As latest news reports from Chemnitz, in the federal state of Saxony, about anti-immigrant protests began to arrive, I was sipping coffee in Eisenhüttenstadt, federal state of Brandenburg. Developed in 1950s, and initially named Stalinstadt, Eisenhüttenstadt (“Ironworks city”), it was the first planned socialist industrial community in East Germany.  Its role was to boost industrial development, provide employment to thousands of workers, and in an indirect manner a home and work for refugees.  The refugees at that time were not Syrians, Iraqis, or Afghans. They were Germans.  The post-World War II’s boundary changes resulted in expulsion of millions of Germans from Poland.  At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences the Allies decided to move the German-Polish boundary westward to the river Oder, only two miles from where today is Eisenhüttenstadt’s city center.

Since its founding, Eisenhüttenstadt grew in population and development.  Between 1950 and 1989 the city’s population increased nearly fivefold to 52,674 residents.  Not only Germans contributed to demographic change.  Workers from other Warsaw Pact countries and Yugoslavia could be seen in factories and streets of Eisenhüttenstadt.  Some of them married into German families, had children with local women, and lived in planned housing designed to house the working men.

Next to the housing projects were parks, kindergartens, and schools.  German Democratic Republic’s bureaucrats were providing necessities to workers, former refugees, and economic migrants.  The watchful eye of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) made sure that security against personal crimes was among the best in the world.  Other areas in GDR resembled that of Eisenhüttenstadt in terms of social and economic environment.  That abruptly came to an end in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and German re-unification.

Figure 1 (Source). Aerial view of contemporary Eisenhüttenstadt with refugee center at the bottom left, rest of the city in the middle, and the industrial area in upper right.

As a result of German re-unification Eisenhüttenstadt’s population rapidly declined.  Thousands of young people left the city seeking employment in former West Germany.  Meanwhile, the largest employer in town, steelworks EKO Stahl, was privatized, which lead to a reduction in workforce from 12,000 to less than 3,000 employees.  Losing such a number of workers would be devastating for any city of such size, particularly one with limited other opportunities.

By 2014 Eisenhüttenstadt’s population declined to 27,444.  A great portion of them are elderly folks  who have lived there all their lives.  One is 83 year old Ingrid, who I came to visit for her birthday.  Nearly all her descendants now live in western Germany; a couple of others remain in former GDR, but not Eisenhüttenstadt.

As Ingrid prepared coffee for her grandson and me, I asked her about the family’s history and geography.  It turned out that her late husband was from a family of ethnic Germans expelled from Poland after the mentioned boundary moved westward.  One of her daughters married an economic migrant to Eisenhüttenstadt in 1970s, a guest worker from former Yugoslavia.  It became clear that Ingrid, who resides in one of the planned housing’s apartments, embodies much of Eisenhüttenstadt’s history as do a growing number of other elderly people in her neighborhood.

Not all of her neighbors, however, are elderly Germans.  In the apartment next door is a family of Syrian refugees.  Husband, wife, and several children now reside in this planned community once designed for workers ready to support GDR’s socialist economy and society.  The neighbors help Ingrid if she needs anything; the husband has found employment, but outside the city.

Difficult economic conditions dictate that not many residents, Germans or foreigners, can find employment locally and people are leaving.  Still, in 2015 Eisenhüttenstadt’s population increased for the first time since 1989, rising to 30,416 despite no drastic improvement in the local economy.  The significant demographic change coincided with the German Councilor, Angela Merkel’s, invitation to migrants to settle in Germany.  An “open door” policy brought over a million migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa to Germany, several thousands of whom settled in Eisenhüttenstadt’s government-provided facilities.  Unlike Ingrid’s neighbors, many reside in a refugee and asylum center with very low rates of employment.

One cannot paint a rosy picture of Eisenhüttenstadt’s economic future, with or without refugees who suddenly constitute upwards to 15 percent of overall population in a struggling city.  But it also cannot ignore the reality of the situation and exclude their impact on demographic and social change, real or perceived.

An understanding of how the homogeneous cultural geographic system—neighborhood, village, city, or state—adapts to sudden changes is the key to solving the challenges.  Within that spectrum an important aspect to discuss is the issue of cultural integration.  The problem, however, has been that serious debates about integration have been forestalled by critics too eager to raise the racist card and shut down attempts for an honest dialogue.

Figure 2. Landscape of rural Saxony.  Even the smallest demographic and cultural change implemented from outside can have a great effect on local residents’ responses to such changes. (Photograph taken by the author.)

Cultural Evolution

Every human group on the planet has traditionally sought four goals for sake of its survival and growth; only then can it slowly allow integration of outside groups into their cultural geographic system.  First, a group creates homogenous cultural conditions in order to prevent being overrun by others (who, too, seek the same goal in their respective living areas).  Second, its members need enough to eat, which in the modern economy relates to gainful employment and provision of goods for one’s immediate and extended family or tribe.  Third, it has to secure shelter, a place to live, and develop the system of communal social interaction that the majority of people in the group support.  Finally, it needs procreation in numbers that make the group grow in size and power.  When these aspects are satisfied the cultural integration can be more successful.

