Right-Wing Extremism in East Germany

Bachelor Thesis, 2015
42 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction
1.1 Context and Relevance
1.2 Literature Review
1.3 A Note on Methodology

2. Right-Wing Extremism in East Germany
2.1 Bases and Influences of Right-Wing Extremism in East Germany
2.2 Intensification 1980-1989

3. The Decline of the GDR
3.1 Reasons for the Decline
3.2 Reunification from a Neo-Fascist Perspective

4. Conclusion



This dissertation sets out to examine the phenomenon of right-wing extremism in East Germany, its influences, underlying structures and potential political power during and shortly after the German unification. Right-wing extremism still poses a great problem in the east of Germany and in order to better understand contemporary right-wing extremism it is essential to comprehend its bases and historical dimension.

Present literature is mainly divided into two contentual groups; those believing in a widely inherited right-wing extremism in East Germany, hidden by the GDR regime and enhanced by the authoritarian, repressive character of the state; and those that find the foundation of East German right-wing extremism in the chaotic years of profound social and political changes in 1989/90.

Both theories provide veritable information and are yet not able to explain the phenomenon in all its depth. Therefore the theories had to be enriched and broadened with further information. Primary, secondary and tertiary sources were used to obtain a detailed image of right-wing extremism in the GDR and shortly after the unification.

Finally the conclusion could be drawn that the GDR with its authoritarian, hierarchical structure did provide a foundation for the spread of right-wing extremism. However, it was the chaotic reunification and its social and economic consequences that led to the outburst of violent right-wing extremism that characterised East Germany throughout the 1990s.

1. Introduction

When right-wing extremists attacked visitors of a concert in East Berlin in 1987, the public in both German states first got to know about the increasing spread of right-wing extremism in the officially anti-fascist east. By that time, right-wing extremism had already developed into a highly militant movement responsible for numerous violent attacks and offences. This movement gained more support during the unification when right-wing extremists started organising as a political actor. Right-wing extremism continued being visible and increasingly relevant in East Germany until the present day. The underlying reasons are not only to be found in the German Democratic Republic [GDR]; yet a closer look at East Germany and its right-wing scene provides veritable information in understanding the phenomenon.

1.1 Context and Relevance

In 1989, people in East Germany took to the streets to protest against the authoritarian regime and for basic human rights; free travel, free elections, freedom of speech. In November, a set of events let to the opening of the Berlin Wall and less than one year later, Germany was reunited and the authoritarian, repressive regime in East Germany was history.

In October 2014, people in the East German town of Dresden went to the streets again. This time, they called themselves Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Western World, short Pegida, and they marched against immigrants, Muslims in particular, against the mainstream press and other issues, all with a far-right background and argumentation behind it.

Pegida is only the culmination point of a constantly growing far-right movement in East Germany. Shortly after the German Reunification, right-wing extremism became a real problem in the east of the country, although the German Democratic Republic had been officially anti-fascist and free from all forms of neo-fascism and right-wing extremism. East German authorities realised right-wing extremism was gaining ground; offences rose massively from the late 1970s until 1989.

Even today, a quarter of a century after the unification, its rights and wrongs are still continuously under debate in Germany. It is safe to say that expectations were not met; neither those of West nor East Germans, neither those of supporters nor opponents of the reunification. Large parts of the economy in the east are still remarkably weaker than in the west of the country; whole areas are unpopulated and mass unemployment is still much more of an issue in the east than in the rather prosperous rest of Germany.

Since the opening of the Berlin Wall, parties of the far right have always got more votes in the east than in the west. Right-wing extremism is a real problem. In 2011, a series of murderers, bombings and robberies by an East German right-wing extremist terrorist group was uncovered and shocked the German public.

At the same time, right-wing extremism is on the rise all over Europe and parties with clear xenophobic and anti-European tendencies gain the more and more support. Right-wing extremism is therefore not just a German but a European phenomenon.

Although West Germany was never free from right-wing extremism, it was not as massively an issue as after the unification in the east. It is debated whether right-wing extremism was already more present than thought in East Germany (Eisenfeld, 2001) or whether it was the difficulties East Germans had to undergo during the unification process that turned them towards right-wing extremism (Friedrich, 2001) but no one argues the reason for right-wing extremism in Germany has to be sought in the GDR.

This thesis is thus examining right-wing extremism in East Germany, especially towards the end of the GDR and in-between the opening of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification. This dissertation seeks to explain the reasons for right-wing extremism in the GDR but also seeks to draw conclusions on the bases of right-wing extremism in contemporary Germany. It is therefore researched whether right-wing extremism was more powerful than thought in East Germany and influenced the decline of the regime and the German unification.

