Richard von Weizsäcker Forum 2023
Political polarization and rising populism threaten our democracies and social cohesion. During this year’s Richard von Weizsäcker Forum, former, current, and future fellows came together for a study trip to Berlin and Saxony to discuss the roots and consequences of political polarization in Germany and around the world.
In Germany and many other countries populism is on the rise. To discuss political polarization and social cohesion, we invited our Richard von Weizsäcker fellows to take part in a study trip to Berlin and Dresden. Dresden, as the capital of the federal state of Saxony, has regional elections coming up in the fall of 2024 and it is expected that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) will make further electoral gains. As a part of eastern Germany, Saxony vividly shows the still-existent socio-economic disparities between eastern and western Germany that affect citizens’ lives and regional politics. From 10 to 15 October, 60 former, current, and future fellows participated in a range of meetings with political decision-makers, civil society representatives, artists, and representatives from the business fraternity to familiarize themselves with the situation in Germany.
Political polarization around the world
On the first day of the trip in Berlin, fellows discussed the roots and consequences of political polarization worldwide. The phenomenon is not new and can be found in many countries with different characteristics. While some countries have popular leaders who drive polarization forward, there are also countries where the roots of polarization lie in the failed promise that democracy will automatically deliver on equality and social welfare. In a panel discussion, four speakers shared their views: Karolina Wigura, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, sociologist, and Director of Kultura Liberalna; Ivan Krastev, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow and Director, Centre for Liberal Strategies; Henry Kwasi Prempeh, Director, Ghana Center for Democratic Development; and Maja Göpel, political economist and Honorary Professor at Leuphana University Lüneburg.
Ivan Krastev: “The future is one of the biggest resources of democracy and the idea of a future under threat is one key element in political polarization. The future used to be a project, now it's only a projection of everything that worries us - with many obstacles and challenges like the rise of nationalism and climate change.”
With the missing vision of a prosperous future also comes a lack of trust in institutions and civil society. According to a study by the NGO More in Common, two-thirds of people in Germany consider the society as “rather divided” and feel “left alone” by the political class. In a panel discussion, Laura-Kristine Krause, founding director of More in Common Germany, proposed the involvement of citizens in practice to connect them with the political system.
Laura-Kristine Krause:“We need to learn again how to think about the future and how we as active citizens can shape it. The Covid-19 pandemic and also the current inflation make people again interested in politics and they realize that their vote has an impact. The problem is, the politicians have not made use of this momentum.”
One root of the problem is the failing representation and recognition of different people with varied opinions in the community, argued Harsh Mander, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow and Director of the Center for Equity Studies. According to an OECD study, there is a notable decline in young people voting in OECD countries. Since democracy needs to be learned, education is key for active citizenship.
Sarah Kups: “What we aim for is a skeptical trust in the political system. Citizens should recognize their active role but also preserve a critical attitude.”
A divided society in Germany
Racism and discrimination and their portrayal in various forms of art can help understand the different facets of social cohesion. Fatih Akın is a German film producer with Turkish background and is well known for his films shedding light on the diverse realities of life for a migrant in Germany, especially ones surrounding issues of racism, xenophobia, and identity. The fellows had the chance to watch two curated film sequences and discuss how some of the mechanisms in place aid in systematic discrimination of people with a migration background in Germany. The open question that remained was what German Leitkultur and Germanness actually means.
Fatih Akın:“It will take a least one generation of films, songs, literature, and theatre plays to be able to reflect on current problems with social cohesion like discrimination, and rising populism as well as questions of German Leitkultur.”
Before leaving for Dresden, two Members of the German Bundestag from Dresden, Rasha Nasr (SPD) and Markus Reichel (CDU), joined the fellows for a dinner discussion about Dresden and broader issues in Saxony. One of the main discussion points was the fear of losing prosperity and social security, as well as the role of migration and the lack of trust in political leaders.
