I’m in the poor desolate border town of Frankfurt an der Oder. This is where I live: in this battleground between the far-Right and the far-Left – where Centrism holds no sway – on the border with Poland. Both the hard-Right’s AfD party, and the hard-Left’s Die Linke, return large vote shares, despite the former only coming to being within the last electoral cycle.
I sit on a train, waiting for it to take me to Berlin. It is the only place with jobs more involving that retail and restaurants. At the station – the end of the line for most trains – the Intercity (and international) Express from Moscow to Paris calls. It stops here for twenty minutes where police and die Zoll (border police) get on.
Frankfurt used to be bigger. In population, like many of the cities in the GDR (ex-East Germany), Frankfurt’s populations has steadily declined since the fall of The Wall and the subsequent collapse of Western Communism. From a peak of around 85,000 in the mid-eighties, to about 55,000 today – the same as from Burnley to Inverness, for reference. A mass exodus. Today, Frankfurt still has some of the highest unemployment rates in Germany, a country with the lowest national unemployment figures in Europe.
But Frankfurt also used to be bigger geographically as well. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union redrew the borders of the Eastern European countries in an attempt to prevent another hostile outbreak. All but one (Czechoslovakia) of these divides still exist (the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Yugoslavia, and its fragmentation occurred after 1991). The Germany-Poland border was to follow the two rivers that ran from the Baltic sea to the Czechoslovakian border – the Oder and the Neiße, splitting towns and cities over the two countries such as Frankfurt, Guben, Forst, Küstrin, and Görlitz.
On the other side of the River Oder, in Poland, lies a town probably half the size of Frankfurt called Słubice (pronounced “swoo-bitsa”). It is – or was – the eastern part of Frankfurt. The Oder facilitated the city – as a whole – to be an important Middle Ages trading hub, and a member of the prestigious Hansa League, alongside other Northern European cities such as Bergen, Hamburg, Bremen, Danzig (now Gdańsk), and London among their number.
If I have painted a bleak picture of Frankfurt, Słubice is perhaps truly desolate. A town that was ignored – as many Polish towns in the west of the country were – for fear of (yet) another invasion from their western neighbour. Probably why there is only one bridge over the river for miles in either direction. As such, it had never been given any attention from Warsaw governments – before or since the fall of the socialist government in Poland – and it shows in the people’s faces, the crumbling walls, the incongruous patriotism, and the near-desertion of the town.
Poles live in Frankfurt (as does a sizeable enclave of Russians left over from the Red Army occupation), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a German living in Słubice – especially one who has moved there since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. As such, xenophobia is rife in the region, fostered by two competing and incompatible values of migration: the cliché view – held by the Germans – is that the Poles are “comin’ over ‘ere, takin’ our jobzes” in an area already wrack with unemployment and near-non-existent growth. The Poles in Słubice – taught by successive governments since 1945 that the Oder-Neiße Line is still a “front” – are made to feel inferior. They feel looked down upon by their neighbours across the river, that Germany is good enough for Germans and Poles, but Poland is only good enough for Slavs. Living in a town that has a mere ten percent (seventy years) of its history as a Polish settlement, the inhabitants have taken heavier attempts to “Polonize” the area as many frontier settlements have done in history.
This aggression to foreigners has spilled over borders and cultures, and into the more current migratory issue of refugees and extra-European migrants. One only needs to take a walk along some of the roads leading to Frankfurt’s train station to see the graffiti. “Refugees welcome” changed to “Refugees not welcome”, “Flüchlinge verboten” (refugees forbidden), and “Muslime raus” (Muslims out) adorn the outer walls of supermarkets, banks, and bus stops. Illegal symbols: NPD (Nazi Partei Deutschland – needs no real translation, does it…) stickers and Swastikas can be seen in Frankfurt and (ironically, given their history and nationalism) Słubice. “Remember Rostock ’92” spray-painted on the former theatre reminds passers by that xenophobia exists and migrants will be hated. It is unclear whether this piece is pro- or anti- the riots…
For every slogan like this, however, there is another that opposes it. Entire battles are fought with spray paint along the walls of the two towns – slogans are sprays, re-sprayed, crossed out, and themselves vandalised. It is evidence of the Ostalgie (East Nostalgia – a nostaligia for the GDR), but also of a politically-aware student population from the Eurpean-Universität Viadrina, which has a large Foreign Exchange program. About forty percent of the students enrolled are foreign – far greater than other German universities – and also has a campus in Słubice.
There is a pushback against the European Union in all its member states. Despite the polls saying willingness to leave the suprastate is lower than before Brexit, it is these border towns – thing we do not have in the UK – that show exactly how EU expansion is still being fought and resisted in countries that joined well over a decade ago (nearly three decades for East Germany). It is in the EU that we see World Systems Theory at work: a core and a periphery; an exploiter and an exploited; a rich country and a poor one. One of the first traits of any culture or ethnic group is language. The Poles here speak German fluently, the Germans know a handful of Polish words, maybe a few phrases. No one here knows much English. If the EU is to survive, it will need to homogenise key aspects of each country’s way of life, if it does, there will be a harder pushback – if it doesn’t, this will carry on.