1.2 Literature Review

All literature, no matter whether it examines right-wing extremism as a whole (e.g. Brodkorb, 2002; Stöss, 2000) or features of it, such as anti-Semitism (e.g. Haury, 2006) or hooliganism (e.g. Funk, 1990; Willmann, 2014), differs in its perception of the origins and intensity of right-wing extremism in East Germany. Both, origin and intensity, are linked together but shall be discussed independently in the following.

In terms of origins, academics disagree on the question whether right-wing extremism in East Germany emerged naturally from the different socialisation in the authoritarian GDR or developed after the unification due to the difficult transformation to the new system. The latter is strongly defended by Friedrich (2001). Ehman and Rathenow (2005) conducted a study confirming that glorification of National Socialism was not more present among the East German than the West German youth, and publications close to the GDR government (e.g. Schütt, 1988) even failed to acknowledge the presence of right-wing extremism at all. Most researchers though agree that the GDR with its authoritarian, hierarchical and nationalistic character at least facilitated (e.g. Wittrock, 2007) if not actively promoted the spread of right-wing extremism (e.g. Eisenfeld, 2001; Wensierski, 2015).

Following this, academics also differ in their views on intensity and importance of right-wing extremism. Some authors claim the right-wing extremist movement has been rather small and unimportant with only very few supporters (e.g. Ross, 2000) whereas others speak of a highly militant and dangerous movement (e.g. Kaden, 1991; Lorke, 2012). This perception culminates in the comparison of East Germany in the late 1980s with Germany before the fascist takeover (Weiss, 1989); here, one has to acknowledge though that this represents the author’s perception in the late 1980s when it was rather difficult to research right-wing extremism in East Germany. Most scholars admit that right-wing extremism only became an increasingly problematic issue during and shortly after the unification in the 1990s.

1.3 A Note on Methodology

For this thesis the author opted for an approach involving multiple methods including a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. This helped in gaining reliable facts and highly informative knowledge. The research involved primary as well as secondary and tertiary sources. Due to the nature of the topic, most sources consulted for this research thesis were originally published in German and quotes were translated into English by the author.

In the process of writing the dissertation different kinds of documents were analysed. These documents included film material such as TV documentaries from the time the research topic is set in as well as contemporary material but also newspaper and magazine articles and academic works. Primary sources included articles written at the time the research topic is set in and TV documentaries filmed at that time (e.g. Funk, 1990; Weiss, 1989). Secondary sources (e.g. Brodkorb, 2002; Lorke, 2012) such as TV documentaries, journal, magazine and newspaper articles and academic works were used to deliver a complete picture. The research was topped off by tertiary sources, namely books written to reconstruct the way to German unity (e.g. Lewis and McKenzie, 1995).

To ground the findings obtained from qualitative sources on representative and reliable facts, the author compared those findings to empirical data collected from surveys (e.g. Ehman and Rathenow, 2005). It was thereby decided to use surveys about neo-fascist beliefs among the East German population, which were consulted by and played a vital role in the work of two scholars who both examined right-wing extremism in East Germany and, although basing their work on aforementioned surveys, draw completely different conclusions (Eisenfeld, 2001; Friedrich, 2001).

To further collect data findings can be grounded on, the author retrieved data from documents issued by the Ministry of State Security of the GDR. These for this research project relevant documents about youth culture and extremism in East Germany are nowadays managed by the GESIS-Leibniz-Institut für Sozialwissenschaften (engl. GESIS Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences). The author has also visited the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum (engl. Forum for Contemporary History) in Leipzig, Germany.

The author started by reading tertiary sources, such as books about the decline of the GDR and German unity. This was followed by an analysis of different primary and secondary sources to conduct general theses. Those theses were then tested against information gained from empirical data and statistics. This helped in obtaining a broad image of right-wing extremism and neo-fascism in East Germany before the opening of the Berlin Wall as well as shortly afterwards.

Since the GDR was an authoritarian regime, documents issued by the East German government had to be assessed and interpreted critically. Generally documents issued by non-governmental bodies and independent scholars and journalists were favoured. Yet it was crucial to retrieve a general image of the public and not just either favourable or hostile opinions of SED members and resistance and opposition members. This was achieved by articles written in the time since the unification, especially works written nowadays with a lot of grounded research and some distance to the GDR.

What has to be always borne in mind is the difficulty to retrieve valuable information of a time this long ago and of a topic rather precarious and conflict-laden. A lot has happened since the German unification and even the population most likely changed its views about the issue. That is why it is so immensely important to take into account primary, secondary and tertiary sources and to constantly evaluate them against one another.