Rasha Nasr: “Politicians need to provide a vision. People need to know what we do and that we take our responsibility to guide this country seriously. And we need more politicians from eastern Germany because we know that representation matters.”
The second day in Berlin started with a visit to the Federal Chancellery and a meeting with the Head of the Federal Chancellery and the Federal Minister for Special Affairs, Wolfgang Schmidt (SPD), who talked about the challenges of a three-party coalition (Social Democratic Party, Greens, Free Democrats) in Germany in times of turbulence. Topics that were discussed were the situation in Israel and Palestine, the economic situation with rising inflation, migration, and the war in and support for Ukraine.
How the past shapes the presence
On the way to Dresden the fellows visited the former coal mine town of Grossräschen. It is part of a region that suffered greatly after reunification in 1989. Half of the inhabitants worked in the coal industry, and within just three years 80 percent of the mines were shut down and many people were left unemployed. To revive the area, architect Rolf Kuhn, Chair, IBA Study House, designed a project to turn the coal pits into a landscape of lakes and make the outlines of the former coal mine still visible. The project is a successful transformation of a region that values and recognizes the past – and shows it off to thousands of tourists every year.
In Dresden, the fellows visited one of the city’s major tourist attractions: the Frauenkirche. Built in the 18th century, the church was almost completely destroyed in the city’s 1945 bombing by the Allies. During the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the church remained a ruin as symbol for the war and was finally rebuilt and opened again in 2005. Today, the Frauenkirche is a place of contested memory: on the one hand, it is a place of remembrance of World War II. On the other hand, it is instrumentalized by right-wing parties as a symbol of the Christian Occident and as part of the city’s glorious heritage. On this background, the role of the collective memory was discussed by Nancy Aris, Saxon State Commissioner for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship; Caroline Förster, Managing Director, Dresden Historical Society; and Maria Noth, Managing Director, Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation.
Caroline Förster:“Right-wing parties and conservatism create a perception of being guarantors for stability and security. In light of the rise of conservative political tendencies, an understanding of history becomes important like never before to remind us where right-wing extremism can lead us to.“
The peaceful revolution and the turn after 1989brought many changes that left deep scars on the lives of many people in eastern Germany. The economic and social system was completely restructured overnight, which caused an identity crisis for the local inhabitants.
One of the challenges that the region still must face is brain drain: educated people leave to work in western Germany where salaries are higher and employment opportunities more ample. This said, Saxony’s economy has grown by over 30 percent since 2000, exhibiting one of the highest growth rates in all of Germany. Its main industrial sectors include the automobile industry, machine and plant construction, ICT sector, and microelectronics.
Continuing the conversation about the economic growth of Saxony, the fellows met Christian Koitzsch, plant manager, Robert Bosch Semiconductor Manufacturing Dresden; Markus Schlimbach, Chairman, German Trade Union Confederation Saxony; and Marcel Thum, Director, ifo Institute Dresden. They offered insights into the vision of “Silicon Saxony,” a hub of technology with more than 400 companies. One of the challenges is the negative demographic development and the lack of skilled workers.
Markus Schlimbach: “Welfare is not only important for the economic force. More jobs in Saxony also have an impact on the societal development, diversity, and questions of migration.“
A different, rather critical perspective on questions of social cohesion came up later that day with the writer Uwe Tellkamp. Born in the GDR, he published the acclaimed fiction book entitled Der Turm in 2008. Later, he became one of the controversial voices from the far-right. In conversation with the fellows, he pointed out the frustrations and disappointments of eastern Germans and shared his views on current societal developments, concerns regarding migration and German identity which led to a vivid discussion about the fragility of German identity, varied views on migration and different visions of a shared future.
