Germany’s Far-Right Freedom Fighters

Eastern Germans increasingly claim to have freed themselves from communists, only to have been taken over by another dictatorship: western Germany.

An election campaign poster from the far-right Alernative fuer Deutschland (AfD) reads: "We are the people!" in Zehdenick in the federal state of Brandenburg, eastern Germany, on August 28, 2019, ahead of state elections.
An election campaign poster from the far-right Alernative fuer Deutschland (AfD) reads: "We are the people!" in Zehdenick in the federal state of Brandenburg, eastern Germany, on August 28, 2019, ahead of state elections. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

It’s very possible that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) could sweep the two regional votes in Brandenburg and Saxony on Sept. 1 and another after that in Thuringia in October. Polls show the AfD as the most popular party in large swaths of Germany’s five eastern states, and, much to the detriment of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s flagging Christian Democratic Union (CDU), it looks set to rake in record vote counts in the three upcoming elections.

But even more surprising than the AfD’s surge is what exactly has fueled it. Contrary to all expectations, the AfD has not centered its campaign exclusively on the topic of migration and refugees—ultimately the issue that catapulted them into the mainstream of German politics four years ago. Rather, in a convoluted twisting of history, the far-right party has seized on the disgruntlement felt by older easterners over events dating back 30 years: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of communism, and the transition to liberal democracy.

The AfD is racking up supporters in the east by claiming to be the real heir of the democratic revolution of 1989-1990, when millions of East Germans took to the streets to overthrow the Soviet communist system in the German Democratic Republic. The job, the AfD says, was just half completed, leaving a cluster of western German parties in charge of a corrupt, undemocratic, colonialist regime that is headed up by Merkel (an easterner herself but the AfD’s favorite villain). The AfD itself, the party claims, is intent on finishing the Peaceful Revolution of 1989-1990—which means overthrowing Merkel, the coterie of like-minded parliamentary parties, and liberal democracy as such.

In a recent visit to Brandenburg, the largely rural federal state that surrounds Berlin, the aphorisms at the heart of the AfD’s campaign were on display just about everywhere. “We are the people!” “Finish the transition—Peaceful Revolution at the ballot box,” and “Transition 2.0,” read the AfD’s blue-and-red placards posted on trees and telephone poles all the way to the Polish border.

The bywords are carefully aimed darts that target the collective resentment of many of the middle-aged and older eastern Germans who harbor bitterness about their treatment in unified Germany. The posters refer to the East Germans’ Peaceful Revolution of 1989-1990, when first in Leipzig, and then across the German Democratic Republic, the East Germans cried, “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people!)—a message to the Soviet-backed ruling elite that they, the people, were taking their lives and their country into their own hands after 41 years of dictatorship. Die Wende, translated variously as “the turning point” or “the transition,” refers to communism’s fall and the switchover to a new system, which culminated in German unification and Western-style democracy. The AfD’s campaign website is

At rallies, AfD politicians hammer home the message to their core constituency that they’ve been betrayed by the Federal Republic, which promised them prosperity and delivered 20 years of sky-high unemployment: “This isn’t what we made the Peaceful Revolution for. We never want to experience anything like this again!” said Björn Höcke, the AfD leader in Thuringia and point person of the party’s exceptionally hard-line right.

From the AfD and its members’ perspective, they are the dissidents now: courageous, righteous, clearsighted, and persecuted. In the place of Soviet communism, Berlin’s “democratic” political elite has imposed a new soft dictatorship on them, they infer. It treats the easterners, above all, like subjects, telling them what they can and can’t say and do, the AfD claims.

“No one here went out onto the streets in 1989 so that they had to think twice about what to say at the kitchen table, for fear that the kids might repeat it in public,” said Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s national party chief. If you don’t think just like the Berlin establishment, Gauland implies, then you’re sanctioned—or ignored—as were critics in East Germany. Gauland goes even further, regularly referring to the major parties as the Blockparteien, East German terminology for the ruling communist party and its rubberstamp allies. He calls the Merkel government “a kind of Politburo,” referring to the executive committee of communist parties.

The AfD says it recognizes a western German-defined cultural hegemony that strikes many easterners, and not just the right-wingers among them, as foreign and offensive. Many easterners say they don’t see themselves or their biographies represented in the cultural products that are made in Germany. In part, this feeling is in response to a liberal “political correctness” that West Germany absorbed in the post-student-movement 1970s and 1980s, including feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, and a self-critical approach to German history and culture. But it also refers to their lives’ work and experiences in East Germany. This substantial part of their biographies, they say, has either been smeared or simply whited-out. “Postwar Germany” today means either just West Germany or West Germany and the unified Germany. It’s as if East Germany never existed—or simply isn’t worth the breath to mention it.