For various reasons it was decided to not involve human participants in the research of this thesis. All data was needed for this dissertation could be obtained from different sources, especially since relevant surveys had already been conducted.

2. Right-Wing Extremism in East Germany

2.1 Bases and Influences of Right-Wing Extremism in East Germany

In Article 6 of the GDR constitution it is claimed that all “German militarism and Nazism have been exterminated”[1] (Stöss, 2000, p.61); therefore all causes of fascism were thought to be overcome in East Germany, one of the reasons why the GDR did not pursue Nazi war criminals for long (Haberkorn, 2012) and also never paid compensation payments to Israel or any Jewish organisation (Haury, 2006, p.1). The 1940s were marked by a “rigorous revenge for German fascism and its crimes” (Madloch, 2000, p.66); former Nazis were imprisoned and often sentenced to forced labour, many among them fled to the West. With the introduction of the constitution in 1949 though priorities changed and pursuing Nazis became less important.

Over the course of its existence, the GDR self-identified itself as an antifascist state and also used this argument to dissociate from West Germany (Schütt, 1988, p.4). To keep the image of the antifascist state intact, GDR authorities trivialised right-wing motivated incidents and generally shunned terms such as “right-wing extremism” or “neo-fascism” and used “rowdyism” or even “negative decadent youth culture” instead (Stöss, 2000, p.62). The German past was not reviewed critically, yet some elements of National Socialism were taken over, such as authoritarianism and strict hierarchies. It can therefore be said that the “political reality in East Germany widely accommodated right-wing ideologies” (Wensierski, 2015, para.15).

The insufficient examination and documentation of right-wing extremism and its development by the authorities and researchers in East Germany make it very difficult to understand and reconstruct right-wing extremist activities in the GDR and all research always stays incomplete (Stöss, 2000, p.62).

Before examining right-wing extremism in detail in East Germany it is worth taking a look at the same phenomenon in West Germany. According to Stöss (2000) there were three waves of organised right-wing extremism in the Federal Republic of Germany [FRG]; the first one straight after the end of World War II until the early 1960s when former Nazis formed the NSDAP-successor party NPD; the second wave, much weaker than the previous one, from 1966-1972 and the third wave started in the mid-1980s and held on throughout the unification process until the late 1990s (Stöss, 2000, p.46). Considering the direction of this thesis it might be interesting to look more closely on the third wave of organised right-wing extremism in West Germany. Starting in the early 1980s, factors occurring at the same time in different Western European countries, including social change, mass unemployment, technological modernisation and changes in values, led to a rise in right-wing extremism all over Europe and therefore made it a “European phenomenon” (Stöss, 2000, p.52). This was accelerated by the on-going globalisation, the turmoil in the Eastern bloc countries and growing numbers of migrants and refugees. In their struggle to gain governmental responsibility, the conservative party in Germany gave a boost to right-wing extremist parties; two of whom teamed up temporarily for a few years starting in 1986 in order to get more votes in upcoming elections (Stöss, 2000, p.54). In 1987, a right-wing extremist magazine sold 100,000 copies (Kraus and Lorke, 2014, p.44); the publishing company even listed 600,000 sold copies (Stöss, 2000, p.54). Right-wing extremist parties had wealthy supporters in West Germany; yet it was a party newly founded in 1983, the so-called “Republicans”, who hit a nerve with their campaign against refugees and poorly integrated migrants and therefore were elected with more than 2 Million votes into the European Parliament in 1989 (Stöss, 2000, p.56). Next to the established right-wing extremist parties there were different and constantly changing right-wing extremist groups and movements that normally recruited from party drop-outs and radicals and often only persisted for a few years before they either split up or were banned (Stöss, 2000, p.60f.). These for West German politics rather irrelevant splinter parties and groups were moving forces in establishing and organising the right-wing scene in East Germany after the unification (Stöss, 2000, p.61).

As previously mentioned, there was no debate in East Germany about the German past and historical National Socialism. Former Nazi criminals and sympathisers were welcome if they only declared themselves loyal to the GDR, at best even participated in the SED (Haury, 2006, p.1). Many former NSDAP members and sympathisers also joined the National-Democratic Party of Germany NDPD, one of the so-called bloc parties. NS sergeants who were chased by West German agents were often protected by the GDR regime and a significant number of Nazis was roped in for spying activities by the secret service [Stasi] in return for their immunity (Aust, 1994, para.5). Other high-rank National Socialists worked in high positions in the GDR government and the army but also at universities and schools without ever being troubled by their past (Wensierski, 2015, para.17f.). Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was commonly seen as “one Nazi crime among others” (Haury, 2006, p.1). With the eradication of fascism, the SED government claimed to have erased all forms anti-Semitism too. Leadership as well as media were thereby widely ignoring the “massive anti-Semitism in everyday life [in East Germany]” (Haury, 2006, p.1). Later on, the GDR acted as a strong supporter of the Palestinian PLO and denounced Israel as “powerful tool of international imperialism against Arabic people” (Haury, 2006, p.2). Yet one has to distinguish between Judaism and the state Israel and the GDR never officially declared itself anti-Semitic nor took actions against Jews in East Germany, except for anti-Semitic show trials that took place all over East Europe in the 1950s following the Soviet example (Haury, 2006, p.1).