Polarized elections in Saxony 2024
One highlight was a visit to the Saxonian state parliament and a fruitful discussion
Since 2017, the AfD is in the state parliament and has shaped the political climate in the discussions that have become ever more heated. Although the parties’ representatives were clear that their task is to keep the state governable and diminish polarization, there was no consensus on how to do it. The vision of this future for the political debate in Saxony is not clear.: on the contrary, a strategy to regain voters trust and support for democratic parties seems missing. Should the AfD become the strongest party at next year’s elections, the question remains whether it would be able to form a coalition, be able to govern in a minority government and what their victory would mean for state politics.
Next up, journalists Annette Binninger, member of the editorial board of Sächsische Zeitung and Head of the state politics department, and Tobias Wolf, state correspondent for the daily newspaper Freie Presse in Dresden shared their perspective on the role of journalism and state media, as well as freedom of speech in times of political polarization. One of the main problems is the lack of trust in the public broadcaster and traditional media as well as the fact that many young people inform themselves primarily through social media. Especially right-wing parties declare the news of the state media and public broadcaster as fake news while churning out alternative news on platforms such as TikTok to reach younger generations.
Annette Binninger: “Some people call us Lügenpresse (the lying press) and blame us for canceling out the voices on the far right. If I would write what some people from the far right want me to write – that our democracy has failed – it would be a lie and would also lay the ground of an end to our political system.”
Another important perspective was given by three Dresdeners with migration background, who are active in local social organizations. In a discussion with Douha AlFayyad, Council for Foreign Nationals, Emiliano Chaimite, and Paolo Le van, both Saxonian Association of Migrant-led Organizations, the fellows learned more about the history of the Vertragsarbeiter (contract workers) in the GDR, their systematic exclusion, and the structure of integration. Only in 2015, in the wake of the migration “crisis” that began in that year, the city of Dresden started with a structured integration program to support newcomers in their daily lives. The rigid bureaucracy and other boundaries still make it difficult to find a job, they told us, and have a peaceful life in the city.
The developments and challenges in eastern Germany are not a problem unique to it: Populist parties are also rising elsewhere in Germany and in Europe. The loss of trust in democracy and increasing polarization is a nationwide and an international phenomenon. The study trip made clear that even after 33 years of reunification, there are still major disparities between eastern and western Germany – including some that go beyond economic and social injustice. The trip showed various perspectives on forms and consequences of political polarization in Germany and pointed out challenges and opportunities for transformation.
Impressions of the Fellows
Ted Piccone, nonresident senior fellow, Brookings Institution: “This year’s Forum was unlike any other Robert Bosch Academy gathering I have attended since I first became engaged in 2017. Our colleagues expressed a more direct demand for moral leadership and political change during these very troubled times. This was sparked by the horrific events in Israel and Palestine but also by the tough issues of polarization and migration discussed in Saxony and Berlin. As I listened, I was reminded again of the fundamental values and principles that should guide our communities – dignity, equality, justice and our common humanity. Yet too often we fail to live up to these standards and fall into traps of realpolitik and self-interest. The Forum clarified for me what really matters when it comes to our common pursuit of peace and democracy and underscored the respect we owe each other even when we disagree.”
Anasuya Sengupta, Co-Director and co-founder of Whose Knowledge?: “As a first time participant in the Forum, especially at a time of such deep political crisis in the world, the theme of the Forum - polarisation and social cohesion - became embodied in very personal ways for me. At the same time, the care in the programming, the excellent people we were meeting both in Berlin and in Dresden, and the thoughtful conversations with them, helped make the connections between our different life experiences and the realities of German life. In particular, I was moved by the session with Fatih Akin, the film maker, and the session with Douha Al Fayyad, Emiliano Chaimite, and Paolo Le Van, describing their lives as people of colour in Saxony. Both these sessions bookended the experience of the Forum for me - the powerful ways in which a filmmaker like Fatih can turn his gaze to who and what is often unseen or invisible to those in privilege, and in turn, leaders like Douha, Emiliano, and Paolo can powerfully voice what is often unsaid or unheard by those in privilege. They marked the simultaneous celebration of difference and the sharing of a common humanity. They embodied hope and courage.”