Far right rises in the east in German general election
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With unemployment higher than in the west and tension over immigration from Poland, the former East Germany has provided a base for the revival of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which hopes to enter parliament after Sunday's general election.
Far away from the hustle and bustle of Berlin, on Germany's border with Poland, lies the quiet city of Frankfurt an der Oder, population 58,000.
The city was split in two after World War II but contact with the part that was taken out of Germany have been restored since Poland entered the EU in 2004.
All that remains of the old border is a blue EU sign on the German side of the bridge over the Oder. Once every hour the 983 bus travels from Frankfurt to Slubice, in Poland on the other side of the river.
The journey costs just 1.70 euros and there are no passport or customs controls.
Poles were not immediately allowed to work in Germany after the country joined the EU.
“Some people were afraid of it,” says Dagmara Jajeśniak-Quast of the European University Viadrina's Polish studies centre.
Far right attacks open border
The open border provides a target for the AfD. Many lampposts in the streets of Frankfurt an der Oder are covered with the blue-red posters of the anti-immigration party, with slogans like “Borders must close” and “We’ll make German babies ourselves”.
The fear they are playing on is unfounded, says Jajeśniak-Quast. Germany imposed a seven-year transition period and the German market was not fully opened to the Poles until 2011.
After six years it has become clear that local German companies need Polish workers, who fill shortages in many professions: teachers, doctors, engineers, especially in the smaller towns in what used to be East Germany.
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But reconciliation is a slow process.
“Some of them still don’t like the other side,” says Jajeśniak-Quast, Some 15 percent of the adult population of Frankfurt an der Oder have never been to the Polish side. Only three percent of the Poles from Slubice have not visited Frankfurt.
“Sterotypes are still strong - 'The Poles, they are lazy, they are using our money, the social security system',” Jajeśniak-Quast comments.
The new reality requires an abrupt change of mentality for many Germans. They have to accept that in some cases Poles may run a factory and employ Germans.
Meanwhile, workers in the eastern part of Germany, where unemployment is 9.9 percent, compared to 5.5 percent in former West Germany, do not profit from the open border by trying and find employment on the Polish side.
Wages there are three times lower, Jajeśniak-Quast points out. “So of course nobody would like to go over to the Polish side and get much less money than they would have here from the social security system."
And the situation has been exacerbated by Poland's aggressively nationalist government, which doesn’t seem afraid of reopening old wounds. Recently a discussion on World War II reparations was reopened, in spite of treaties the two countries signed after the conflict.
Jajeśniak-Quast hopes that things will change after regional and national elections in Poland in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
“I think that [the cooperation between] Frankfurt an der Oder and Slubice is already a miracle," she says. "If you know how it was here 60 years ago, how it was here even 25 years ago. We now have joint projects, we have this joint bus line, we have a joint warming system.”
She is convinced the development can not be undone, even by newly elected parties in governments at national or local level.
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