Since 1990 the wolf has been a protected species in Germany; killing a wolf is a crime punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years. In Eastern Germany, where the political ground is shifting to the right, locals argue that the wolves are not German but Western Polish, undeserving of protection since they have invaded Saxon territory and threatened the local way of life. Many people in Eastern Germany feel that the wolf, like the migrant, has been a problem for years, but that nobody in power is listening to them. At a time when nationalist parties are on the rise everywhere in Europe, The wolves are coming back offers an insight into the rise of Eastern German fringe political movements and agitation against both migrants and wolves by hunters, farmers, rioters and self-appointed saviours of the nation. The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) represents the third-largest party in the German federal parliament, with representation in the vast majority of German states. It draws much of its support from regions that have been referred to as the ‘post-traumatic places’ in Eastern Germany, structured by realities of disownment, disenfranchisement and a lack of democratic infrastructure. Pates and Leser provide an account of the societal roots of a new group of radical right parties, whose existence and success we always assumed to be impossible.
The wolves are returning to Germany, while German politics are transforming. The right-wing Alternative for Germany is now the third biggest party in the German parliament. It draws much of its support from places that have been referred to as the ‘post-traumatic places’ in Eastern Germany, structured by realities of disownment, disfranchisement and a lack of political representation. With right-wing populist parties being on the rise everywhere in Europe, politicians, journalists and scholars have become dedicated to diagnosing a crisis of democracy. With this book, we offer an in-depth perspective on the theme of democracy in crisis through the prism of wolf politics in early twenty-first-century Eastern Germany. Investigating fringe political movements, the political agitation against both migrants and wolves, the perspectives of Eastern German hunters, farmers, rioters and self-appointed saviours of the nation, the book attempts to move beyond easy stereotypes and explanations and unravel the deep story of why Eastern German politics is shifting to the right. The returning wolves serve both as metaphor and analytical tool to further an understanding of the logics and sentiments that underlie the rise of the right in Eastern German politics.
This chapter provides insights into the broader context of the Eastern German experiences since the reunification in 1989. Post-reunification life in Eastern Germany proves to be a crucial backdrop to explain why people there feel particularly disenfranchised and why this is coming to a head now. The transition to a united Germany was full of broken promises of ‘blooming landscapes’, disappointments and sentiments of one’s own past being devalued by Western Germans. We trace the prevailing narratives about ‘the East’ that have emerged along with massive structural changes. Today the deindustrialised and depopulated landscapes not only provide new spaces for a returning wildlife including wolves but also reveal the complete economic, political and cultural change for millions of people who may have won a peaceful revolution but lost their country in the process. We explore the popularity-gaining narrative depicting the aftermath of the peaceful revolution as a sign of imperialism by Western Germans who have come to take over the East to then move on to despise the locals whom they subjugated. Furthermore, we investigate the narrative that angry, ‘left-behind’ people are to blame for the rise of nationalism in the East, because they have been supposedly more affected by the large-scale transitions since 1989. We argue that the narratives about ‘the East’ we present in this chapter are not the only ones representative of people’s lived and recounted reality, yet they demonstrate the contested nature of ‘the East’ as a narrative trope in searching for explanations for the rise of the right. Eastern Germany is not in dire straits, but many of the circulating narratives claim it to be.
People do not vote for the AfD because they are Eastern German, but the narrative of a colonised and ‘left-behind’ East near a demographic collapse – threatened by an ‘invasion’ of ‘criminal foreigners’ and the return of ravenous wolves alike – is being taken up by a variety of parliamentary and non-parliamentary far-right entrepreneurs who frame “the East” as the real, genuinely German Germany. Whilst they consider the West as ‘lost’ to cultural decadence and ‘Islamisation’, the East has become a screen of projection for the far right’s visions of ‘national rebirth’ and as the future vantage point for ‘reconquering’ Germany. The rise in nationalist sentiment has manifested in an increase of racist attacks and far-right demonstrations. The summer of 2018 saw the comeback of one of the worst aspects of life in the East: the return of public affrays, pogroms and racist demonstrations that had been so common in the early 1990s just after the peaceful revolution. One of the aims of far-right splinter groups is to take over the public sphere in Eastern Germany by taking over urban spaces through highly visible ‘peace marches’ (against migrants), ‘silent marches’ (on the occasion of violence by refugees) and demonstrations commemorating ‘the slaughter of Dresden’ in 1945. Pogroms are not always publicly organised, however, though they are never as spontaneous as their defenders claim. They are demonstrations of power, they are intended to undermine the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force and they serve to intimidate the left and liberal members of civil society. We show that the political standing of Saxony, and of the Eastern German states in general, remains complicated.
