Fear for the german middle

Fear for the german middle

Anger of a citizen against the police © Marijan Murat

There is much discussion about an allegedly "disinhibited" middle class in Germany following the controversial "Mitte Study" by the University of Leipzig: Researchers have different views on the state of the middle class in times of social challenges.

The crime statistics speak a clear language: according to the Federal Criminal Police Office, the number of right-wing crimes rose by around 30 percent in 2015 – committed even by people who had never previously come to the attention of the police as right-wing extremists. "There is a new type of perpetrator who crosses the threshold from ideology to attack without any intermediate steps," warned NRW Interior Minister Ralf Jager (SPD) recently at the presentation of the state's report on interception protection. A study by the University of Leipzig entitled "Die enthemmte Mitte" (The disinhibited middle) on right-wing extremist attitudes is therefore causing heated debate: Is this radicalization coming from the middle of German society?

Center polarizes

Quite right, say the Leipzig authors. It is true that right-wing extremist attitudes have not increased overall in the population: The proportion of people with a "closed right-wing extremist worldview" is five percent, the lowest figure ever recorded in the 14-year study series. But on the other hand, the measured willingness of right-wing extremists to enforce goals by force grew. And: Individual groups such as Muslims, Sinti and Roma, asylum seekers and homosexuals are more strongly rejected than in 2014. The center is becoming polarized: "We have people who are actively concerned about refugees, and there are people who actively reject refugees," says study director Elmar Brahmer.

A disinhibited middle? For Berlin-based extremism researcher Klaus Schroeder, "questions were asked far too sweepingly, and then scandalizing conclusions were drawn". More than one million refugees have been admitted in a short time and at the same time further immigrants have arrived as a result of the EU's eastward expansion. "The fact that this quantity scares many people does not turn them into radicals," says the political scientist, who considers the German middle to be "stable".

Majority of citizens satisfied with their lives

Most citizens are satisfied with their lives, "that can also be proven by surveys," says Schroeder, referring to a survey by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research, according to which 91 percent of 30- to 59-year-olds rate their quality of life as good or very good. "For the fact that there are indeed new social challenges, German society as a whole is very moderate."

Personal bitterness, however, leads to hostile attitudes toward immigrants, as a study by the Munich-based economic research institute ifo shows. "Those who believe they don't get what they deserve in life worry more about immigration," says Ifo researcher Panu Poutvaara, who analyzed data from the Socioeconomic Panel for this purpose. "This also applies to people with regular incomes and to pensioners, who no longer even compete with new immigrants on the labor market." So the middle class is also worried.

Reversal of personal attitudes

However, the economics professor considers the good economic situation in Germany and the large middle-income class in comparison with the rest of Europe to have a stabilizing effect on society. "In countries with high unemployment, such as Greece, citizens become much more radicalized to the right, and nationalist parties are more popular.But here, too, populist groups are targeting the disaffected and stoking their fears.". "These are times of upheaval everywhere in Europe." Here, however, the climate is moderate, also finds Poutvaara. "There is, after all, also a lot of support for refugees on the ground."

And: If there is this contact with the newcomers, negative attitudes can even be reversed, as a research project from Austria shows. Economist Andreas Steinmayr examines the impact of neighborhood asylum seekers on support for the right-wing FPo, which doubled its support in many places after an election campaign focused on the refugee crisis. "If there are refugee shelters in the village, the support for the FPo decreases," Steinmayr says. At the same time, contact with refugees increased optimism that they could manage integration.

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