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How fall of the Berlin Wall paved way for Germany's populists

by Alexander Smith and Andy Eckardt /  / Updated 
East German border guards demolish a section of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 11, 1989.Gerard Malie / AFP - Getty Images file

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KÖTHEN, Germany — In a quiet and somewhat-dated restaurant in the eastern German countryside, an animated Daniel Roi is trying to explain an earthquake.

With his imposing frame, trimmed beard and blue blazer, the 30-year-old is part of a far-right, populist uprising that has left his country's political elite in disarray and wounded its once all-powerful leader, Angela Merkel.

Many of Roi's concerns echo those of the supporters of President Donald Trump. Fears about Muslims, immigrants and their perceived impact on jobs and national identity are common topics of conversation in this part of the world.

Roi is a local lawmaker for Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a political party described by the World Jewish Congress as "a disgraceful reactionary movement which recalls the worst of Germany's past" after it won more than 5.8 million votes in a general election last autumn.

For AfD members like Roi, its support is at least partly driven by lingering resentment from the reunification of East and West Germany after the Berlin Wall fell nearly 30 years ago. On Monday, the Cold War barrier will have been down for longer than it was up.

 AfD politicians Volker Olenicak (left) and Daniel Roi (right) attend a gathering of supporters at the Black Steed restaurant in Köthen, Germany. HC Plambeck / for NBC News

"Here in the east, we are being taken for fools, and that is one of the reasons why the discontent is so big," Roi says, leaning forward in his chair, raising his voice and jabbing his hand to emphasize each syllable. "This is exactly what the people here in the east have realized."

The AfD was only formed in 2013, but it captured 12.6 percent of the vote and 94 seats in Parliament in September's election.

Standing on a contentious anti-Muslim, anti-immigration platform, the party has been accused of making far-right, extremist statements and even spreading rhetoric that harks back to the Nazis — something most members deny.

This mainstream stigma did little to prevent the AfD's tear through Germany's political landscape.

The most significant casualty was the Christian Democratic Union, the center-right party led by Merkel. Having hemorrhaged votes, the CDU is still struggling to negotiate a coalition government with the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, or SPD, four months after the election.

Once venerated as the world's most powerful woman, the chancellor has been severely weakened, and some political commentators predict she will struggle to survive another term.

"The general perception is that with the weak showing of the conservatives at the general election, she's damaged goods," according to Thomas Walde, a political analyst with NBC News' German broadcast partner, ZDF.

'The AfD gave people a chance to be heard'

The AfD plundered votes across Germany, but its stronghold was undoubtedly in the east; in the state of Saxony it received 27 percent of the vote, and in neighboring Saxony-Anhalt 19 percent.

 The AfD won strong support from voters living in states that were once part of East Germany. Paul Cheung / NBC News

While it would be overly simplistic to put the party's support in these areas down to any one factor, many people came back to the same point when NBC News took a trip through the former East Germany last month.

A vote for the AfD, they said, was a chance to vent the long-simmering resentment felt by many former Easterners who still feel "left behind" in comparison to their Western neighbors. Apart from the thriving cultural hub of Berlin, the five other states that made up the East are still the poorest in Germany, despite years of investment and growth since reunification in 1990.

Two-thirds of all Germans still see persistent divisions between the East and West, according to a survey by the pollster INSA for the newspaper Bild in October. It also found this feeling was particularly strong among people in the former East, with three-quarters reporting they felt an "invisible barrier" between themselves and countrymen from what was once the other side of the Iron Curtain.

At the heart of this issue are places like Bitterfeld-Wolfen, a small industrial city with chemical pipelines zig-zagging over the highway and imposing, communist-era "plattenbau" — or "slab building" — housing blocks in its outskirts.

 Communist-era apartment buildings in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Germany. HC Plambeck / for NBC News

The city's post-reunification economy is steadily growing and it has relatively low numbers of migrants and refugees compared with the rest of Germany.

While it was once the most polluted city in the East, Bitterfeld-Wolfen is now home to a far cleaner manufacturing zone that makes everything from solar panels and aspirin to the windows for the world's tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Its former coal mine was flooded to create a lake featuring a promenade and a marina, both local tourist attractions.

