Last month, I wrote a post exploring what it means to be cosmopolitan and whether Berlin exemplifies the idea of a cosmopolitan city. Since then, Germany has held federal elections that saw the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist and nationalist party that ran on an anti-immigration platform. The AfD was able to capture 94 seats (13.26 percent) in the Bundestag, enough to force Chancellor Angela Merkel and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to seek new partners for a government coalition (the CDU and most other parties have refused to work with the AfD).
The day after the election, many Berliners seemed genuinely surprised that the AfD was able to capture 12 percent of the vote in their city (slightly less than the national average) and wondered if maybe Berlin’s projection of itself as a tolerant metropolis wasn’t consistent with reality. Their concerns are certainly understandable. The AfD, using terms like vaterland and volk, stands for a Germany for Germans, a platform that is at odds with Berlin’s inclusive atmosphere. However, while the AfD’s modest victory in the city may have alarmed the liberal-minded, I don’t think the elections results point to a deeper undercurrent of fascist sentiment. Let me explain.
What was until reunification the German Democratic Republic proved to be fertile ground for the AfD and its populist message. In many ways, Germany still remains divided, with easterners lagging in crucial job skills and higher education. There is also a greater sense of entitlement among East Germans. This is especially true of the older generations, who are resentful of lost pensions and the guaranteed job opportunities the socialist state had provided. In past elections, former East German states tended to vote for the mainstream progressive Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) or the socialist and anti-capitalist alliance known as LINKE.
Taking the former East German state of Brandenburg as an example, we see that in 2013, the SPD and LINKE, along with the ecologically minded Greens, accounted for over 50 percent of the vote compared to the conservative CDU’s 34.8 percent and the AfD’s 6 percent. In 2017, the SPD, LINKE, and Greens lost ground in Brandenburg, only garnering a little more than 40 percent of the vote. The CDU also saw its vote share reduced to 26.7. At the same time, the AfD was able to capture over 20 percent. What happened?
The AfD is often classified as a far-right party (the terms left and right should have died with the last of the Girondins), but its support has come from across the political spectrum. Nationwide the AfD gained 1.47 million first time voters followed by 1 million former CDU voters and 900,000 former SPD and LINKE voters. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the AfD anti-immigration message resonates with low-skilled workers, who view migrants as competition both in terms of jobs and benefits. And it was precisely the working-class that defected to the AfD.
Why is East Germany, and Brandenburg specifically, important in all of this? The answer has to do with geography. Berlin happens to sit right in the middle of Brandenburg and is not immune to the ongoing political shift in former East Germany. Naturally, the AfD’s strongest showings were at the fringes of what was once East Berlin. However, to say that these outlying burrows are representative of Berlin as a whole is unfair, and in Central and West Berlin support for the AfD was well below the national average.
As I had stated in my previous piece, what makes a city cosmopolitan are ideas. And what are political parties if not a set of ideas? If voting behavior shows a wide diversity of political party representation, this could be indicative of a society that is on a whole more independently minded.
As it turns out, Berlin was the only state in Germany where no party won over 25 percent of the vote, and only the CDU was able to barely push past 20 percent. In the central district of Berlin, alternate parities like the LINKE and the Greens outperformed the mainstream CDU and SPD, while the AfD underperformed by several percentage points. Unlike other German states where one party tends to command a wide percentage of the vote, Berliners are much more eclectic in their political opinions.
|State results in %||CDU/CSU||SPD||AfD||FDP||LINKE||GRÜNE||all others|
Openness and Extremism
During the Weimar Republic, Berliners held a variety of views on drugs, gender, and sexuality that were extremely progressive at the time. The nascent film industry was particularly avant-garde. Some films were downright groundbreaking, like the 1919 Different from the Others which argues against treating homosexuality as an illness or unnatural. The film was eventually censored due to nationwide pressure from religious groups, but not until after it had a successful public run. At the same time, the 1920s saw a rise in political violence that frequently took the form of running street battles between communists and fascists.
Today, much like 100 years ago, Berlin faces the rise of a new extremist party. But an open society must allow people to freely choose their affiliations, even if those affiliations are abhorrent. At the same time, it is incumbent on society to fight against injustice and not simply accept intolerance and bigotry. It’s a difficult line to walk: to respect the rights of those who seek to enforce their will upon you and simultaneously wage battle against their ideas. But if any city is up to the task, I would wager it’s Berlin.