Frank Dehmel was on the streets of East Germany in 1989. Every Monday, he marched against the Communist regime, demanding freedom and democracy and chanting with the crowds: “We are the people!”
Three decades later, Dehmel is on the streets again, older and angrier, and chanting the same slogan — this time for the far right.
He won freedom and democracy when the Berlin Wall came down 29 years ago. But he lost everything else: His job, his status, his country — and his wife. Like so many eastern women, she went west to look for work and never came back.
To understand why the far right is on the march again in Germany it helps to understand the many grievances of its most loyal supporters: Men in the former Communist East. The emergence of Eastern Man as a disruptive political force stands as a prime legacy of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 13 years in power. As she prepared Germans earlier this month for her eventual political exit, some noted that, politically at least, her Germany was more divided between East and West than at any point since reunification.
Most men I met have suffered so many injustices and setbacks, they have lost all self confidence.
No doubt the far right has made gains across Germany. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 13 per cent of votes in last year’s elections, enough to make it the leading opposition voice in Parliament. It is now represented in every one of the country’s 16 state legislatures.
But support for the AfD in the East is on average more than double that in the West. Among eastern men, the party is the strongest political force, with 28 per cent having cast their ballots for the AfD last year.
Eastern Man, a figure long patronised, pitied or just ignored in the West, is in the process of again reshaping German politics.
No one more embodies the frustrations of eastern men — or has been more the object of their ire — than Merkel, an eastern woman who rose to the pinnacle of power and provides a daily reminder of their own failure.
Yet Merkel never became the ambassador for the East that people yearned for: Living standards in the region still lag those in the West, even after what is perceived as a traumatic economic takeover.
Dehmel calls her a “traitor” and worse.
After reunification, Dehmel recalled, western men in suits and Mercedes-Benzes arrived in his eastern home state of Saxony, soon running businesses, running universities, running the regional government, “running everything.”
And that was before more than 1 million asylum-seekers, many of them young men, came to Germany in 2015.
“I didn’t risk my skin back then to become a third-class citizen,” said Dehmel, now 57, counting off the perceived hierarchy on his fingers: “First there are western Germans, then there are asylum-seekers, then it’s us.”
One-third of male voters in Saxony, where he lives, cast their ballots for the far right last year — by far more than any other place in the country.
“We have a crisis of masculinity in the East and it is feeding the far right,” said Petra Kopping, minister for integration in Saxony.
When Kopping took office in 2014, she thought her job was to integrate immigrants. But as hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers began arriving in Germany a year later, a middle-aged white man heckled her at a town hall meeting.
“Why don’t you integrate us first?” the man had shouted.
That question, which has since become the title of a book written by Kopping, prompted her to tour her eastern home state and interview dozens of angry men. The disappointed hopes and humiliations of 1989, she found, still fester.
Almost 3 million jobs, most of them in traditionally male industries, were lost over two years. The working-class heroes of Socialism became the working-class losers of capitalism. East German men were abandoned by their newly united country practically overnight, Kopping said: “They are the original left-behinds.”
And they were quite literally left behind — by their women. Long before the #MeToo movement, Communism succeeded in creating a broad class of women who were independent, emancipated, often better educated and working in more adaptable service jobs than eastern men.
After the wall came down, the East lost more than 10 per cent of its population. Two-thirds of those who left and did not come back were young women.
It was the most extreme case of female flight in Europe, said Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, who has studied the phenomenon. Only the Arctic Circle and a few islands off the coast of Turkey suffer comparable male-female imbalances.
In large swaths of rural eastern Germany, men today still outnumber women, and the regions where the women disappeared map almost exactly onto the regions that vote for the Alternative for Germany today.
“There is a gender element to the rise of the far right that is not sufficiently acknowledged and studied,” Klingholz said.
Dehmel’s hometown, Ebersbach, once a thriving textile hub on the Czech border, lost 7 of 10 jobs and almost half its population after 1989. Schools were closed and train services cut. To halt the decline it merged with the neighbouring town of Neugersdorf.
“We lost a generation,” said Verena Hergenroder, the mayor of Ebersbach-Neugersdorf, an independent.
Unemployment, once over 25 per cent, is now below 3 per cent. But the region feels less than thriving. Empty dwellings dot residential neighbourhoods. The train station is boarded up. One bit of graffiti proclaims: “There is enough love for everyone.”
But people here know that is not true.
There were two women for every three men ages 22 to 35 when Klingholz and his team visited in 2007 to make it a case study. That generation is 11 years older — the core voting age of the Alternative for Germany.
Oliver Graf is one of them. Soft-spoken and polite, Graf works in construction and volunteers for the local fire brigade. He says he hardly knows anyone “who does not vote for the AfD,” the strongest party in town.
At 37, Graf says he is ready to start a family. He has been restoring his own house. But he is single, like several of his male friends. It’s a topic of conversation, he said. As he put it, “it’s hard to meet someone.”
The shortfall of women is not visible in everyday life.
“Men don’t know it’s there and if you show them the numbers, they’re often surprised,” Klingholz said. “All they know is that they have trouble finding a partner.”
Bernd Noack, a former mayor of Ebersbach, remembers being surprised, too, when he was first confronted with the issue a decade ago. “I didn’t believe it at first,” he said.
At the time, he ran the numbers himself. “Twenty-six per cent of the young men couldn’t find a wife,” Noack recalled.
Suddenly some things started making sense, he said: The fights over women in discotheques, the barely disguised hostility towards foreign men in the town.
Once, a local company had brought 24 young apprentices over from Spain. They were urged to stay away from the nightclubs, Noack said, code for “staying away from the local women,” he said.
The eastern women who have stayed are prominent in public life. Not just the mayor is a woman. The pastor is a woman. One of the few bars open at night, the Brauerei, is run by a woman, too.
Her son helps her out. Her daughter, who graduated from high school in 1989, months before the wall came down, moved away and married a western man. Most intermarriages between easterners and westerners are between eastern women and western men.
“The anger of eastern men also has something to do with the success of eastern women,” said Frank Richter, an eastern theologian and prominent thinker.
If eastern men dislike Merkel so viscerally, it is not just because she let in a million asylum-seekers, Richter said, “but because she is so utterly familiar to eastern men and a daily reminder of their own failure.”
Kopping, another successful eastern woman, worries about the rage. Over the past two years she has toured her home state and held regular citizens’ office hours, trying to understand the anger of the men — and it was, she said, almost always men.
On a recent afternoon Dehmel was buying ammunition for his rifle at the local gun shop. Gunther Fritz, the gun shop owner, who is also single, said it was no coincidence that the slogans on the streets in 2018 are the same ones as in 1989.
“We got a sense of power back then, and we’re not going to let anyone take that away from us,” Fritz said. “The West was handed democracy after the war, we in the East had to get it for ourselves.”
“You watch,” he added, “we brought down one system. We can do it again.”
–New York Times News Service