Anti-Nazi hashtag campaign tries to correct eastern Germany's far-right image

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Reclaiming the conversation about eastern Germany

A social media campaign is aiming to redress the perception that eastern Germany has fallen for far-right populism. The blogger Stefan Krabbes has started "the other East" hashtag, taken up enthusiastically on Twitter.

A new social media campaign is aiming to redress the perception that eastern Germany is in the grip of far-right populists and neo-Nazis. The blogger Stefan Krabbes has started "the other East" hashtag, which has been taken up enthusiastically.

Eastern Germany is divided these days, but if there's one thing that unites people who join far-right demos and those who march against them, it's the conviction that the region has been misrepresented in the media.

Reporters who travelled to Chemnitz or Köthen to coverthe countless demos that took place after the deaths of Daniel H. and Markus B. – allegedly at the hands of asylum-seekers – would regularly be told by locals not to simply dismiss the entire region as a "Nazi swamp" and point out that many of the neo-Nazis that took part in the demos had travelled from the West.

That sentiment is behind a new campaign aimed at both correcting the media perception of the former communist East Germany and giving a voice to what it says are the majority of eastern Germans who aren't enraptured by right-wing populists – united under the social media hashtag #DerAndereOsten ("The Other East").

Read more: Violence in Chemnitz: a timeline

Nazis versus elites

The movement was started by Stefan Krabbes, a 31-year-old blogger from Halle/Saale, a city in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt just half an hour's drive from Köthen. A politics student who commutes to Berlin to work in a Green party Bundestag member's office, Krabbes announced his plan on September 4 with a heartfelt post on his website: "It hurts in the soul and makes one furious that the East of our republic, which many of us call home, is constantly being overshadowed by far-right violence. But we're not prepared to accept it anymore," he wrote.

On Twitter, he said "we can do more, we know our potential! An appeal for a different East."

"We might not be as loud as them, but there are more of us," Krabbes told DW. He took his cue from the #WirSindMehr ("There are More Of Us") hashtag that headlined the anti-Nazi concert in Chemnitz in early September. "We have to stop playing the game of the right-wing populists," he says.

Krabbes highlights the East-West divide that still dominates German discourse almost three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and which is exacerbated by stereotypes – the East is full of Nazis, while the West is full of arrogant elites who look down on their eastern compatriots. "That's outdated, and it was never right," he says.

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Looking into the causes of Saxony’s xenophobia

The campaign has been taken up enthusiastically on Twitter, where users have shared new definitions of "the other East."

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"The other East is one that is proud of having peacefully ended a dictatorship, of having pulled itself together, of having taken over democracy for itself, and bravely developed an eastern future out of its own ruptures and experiences," wrote Berlin Left party member Tobias Schulze.

Green party leader Katrin Göring-Eckhardt took up the point in an impassioned Bundestag speech this week, tweeted by her party's parliamentary group:

"As a native of [the eastern state of] Thuringia it annoys me how some people have started talking about 'the East.' So many people live there defending democracy under difficult circumstances. That is the other East, and it deserves our support!"

Read more: Chemnitz fact check: were foreigners chased down?

A nuanced approach

That divide needs to be overcome, says Krabbes. "I want to make people – in the West as well as the East – approach each other in a much more nuanced way, that there is not just the East and the West, but that we get to know each other a little better."

He acknowledges that there are still differences in mentality between East and West. After all, East Germany has had a radically different recent political history. "Yes, a political system was defeated, but that doesn't mean people who lived in it are losers," he wrote in his blog.

Living in an authoritarian state with a collectivist approach left people in the East expecting more from the government as well as more suspicious of it. At the same time, they feel they were never properly integrated into then-West Germany's brand of capitalism, the social market economy.

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Many people in the East felt abandoned, and forced to "teach themselves" about what it meant to live in a democracy. For too long, civil society representatives in eastern Germany have said, state governments in eastern Germany have failed to provide proper political education in schools – something Family Minister Franziska Giffey attempted to address on a recent trip to Chemnitz.

The so-called "new German states" – Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, which joined the Federal Republic in 1990 – overall, remain economically poorer and under-populated, and many there feel "left behind" by the legacy of reunification.

Election results show that those states are fertile ground for the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). In the 2017 national election, the AfD took more than one in five votes in the East, or 21.9 percent – more than twice the 10.7 percent the party garnered in the West.

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"The Wolves Are Back" is a series of 66 bronze statues of wolves. Some do the Hitler salute, which is usually banned in Germany. Artist Rainer Opolka says the work is meant to remind people of the threat of racism. Far-right sympathizers often use the wolf to describe themselves. The AfD's Björn Höcke used the word recently; Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, used it as early as 1928.

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Touring Germany

Opolka has brought his statues all around the country to places where racism and xenophobia are on display. They have been on show in Dresden during the anti-immigrant PEGIDA marches, and outside the Munich courthouse during the sentencing of Beate Zschäpe, a member of the neo-Nazi NSU terror cell.

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Ready for the far right

When the far-right Pro Chemnitz group launches its newest rally on Friday, both the city's famous Karl Marx statue and the wolves will be watching. While some of the wolves have an aggressive stance, others appear with blindfolds.

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Chemnitz fights back

After a series of far-right rallies in early September, Chemnitz has been trying to reclaim its image from the negative headlines. Large banners in the city center decry ethno-nationalism, and an anti-racism concert held under the banner "We are more" attracted some 65,000 people.

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Tourist attraction

Officials in Chemnitz have voiced their concern that the unrest will permanently damage the city's image. They've gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the right-wing rallies, and have fast-tracked criminal proceedings for those who committed violence or broke hate-speech laws during the protests.