Study shows: Unemployment aids extremism

August 26, 2005

This press release is also available in German.

In Eastern Germany there are three times as many right-wing extremist crimes per inhabitant as in Western Germany. Is this the result of differing socialisation patterns, as politicians and others keep maintaining? Certainly not: the reason is primarily higher unemployment levels in former East Germany. This is the conclusion reached by researchers from the University of Bonn, the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) and the University of Zurich.

We are on a tram at night. A few people are dozing, one of them is African. Then two skinheads get on and start harassing him. "What do the others do? Do they look away, or do they help?" asks Professor Armin Falk, an economist at the Institute for the Study of Labor and the University of Bonn. He adds: "My theory is that it depends on the economic situation, among other factors. When the economy is in trouble latent racist attitudes begin to surface, and the willingness to stand up for non-German fellow citizens wanes. In this sort of climate right-wing extremist crimes flourish.

Precisely 44,403 criminal offences with a right-wing extremist background were officially recorded by the Federal Criminal Police Office between 1996 and 1999. Just under 7 per cent of these were cases of criminal assault, particularly against foreigners. Prof. Falk and his Zurich colleague Prof. Josef Zweimüller have compared the figures for each month and Federal state with the unemployment statistics for the same period. They discovered a significant link: the higher the unemployment figures were, the more right-wing extremist offences were committed. However, this rule of thumb only held good above a critical minimum level of unemployment. Other locally specific factors such as the percentage of young men in the population, the expenditure per head on social welfare and assistance for young people, the percentage of foreign citizens in the population or the success rate in detecting crimes could not explain the differences between the Federal states.

The unemployed are not to blame

"However, our study does not show that right-wing extremist offences are mainly carried out by the unemployed," Professor Falk emphasises. "The position is much more complex." He adds that a high unemployment rate also increases people's fears about their livelihood, even if they have jobs. "In this sort of climate the willing-ness to show the courage of one's convictions and resist extremist tendencies is then reduced. And this acts as additional encouragement for the real offenders." Hoyerswerda was an example of this: in 1991 foreigners there were attacked by right-wing radicals for several days without being assisted by eyewitnesses. In fact, many eyewitnesses encouraged the attacks by applauding or shouting support.

'East German socialisation' not the scapegoat

In Eastern Germany the number of right-wing extremist offences per inhabitant between 1996 and 1999 was treble the figure in the West. Many sociologists explain that as being due to the relatively recent democratic traditions of former East Germany. However, during the period investigated the unemployment rate in Eastern Germany was also a cool 7.1 per cent higher than the rate in Western Germany. Professor Falk has estimated what effect this has on the statistics: "Eighty per cent of the difference is due to the different unemployment figures in East and West," he summarises. "To use the different socialisation as a scapegoat is untenable on the basis of our data."

University of Bonn

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