater was the shock, the disillusionment, the bitter anger when Germany lost the war and Saxony had to give up not only its fevered war dreams but also its status as a kingdom. Demoted to a mere province in the Berlin-based Weimar Republic, the Free State of Saxony, suffering grievously from trade restrictions and the loss of coal-rich territories in the east, turned sharply to the left. In 1923, Saxony elected a far-left government including representatives of the Communist Party of Germany. In response, the central government under Chancellor Gustav Stresemann sent in military forces to expel the Communists and restore order. Once again, Saxony was slapped down by Berlin.

Six years later, when the Great Depression descended on Germany, Saxony was hit harder than any other German state, suffering the nation’s highest unemployment. This time, however, the region’s angry reds began turning brown, making Saxony a hotbed of National Socialism. After Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, Saxony became the Nazi “Gau” with the highest number of party members—the area’s radicalized working class providing a substantial bloc of support for this most extreme of right-wing populist regimes.

World War II, like the Napoleonic Wars, proved costly for Saxony, as it did of course for all of Germany. When the Western Allies began bombing German cities, Saxons hoped that Dresden, cherished worldwide for its beauty, would be spared; instead, British-American air raids in February 1945 destroyed the historic city center and killed approximately 25,000 civilians. Other German cities were wrecked too, but nowhere was the sense of grievance and victimization greater than in Dresden.

Following the fall of the Third Reich, Saxony, once again a loser at a critical historical juncture, became part of Soviet-controlled East Germany. Many of the region’s former Nazis adroitly altered their political allegiance to suit the new circumstances. East Germany’s Communist government under Walter Ulbricht, a Saxon, made the conversion easy by interpreting Nazism as a product of monopoly capitalism; East Germany, as a socialist entity, was by definition devoid of the brown stain. Under the officially sanitized surface, however, nativist and racist sentiment was allowed to flourish. This was certainly true in Saxony, whose Vietnamese contract workers were treated like Untermenschen and whose “Valley of the Clueless,” a remote corner in the southeast that could not receive West German TV signals, supplied many of the border guards for Ulbricht’s prison state. Meanwhile, Saxony’s educational system retained old Germany’s tradition of the classical Bildung, which combined an emphasis on heroic figures in German history and literature with an authoritarian style of teaching.

Ironically, the fact that Saxony ended up playing a central role in the 1989 rebellion against governmental oppression in East Germany also contributed substantially to its leadership in populist campaigns against Chancellor Angela Merkel some 25 years later. Many Saxons apparently feel that that their earlier charge against an out-of-touch and unresponsive regime in Berlin gives them license to lead a similar charge today—never mind that the aspiration in 1989 was to throw open doors to political freedom and dignity, while the purpose today is to squeeze those doors shut.

While racist sentiment is especially strong in Saxony today, such attitudes are prevalent across the entire eastern German region, which continues to lag behind the Western states in economic prosperity and employment. What is striking about Saxony, though, is that its economy is the strongest among the former East German states. In its case, socioeconomic iniquities are not the primary factors in motivating fear and hatred of “the other.” For the deeper, more durable causes behind the “Saxon Problem,” we need to look to the nation’s history.

David Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.

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