In a country that was officially free from antifascism and whose leadership claimed its people to be almost invulnerable to all forms of neo-Nazism, it is little surprising that education about fascism and National Socialism was poor and fragmentary and children were only taught in ideological terms and about the individual fates of famous communist resistance fighters (Wensierski, 2015, para.19). In addition to that, West Germany was described as fascist state and the wall dividing the two states was officially called an “antifascist protection wall”. By doing so, historical National Socialism and its horrendous outcome was “cynically played down” (Eichstädt, 2001, para.3).

Right-wing extremists in East Germany tended to organise locally in small groups of 10-14 people where the group leaders would know other groups but the common group member would only know the own group and have no idea about other groups and activists from other cities (Weiss, 1989, p.5). Right-wing extremists came from all social backgrounds equally, were in most cases single and under 26 years old (the average was 15-16 years) and there were significantly more men than women (Weiss, 1989, p.3). They tended to lead very active and healthy lifestyles and participated in different kinds of sports (Brodkorb, 2002, p.26f.). Many of whom were active in their communities and right-wing extremists had thus infiltrated the SED youth organisation and the GDR army (Weiss, 1989, p.5). Although East Germany was internationally widely isolated, neo-fascists stayed in constant exchange with the scene in West Germany as well as in other East European countries (Weiss, 1989, p.3). Their groups were organised in strict hierarchies. The “declining allegiance to the socialist system” (Stöss, 2000, p.63) from the mid-1970s onwards, particularly among the young, led to the spillover of Western youth culture, an increase in number of right-wing extremists in the GDR and a right-wing youth culture that did not differ too badly from the West German counterpart.

When hooliganism started to become a problem all over Europe in the late 1970s, it did not spare out East Germany either. In season 1983/1984 30% of all football games were affected by rioting and violence; in 1985/1986 the percentage had risen to 43% (Lorke, 2012, p.1). Other sports, such as ice hockey, were not left out either. Although hooliganism is not necessarily bound to right-wing extremism, many hooligans in the GDR self-identified as neo-fascists and hooliganism was seen as a statement of anger about the current social situation and disappointment of the government. The GDR government, on the other hand, did admittedly not call hooliganism right-wing extremism but blamed it on Western influences and therefore instrumentalised it as argument for strictly closed borders (Lindenberger in: Lorke, 2012, p.1). The secret service did document all hooliganism from the mid-1980s onwards without pursuing the offenders because right-wing extremists were often perceived as having strong work ethics and positive beliefs about the military and joining the army; they were generally not seen as a danger to the state (Willmann, 2014, p.4). Yet hooligans who did actually get prosecuted for their rioting were marked publicly as highly antisocial, probably unemployed with filthy looks and a poor social background (Lorke, 2012, p.3). The phenomenon of hooliganism was therefore not profoundly examined in the GDR but widely concealed and only tackled in exceptional cases (Funk, 1990, para.7). One very popular way of tackling hooliganism was to deport particularly violent hooligans to West Germany. Had the rioting originally started as a means of protest against the government did it soon become pure enjoyment of violence and power (Willmann, 2014, p.4). For many people in Eas fe in an authoritarian, socialist state and the influences from the Western world, i.e. music, fashion, lifestyle, was hard to handle, in particular for young people (Lorke, 2012, p.5). Grouped together though the individual would be protected by the masses and their frustration could break through by defying the state’s power (Lorke, 2012, p.5). Due to the difficult political situation, joining a right-wing extremist group in East Germany was risky and practically meant going underground which in turn led to a great integration in the group; at the same time the higher risk that had to be taken made East German right-wing extremists more violent and brutal than their West German counterparts (Stöss, 2000, p.63). To hooligans, rioting was an exciting escape from their boring and dull lives and their reputation within the group would rise the more violent one would act towards opponent fans and the police (Lorke, 2012, p.5).


[1] All originally German quotes translated by the author

Excerpt out of 42 pages


Right-Wing Extremism in East Germany
University of East London
BA (Hons) International Politics with Psychology
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right-wing, extremism, east, germany
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Katherine Kretshmer (Author), 2015, Right-Wing Extremism in East Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/378106


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