Let us analyze the context of contemporary Germany with a particular focus on former East Germany and states such as Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg.  In these states some of the most widely reported incidents involving the recently settled migrants and locals have taken place.  Among them, the situation in Cottbus (Brandenburg) has been one of the most publicized prior to events in Chemnitz.

All three states have been culturally homogeneous under the general umbrella of German people, religion (Protestant and Catholic) and minor regional differences aside.  They share common history and collective memory.  The homogeneity was retained during the GDR era, unlike in West Germany where immigration was encouraged.  By the time of German re-unification very few foreigners from the Middle East or Africa resided in Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg, particularly not in rural areas such as one displayed in Figure 2.

With the collapse of GDR and economic transformation and recovery, unemployment and economic situation in the East has been greatly affected.  The safety net of steady jobs and a comfortable life in planned communities—regardless of how much lower their standard of life was compared to the West in monetary terms—like that described in Eisenhüttenstadt, faded away.  Emigration drastically increased.  Despite nearly three decades of investments since re-unification, economic prospects in Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg still lag behind the western German states.  In simple words, there were just not enough well paid jobs—or the possibility of conditions improving in the near future—to keep young people around.  Population of many cities has been greatly reduced [for example, the number of residents in Cottbus fell from 137,366 in 1989 to 99,491 in 2014; in 2015, however, similarly to Eisenhüttenstadt, Cottbus recorded population growth as a result of artificial growth through refugee resettlement].

Emigration of so many young people leaving their places of birth has negatively affected the local system of communal social interaction.  Not only are the best and brightest first to leave, but the ratio of younger people who are supposed to keep the community going has proportionately become smaller, while at the same time the ratio of elderly is increasing. This mental limbo can easily contribute even more to the locals’ anxiety about economic and overall existential prospects.  Walking the streets of Eisenhüttenstadt one could easily notice and feel such an environment of communal stagnation.  Ethnic Germans’ birth rates in these three states are extremely low.  Chemnitz, location of the most recent incident, has been known to have the lowest birth rate in the world.  Thus, in exactly those communities where the local population is aging and declining, young men from foreign cultures are increasingly moving in.  This is enough to increase the anxiety of local population, even when the numbers of new arrivals are modest.

Fear and Voting

Considering that, for example, Syrians have some of the highest birth rates in the world (but Iraqis, Afghans, and sub-Saharan Africans are not much behind).  One could understand how the fear of foreigners’ increased presence and their demographic growth may arise to become an important political issue.

Through political organization and voting people in modern society (peacefully) reflect their fears and grievances.  Should it be surprising that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party has received substantial support exactly in Thuringia, Saxony, and Brandenburg, succeeding in many districts in 2017 elections?  This party has capitalized on legitimate concerns of ordinary people who perceive that the changes in their communities are destructive, a trend that has been ongoing since 1990.

Figure 3. Cultural landscape in liberal areas sends a message about polarizing views among the Germans toward immigration policy and Alternative for Germany party’s platform.  (Photograph taken by the author.)

Hope and Change

The fear of foreigners, many an east German will tell you, is just another step in government’s inability to stabilize the cultural geographic system that evolved in the GDR, itself developed after an incredibly turbulent first part of the 20th century and two world wars.  Germans are incredibly fond of stability.  They want steady continuous growth in all spheres of life without major disruptions.  Amplitudes in changes must be much smaller for Germans than for many other people.  What they have received in Saxony, Brandenburg, or Thuringia for the past several decades was instability and steady decline (i.e., not catching up with western Germany) from social and economic to demographic aspects.  The wave of migrants settled without much consideration of their impact on the local cultural geographic system has only exacerbated such conditions.   The amplitude of change suddenly widened much more.

Ghosts of the Past

Debate about the issues and name calling on all sides will continue. It is apparently the only way to avoid admitting that the Germans are still afraid of the ghosts of their own past—an issue of ethnic purity during the Nazi era.  This seems to be a major reason why the latest immigration has been more of an open invitation to everyone rather than controlled immigration of preferably skilled labor.  From fear of being portrayed as racists who are playing favors to some groups over others, politicians and activists have championed an open door policy, while labeling disagreeing voices as racists and xenophobes.

Meanwhile, the issue of the sudden spike in immigration into already struggling communities keeps adding on to the deficiency of local cultural geographic systems, without satisfying solutions in sight.  Until a solution happens, conflicts, demonstrations, protests, and riots will likely continue to escalate. Unanswered anger among the east Germans that has been brewing for a long time, much prior to 2015, has added the immigration issue as next on the list of grievances not separate from each other.

Germans’ Dilemma