This chapter focuses on the far right’s imaginaries about “the East” in the context of the history of Heimat, the politics of renaturing and the national socialist and new right-wing views on natural habitats for the German ethnos and German flora and fauna. Western Germans are recruited to move to the white enclaves in the East, as the land is cheap, institutions easy to take over and the country so unpopulated that social control is minimised. The land stands for more than just agricultural opportunities: the blood and soil logics amount to a geo-determinism, the idea that a people ‘belongs to’ a particular land. Unless the right people till the soil and defend their habitat, the habitat will be lost and the people will go extinct. We explain what it is like in parts of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg in ‘white’ villages, and hear from a hunter who explains that the AfD is not about to solve the problem of representation but is still more attractive than any other party. The turn of nationalist (West) Germans to the East to repopulate the imagined ‘empty lands’ goes hand in hand with ideas of ‘purification’ of German territories and strong anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, anti-system and anti-cosmopolitan attitudes. As we talked to different people who were, in some way or another, affected by the wolf issue, among them farmers, hunters, local residents in rural areas and conservationists, the micro-politics that relates to the wolf problem is revealed.
In this chapter we discuss state- and states-sponsored reactions to these political shifts, affecting policies, civil society and journalism. In particular we look at the governance of right-wing nationalism in a country that is widely thought of as having successfully denazified itself and come to terms with its troubled past. The fight-back by different state agents, organisations, politicians and institutions is broad and multifaceted. The goal is to influence civil society by setting a clear line between problematic (‘Nazi’) nationalism and acceptable, civilised, nationalism. To the well-researched theme of the governance of German nationalism, we add the Eastern German perspective, which is not entirely aligned with the federal perspective – mainly due to a historically different understanding of the ‘problematic’ German nation and the second German dictatorship, which leads to greater attention to the governance of ‘problematic’ nationalisms. Partially in response to this, we develop a case study of the leftist Eastern German ‘anti-German’ movement, which has not received much attention in academic studies in the anglophone world.
Chapter 5 returns to the politics of fear that is central in understanding the rise of the far right and its focus on wolf politics in Eastern Germany. Against reasonable fearful predictions of how widespread and humiliating underemployment, systemic poverty, terrible pensions, demographic change and empty villages, Western hegemony and Eastern subjugation, identity and history loss, even Western colonialism affect voting behaviours, we find that empirically ascertained fears focus on what are in fact negligible changes: a few new migrants here, a wolf there. This is why an analysis of the politics of fear is interesting: affective politics uses fear to mobilise, and people bask in the resonance this seems to bring. Fear, then, of either wolves or migrants, has a function, and it is this functionality of fear that we address in this chapter in order to explain, in an accessible way, the question of the rise of the right. We show what part the discussion of the wolves plays in this development, and how a politics of fear serves the aims of the AfD, not by manipulating or taking up sentiments already existing in the population but by a theatre of resistance in which ‘feeling rules’ (a term coined by Arlie R. Hochschild) are coming to be contested. Thus, on the one hand, conditioned by imagined realities, the core of the wolf problem is a composition of fear and outrage.
The final chapter summarises the argument of the book and provides answers to our guiding questions. What does the trope of the wolf tell us about the state of democracy in Eastern Germany? Why is anti-establishmentarianism prevalent in rural areas? And why does it seem to be more prevalent in Eastern Germany? And ultimately, how can we understand the re-emergence and strengthening of nationalist and xenophobic attitudes and political actors in Eastern German in more depth?