Yet residents say they aren't experiencing these benefits. Local unemployment is at 8.2 percent — higher than the national rate of 5.8 percent — and many say they still feel outpaced by the more affluent areas of western Germany, where many young families have moved, seeking jobs and a better life.

News stories about foreigners coming to Germany make them worry about the secondary effects on their own population, which has dropped to around 40,000 from a peak of 76,000 in 1989. The average age is now 49 and rising.

On a drizzly Monday afternoon, the streets are eerily quiet here and it seems many windows are either shuttered or devoid of any discernible sign of life.

Angelika Winter, 65, didn't vote for the AfD but she says she can understand why people in her hometown found its straight-talking, anti-establishment stance appealing.

"After so many years we still feel that we are trailing behind in the East," she says in a cafe on the city's outskirts. "There is a difference between East and West, and we feel that we are second-class citizens."

After reunification, Winter lost her job in the East German film industry. Although she has found work as a public servant with the local government, she still feels a sense of bitterness toward Germany's present-day political establishment.

 A disused railway building in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Germany. HC Plambeck / for NBC News

"The AfD gave people a chance to be heard, and it shook the other mainstream parties," she says between sips of her cappuccino. "In my opinion the politicians have lost connection to the people, and that is also one of the reasons for our frustration."

Germany is subject to many of the same divisions that have given rise to populist movements lifting Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K. — young against old, educated against unschooled, urban against rural.

These multilayered factors are "extremely pronounced in eastern Germany" because the people here have already experienced so much drastic change in their lives, says Frank Richter, a theologian and activist in Dresden, the capital of Saxony — the state where the AfD won most of its support.

This disaffection has proved fertile ground for the AfD.

"Many people felt overwhelmed," Richter says. "The populists play this tune terrifically."

Communism vs. capitalism

Understanding this division requires seeing reunification from an East German perspective.

Americans tend to recall East Germany as a brutally repressive, communist regime allied with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. German reunification is almost always seen as a positive thing.

But the feeling is not so universal in the former East.

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Most people here initially supported reunification, and it's certainly true the merger brought democracy, liberty and, in most parts, economic growth.

But today many Easterners can't help but feel they were merely absorbed by their more wealthy, Western neighbors, rather than joining as equal partners.

"It was executed with such speed and radicalness, that the people in the East only understood gradually what was happening to them," Richter says, speaking in his office overlooking the spires, domes and cobbled streets of Dresden's baroque old town, which was heavily bombed during World War II and rebuilt at great expense after reunification.

There was a sense that Eastern officials were replaced by Westerners who were deemed to know better, and many felt that the community spirit that had fostered under communism had quickly evaporated under capitalism.

"The social cohesion from East Germany, most people here actually miss that feeling," according to 47-year-old Ingo Wobst, a Dresden resident who has seen many friends switch from the center-left SPD to the AfD.

 Ingo Wobst HC Plambeck / for NBC News

"After the fall of the wall, life in the countryside was pulsating, but then a lot of things collapsed," he says, sitting in a cafe across town in Dresden's trendy, graffiti-daubed Neustadt neighborhood. "Many people lost their jobs, and today you find small towns out here where there is no supermarket, no doctor and not even a bus stop."

The city of Dresden itself is actually flourishing, emerging as a rival tourist destination to nearby Leipzig or even Berlin. In recent years it's become known as the home of another far-right group, PEGIDA — for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West — which attracted 25,000 people to a demonstration in early 2015.

But many of the marchers were not from Dresden but from the surrounding towns and villages, according to Richter. The AfD has found most traction in such rural areas, which are emptying out because of "brain drain" — the emigration of educated and trained people — and low birth rates. If East Germany were still a country, it would have the oldest population in Europe.

"In a big city you have more work and the young people come here because of it," says Victoria Prokudin, a 20-year-old trainee lawyer who moved to Dresden from the surrounding countryside.

 Victoria Prokudin HC Plambeck / for NBC News

Even those who feel little nostalgia for communism balk at the idea that Germany is universally happy now that it's a single country.

