The far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is about to take up its seats in German parliament. How did we get here? Mainstream media in the West has been quick to point at the Kremlin as the source of the unprecedented number of votes for the far right. Indeed, the AfD has estimated that about one-third of its support comes from Russian-speaking voters. But should we really blame foreign countries and immigrant voters for the rise of the right? If we do so, we’ll be sure to miss the toxic role played by Germany’s own political elites. In fact, the Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) has done a great deal to form and to fan Russian-Germans’ right-wing leanings.
The CDU has long championed politics based on race and ethnocentrism. While Germany has earned a reputation as one of the most welcoming countries for refugees in recent years, in fact one of the most striking aspects of German migration policy eagerly targets not refugees, but ethnic Germans.
Should we really blame foreign countries and immigrant voters for the rise of the right?
Germany upholds what is called a “repatriation” policy, which makes it possible for ethnic Germans residing outside the state’s borders to move to Germany and claim citizenship. The policy targets ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union, known as “Russian-Germans,” who are 9th or 10th generation descendants of Germanic migrants who moved to the Russian Empire in the 1700s in search of a better life. Most of these Germanic migrants spoke old dialects and lived in compact farming communities on the Volga River until the 1940s, when they were deported to Siberia and Central Asia by Stalin. The Soviet elites suspected that they would collaborate with the Nazis and wanted to get them as far away as possible from the front, while also making use of their labour for the war effort in hard labour camps.
Under German law today, you are eligible for repatriation if you can prove that you have German blood ties. To do this, you must disclose your family history, pass a language test (preferably showing that you speak an old dialect, i.e. the language has been passed on through family instead of through formal education), and prove that you and your family members have been discriminated against because of your German heritage in the USSR. There are over 3 million such repatriates in Germany today, making up the country’s largest minority. In 2014, I studied the migration histories and adaptation strategies of dozens of Russian-German families. I conducted biographical interviews, attended concerts and cultural festivals, went to state-funded “integration houses” in big cities across the country, read Russian-German newspapers, and tried to understand how Russian-Germans narrate their place in society. I saw a group that is extremely diverse, but united in their narrative of ethnic belonging in Germany. Most of them, at the time, supported the CDU, and the CDU played up the nativist narrative that tells Russian-Germans they belong because German blood runs through their veins.
The importance of being an ethnic German is manifested in the very spaces that welcome Russian-Germans as they enter the country. After applying for repatriation, Russian-Germans arrive in one of Germany’s largest refugee camps, called Border-Transit Camp Friedland. They sort their final documents there, residing alongside asylum seekers from all over the world. But the symbolic landscape of the camp doesn’t hint at the presence of multiple cultures in one space. Instead, it tells a story of ethnic Germans returning to their historic homeland. The camp, established in 1945 on the border of the British, American and Soviet occupation zones to accommodate and register displaced people, now boasts a Catholic church and a Protestant church, but no mosque or synagogue. There are several sculptures at the camp and one museum. The museum, which I visited in 2014, included at the time photographs depicting World War II Prisoners of War returning from the Soviet Union to Germany in the 1950s, as well as maps of the Soviet Union where POWs and co-ethnic migrants came from before resettling to their “home” in West Germany. The sculptures around the camp are also dedicated to POW history.
The CDU played up the nativist narrative that tells Russian-Germans they belong because German blood runs through their veins.
Although the camp has taken on new functions as a place of temporary residence for 700 asylum seekers and refugees, many of them from Syria, it is the story of the ethnic Germans that comes to the forefront. The festivals, cultural programs, and integration agenda (quite often funded by the CDU) across Germany’s regions for the Russian-Germans reiterate the narrative of Russian-Germans as a repressed group of ethnic Germans coming home. This story does not overlap with the stories of contemporary refugees; the two groups aren’t cut from the same cloth, since ethnic Germans belong in Germany due to their ethnicity. It is no surprise, then, that Russian-German immigrants are so hostile to other people on the move. When I interviewed Russian-Germans there in 2014, one of the Russian-German men told me: “these other people — I don’t know what they are doing here. They don’t belong, they’re different. Why are they [the Germans] inviting them here?” According to a survey from October 2016, 72% of Russian-speaking migrants in Germany consider refugees to be terrorists pretending to be refugees who will enter Europe to cause violence and destruction.
German collective memory is still defined by narratives surrounding the Holocaust and Germany’s role in one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century. The result is that many people in Germany associate racism with black-and-white images of pogroms, concentration camps, and Nazi parades from a time in history that is still a source of guilt today. So the bar for what constitutes racism is set quite high. The race-based approach for testing Germanness among repatriates and the lack of symbolic inclusion of refugees at a symbol-ridden refugee camp are not considered racist among German political elites or in mainstream society. Yet this agenda, pushed by the CDU, has formed the basis of the AfD’s rallying cries. Could it be that the AfD is pushing the same concerns as the CDU is, just with less political correctness? We must ask ourselves if the CDU’s ethnocentrism can be contained, or if it will inevitably result in a leap to a new space on the political right, where they can be voiced more forcefully, and, possibly, more honestly.
Russian-Germans living in Germany today are, for the most part, descendants of people who were suspected of collaboration with the Nazis in the USSR simply due to their heritage and migration history. Now they have fuelled the far-right vote in Germany’s election. The established parties of Germany face many historical and social traps in this situation. The Social Democrats (SPD), in opposition to Merkel’s party, may dismiss the Russian-Germans as neo-Nazis whose political views are shaped by Russian media. The CDU, in turn, may try to integrate them by using their tried and true tactics of emphasising racial inclusion, all the while airbrushing the other side of the coin — racial exclusion. It is my fear that neither will be willing to confront the institutional racism of Germany’s migration policies and domestic politics, leaving it to the far right to voice what has been so meticulously brushed under the rug by everyone else.