The campaign is as effective as it is audacious. The AfD posits itself, on the one hand, as the true representative of the civic movement that brought down the Berlin Wall and, on the other, the Federal Republic as an artificial and illegitimate regime that controls the media and lies to its people. It is audacious, for one, because its central figures—such as Höcke, Gauland, and Andreas Kalbitz—all come from western Germany and had nothing whatsoever to do with the events of 1989-1990. Nor are average AfD voters the outspoken dissidents of that era but rather they’re more likely to have been the tight-lipped Mitlaüfer, those who followed along relatively obediently until the fall of 1989 or simply left the country. Moreover, for all of its shortcomings, the Federal Republic is in no sense of the imagination a undemocratic system on par with East Germany, which arrested and locked up oppositionists. And the AfD’s ideology and intentions are leagues apart from the values of the 1989-1990 democratic revolution: tolerance, pluralism, and a rich civic society.

The real dissidents of 1980s East Germany—including the likes of Marianne Birthler, Wolfgang Templin, and Gerd Poppe, among others—have stepped into the fracas, livid that the AfD and its voters make such comparisons and charges. In an open letter titled “Not With Us: Against the Misuse of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 in the Election Campaign,” the former human rights activists note that the movement’s goals were democracy, freedom, the rule of law, open borders, an unified Europe, and the protection of human rights. “We didn’t take to the streets in 1989 for the demagogues of the AfD,” it reads. “The AfD is trying to divide our country. We had a divided Germany long enough!”

Yet, as absurd as the AfD’s claims are, they obviously strike a nerve among those easterners who lived through the 1990s and early 2000s. And for this unhappy episode in recent Germany history, the mainstream parties do shoulder responsibility: It was, in large part, the consequences of decisions made in Bonn in the 1990s that have turned the east into such fertile territory for demagogues.

Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl is the figure mostly closely associated with the Die Wende and German unification. Immediately after the easterners’ street demonstrations forced down the communist leadership, Kohl pounced on the opportunity to declare unification his goal—and as fast as possible. He traveled through the east promising “blossoming landscapes” of prosperity in the future, and the easterners responded with adoration by calling him “Helmut” and voting overwhelmingly for the CDU. In terms of a fast unification, he delivered what he promised. Unlike other parties, or even critics in his own party, Kohl wanted to neither proceed cautiously nor open the Federal Republic to any input at all from the 17 million easterners joining it. Unification was an annexation of the territory of East Germany by the West German establishment, which insisted that the east take on all of the Federal Republic’s laws and structures. (Others advocated a much slower transition that would enable the eastern economy to get on its feet in the new system. Proposals for an all-German constitutional congress that would promulgate a new constitution went nowhere.) The eastern economy was put on a level basis with West Germany, which caused most of its industry and businesses to nosedive. The East German state’s factories and other wealth were sold off by an appointed agency for rock-bottom prices, mostly to westerners.

The 1990s were very grim years for much of eastern Germany as unemployment shot up to nearly 19 percent in 2005 from next to nothing in 1989. A mass exodus ensued—and continues to today—as 1.4 million easterners left their hometowns, while westerners came to the east to step into empty leadership positions. The easterners say their counterparts’ arrogance and the demeaning of their life experience in East Germany rubbed salt in their open wounds. The “Zonies” or “Ossis” were called uncool, dimwitted, lazy, crybabies, neo-Nazis.

Moreover, right up to today, many easterners sense that a western-defined cultural mantle, one foreign and ultimately antagonistic to them, has been imposed on them. The country’s largest media, as well as TV, film, publishing, and music companies, are in western German hands and reflect western Germans’ issues, values, and experiences. This view is by no means confined to the jobless or pensioners. A widely read paperback last year, written by Germany’s eastern-born integration minister in Saxony, Petra Köpping, was titled Integrate Us First! The author Jana Hensel chimed in: “When you ask us today whether German unification is a success, then we have to say: No! We’ve created permanent imbalances and lasting asymmetries and will have to deal with these issues for a long time to come.”

This estrangement is underscored in one opinion poll after another. Only 1 in 3 easterners see unification as a success. A third of easterners say they feel that they’re treated as “second-class citizens” (on par with Muslims in Germany, they say). Only 42 percent of eastern Germans say that democracy, as that practiced in Germany, is the best state form, compared with 77 percent of western Germans.

There is, of course, a link to migration and refugees, the topic that surveys show is dominant in the minds of eastern voters. In the Cold War years, East Germany had very few immigrants or foreign nationals among its population. This changed with the Berlin Wall’s fall and unification. For AfD voters, one of the new system’s greatest drawbacks is that it accepts and even encourages migration and integration. “Finishing the Peaceful Revolution,” according to the AfD, means making it virtually foreigner-free—just like East Germany.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).