Later that night, around 30 minutes' drive west of Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Roi gathered with AfD compatriots in the small town of Köthen.

Around half a dozen sympathizers and supporters were clustered in the unlikely setting of a restaurant called Schwarzes Ross, meaning Black Steed.

A large painting of a horse dominates the back wall, accompanied by horse-themed clocks, ornamental plates and coasters — decorations that seem a bit macabre given that horse meat is on the menu.

One common complaint at the meeting is that Germany's mainstream parties are so similar they present a new form of tyranny. If this sounds familiar, it mirrors the Trump supporters who claimed there was little difference between the centrism of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Merkel was born in West Germany but she spent her childhood in the East. However, her message failed to resonate with populist opponents.

"We were permanently being lied to in East Germany," says Volker Olenicak, 51, another AfD politician and local businessman. "And it is similar today again."

 Volker Olenicak HC Plambeck / for NBC News

The party has also found success in telling Germans that they should be allowed to be proud of their country, something they claim has been taboo since the war.

"That is one of the reasons why I joined the AfD," interjects Roi, while sitting next to Olenicak. "There was no longer a culture of discussion. You were no longer allowed to question things."

Open-door policy

No one here suggests that the East-West issue is the only factor at play.

If resentment over reunification had been simmering for 25 years, it boiled over in 2015 when Merkel decided to open Germany's doors to refugees.

"The AfD wouldn't be where they are today without the refugees and without the mistakes that were made, clearly," according to Walde, the ZDF analyst.

Merkel's "open-door policy" split the country, with some praising their leader's benevolent internationalism and others cursing the prospect of incoming refugees, who they claimed were a strain on the country's economy and a risk to security.

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel Odd Andersen / AFP - Getty Images file

Resentment appeared to deepen when gangs of men, some of them asylum-seekers, sexually assaulted women who were out celebrating in Cologne on New Year's Eve later that year.

Germany is similar to other countries in that the areas with the fewest migrants are often the most opposed to them. In Dresden, for example, just 10.6 percent of the population has what the city calls "a migration background" and only 6.76 percent are foreigners — both lower than the national average.

But people here are more wary of the prospect of incomers because of the region's particular history, according to Richter. In the 1800s it was a historic, secular kingdom, and spent most of the next century as an ethnically homogeneous dictatorship under the Nazis and then the Communists.

"We are not in Western Europe here," he says. "We are not in a place that is used to liberality, plurality and diversity."

The AfD was initially formed as a campaign against Europe's single currency, the euro, but it only gained mainstream success after switching its focus to immigration.

 Jennifer Zerrenner HC Plambeck / for NBC News

"I have a daughter and I don't want her to wear a niqab," says Jennifer Zerrenner, 50, who switched to the AfD from the far-left Die Linke party. "It hasn't happened in this town yet, but I think we should save the people here from too much immigration. I look to Cologne or Bonn or London, for example, and I say, 'No, we don't need so many people here from abroad.'"

Not everyone here is so suspicious.

Back in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Maik Sieblist, 46, a hotel manager, is cooperating with a government program to employ an Afghan refugee in the kitchen of his Deutsches Haus — or "German House." He vehemently opposes the AfD and has a generally positive view of foreigners and his hometown.

"I cannot understand why the people always want to change things," he says, leaning over a wooden counter in his hotel, which was built in 1913. "Mrs. Merkel is actually not doing such a bad job and is questionable whether we will find a better candidate."

Merkel and fellow lawmakers are now left to try to rebuild something from the rubble of their political establishment.

 AfD and SPD graffiti in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Germany. HC Plambeck / for NBC News

"That election really changed the political architecture," Niels Annen, an SPD lawmaker, says in an interview in his modern, airy office looking out over the Berlin skyline.

"It's clear for me that in that election we all underestimated the aspect of immigration," he says, adding that "there is more a cultural aspect from the history of how the unification was implemented."

With such deep, emotional scars going back decades, the politicians' task may be easier said than done.

As Armin Schenk, the mayor of Bitterfeld-Wolfen, put it: "You cannot argue against feelings. You can argue against facts, but not against feelings."

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