Berliners sing and dance on top of the Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders, November 1989. Source: AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle
Berliners sing and dance on top of the Berlin Wall to celebrate the opening of East-West German borders in November 1989. (Thomas Kienzle/AP)

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of German reunification. And since the radical reunion of East and West at the end of the Cold War, Germany has become Europe’s undisputed leader.

Yet beneath Germany’s success runs an ongoing undertow of xenophobia, flaring up in incidents ranging from mob rage to murder sprees. Moreover, a disproportionate amount of this violence has taken place either in the East or by former East Germans. In fact, Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior estimates that, in 2014, 47 percent of 130 anti-foreigner crimes nationwide took place in the East, where only 17 percent of the population lives.

Why is xenophobic violence over-represented in Germany’s formerly communist east, given that it was there that a supposedly international-minded government ruled for four decades?

Following other scholars who have studied East Germany (including Robert Rohrschneider, Lee Ann Banaszak  and Sarah Glatte and Catherine de Vries), I used unified Germany as a sort of natural laboratory to see if an explanation for its present-day xenophobia might lie in its communist past. Indeed, the creation of two Germanys in 1949 and their sudden reunification some 40 years later has presented scholars with a novel way to compare individuals within a newly democratized state to similar individuals who were socialized in older political regimes.

And what I learned is that socialization matters more than we think.

To dive into socialization’s effects on attitudes, I used the 2006 German General Social Survey to split former East and West Germans into four birth cohorts, based on which of the following periods they grew up in: Nazi Germany (cohort 1), before the Berlin Wall was built (cohort 2), after the Berlin Wall was built (cohort 3), or in the waning days of communism (cohort 4).

The figure below shows that, all else being equal, successive generations of West Germans became significantly less xenophobic immediately after World War II (or, in academic jargon, their predicted probability of being anti-foreigner dropped about 25 percent). The same wasn’t true for their East German cousins, whose attitudes were far more steadily xenophobic.


For additional evidence, I trawled through archival documents, from Cold War-era newspaper clippings to personal memoirs, to unearth the subtle and unsubtle ways that the East German government might have supported, and even built, a hierarchy, always with foreigners at the bottom.

Take the large presence of Mozambicans and Vietnamese in East Germany. By the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, there were some 15,000 Mozambicans and 60,000 Vietnamese in Germany’s eastern parts. These mostly male foreigners went as contract workers to fill the country’s gnawing postwar demand for cheap labor. However, the East German government used a sprawling system of administrative controls to limit foreigners’ contact with the rest of civil society.

For instance, workers were often siloed away in buildings on the peripheries of cities. Workers who broke regulations faced having their contracts terminated and being sent home. And for female contract workers who became pregnant, there were only two options: abort  or go home. In part, as a result of these policies, about 60 percent of East Germans stated that they had no contact with foreigners  and knew little about them.

Some did, of course, and even wrote about these interactions. Anetta Kahane, who was born into a Jewish family in East Berlin, is one of Germany’s most prominent voices for minority rights. In 1998, she founded the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti-discrimination organization named after an Angolan contract worker who was killed by skinheads in the East just a month after reunification.

She describes East Germany’s simmering xenophobia in her autobiography Ich sehe was, was du nicht siehst (“I see what you don’t see”), in which she writes that foreigners

spoke of . . . how the doors of streetcars would be closed in their noses. . . . They spoke of the more or less blatant racism of their children’s teachers, of the atmosphere against foreigners in various businesses and shops, of attacks against sailors from North Africa, and of the particular way in which people with children would avoid them in public.

The East German government’s failure to promote a culture of tolerance stemmed, at least in part, from its exceptionally flawed political posturing. The West German government inherited the status of Nazi Germany’s successor state, and in doing so, it was confronted with hard questions of National Socialism’s bruising legacy. Indeed, Hitler’s regime was, in a way, the original sin of West German national identity.

The East German government, however, decided that East Germany wasn’t merely a new state, but also an anti-fascist one, and there clearly couldn’t be xenophobic hate in an anti-fascist state, which was thereby freed from having to deal with the rattling bones of history.

Of course, not everyone from the former East Germany harbors anti-foreigner beliefs. German Chancellor Angela Merkel hails from the East, and she’s been explicitly welcoming to the thousands of refugees currently spilling across Germany’s borders. A violent minority, animated by xenophobic impulses, clearly hasn’t been able to sink the country, and Merkel has been the only leader to tackle the crisis with equal parts empathy and pragmatism.

What’s more, West Germany hardly had a spotless reckoning with its Nazi past. The country was silent in the 1950s about the atrocities borne out of National Socialism. When asked if her family had ever thought about moving to the West, Kahane said,

That was never an alternative for my family. My father would never have wanted to go to West Germany, where almost every higher-standing civil servant was a former Nazi. This really turned him off.

Still, it’s important to emphasize that xenophobia in East Germany didn’t begin with reunification, in contrast to the many contemporary myths that blame reunification’s dark alchemy of economic hardship and increased foreigner visibility.

The xenophobia constructed and propped up by the East German government continues to have crucial implications today. Especially for non-white foreigners, East Germany had rigid boundaries around identity that determined who was a part of society and who was relegated to its fringes. There was little political push to change this narrative after reunification. Under Helmut Kohl, Germany’s chancellor until 1998, Germany wasn’t a country of immigration. Rather than ending the ethno-national divisions of the Cold War, reunification merely displaced them.

There continues to be a very specific image of what it means to be (or, more exactly, to look) German. But triggered most recently by the refugee crisis, former East and West Germans alike are being called on to challenge this decades-old notion of belonging.

Brandon Tensley is a 2015-2016 Luce Scholar in Thailand, where he writes on democratic transitions and minority rights in Southeast Asia. He was a 2012-2013 Fulbright Scholar in Germany and is a graduate of the University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter.