As citizens increasingly lose trust in politics and society, it becomes more important than ever for state and civilian organizations to be reliable, predictable, transparent, and decent. When citizens become more and more difficult to mobilize for democratic participation, when political disenchantment and cynicism are thriving, when social trust and social capital are evaporating, then civic and governmental organizations grow in importance to prevent that democracy is dissolving in a sea of indifference and non-binding detachment. In these circumstances, they have to uphold standards of trustworthiness, commitment and engagement. Are they indeed doing this?

Building up a social enterprise in a political system, interacting with its governmental and non-governmental organizations and with its citizens, professionals and officials, brings forth valuable insights about the state of its democracy. In this and following articles, I will report on some of our experiences and observations in Brandenburg, a state of the former German Democratic Republic. Right-wing populism is flourishing here and is poised to become the defining political force.

I start with the travails of founding a social enterprise. Although civil society organizations are crucial for vibrant pluralist democracies, it does not appear that the establishment and existence of these entities is always very welcomed. Then I address how Social Science Works integrated, or tried to do so, in the policy fields of our interests: the furthering of democracy, civil society and respect, as well as the integration of migrants and refugees. The fact that we became active in a political system that only recently had been bestowed with democratic structures, proved an additional hurdle to take. Next, I will present some observations on the working culture of professionals, civil servants and decision-makers in the eastern part of Germany. A short overview of recent survey research on the social and political views of East Germans will make the presented observations and experiences subsequently more understandable. I will end with some notes on the prospects for democracy.

1 Founding a social enterprise in Germany

In Germany and the European Union, one needs a legal framework or platform when one wants to apply at foundations and governments for funding to implement projects or to conduct research. Choosing a fitting one, is an extraordinary task in a vastly regulated society as Germany. We could only fulfill this task with the help of an Entrepreneur Consultant. Fortunately, we got some financial support for this from the European Union. In comparison to many other market democracies, Germany does not count many start-ups. Maybe Germans are less entrepreneurial than others, maybe the bureaucratic hurdles to take are much higher than in other countries demotivating citizens right from the start to establish something new (Wadt 2012). Still, since innovation and new employment are mainly coming from small organizations, Germany has many programs aimed to help would-be entrepreneurs through the first phases of founding.

With the help of our adviser, who we met twice per month for almost a year, we started a non-profit limited liability company (in good German: gemeinnützige Unternehmergesellschaft (Haftungsbeschränkt) or gUG). An alternative could have been a “registered society” (“eingetragener Verein”). In Germany, a registered society needs a board of governors that regularly comes together, formally checks the activities of the society, and produces minutes, agreements and decisions. A social enterprise does not need that. Since we wanted as least bureaucracy as possible, we did not opt for the registered society.

To get the title that one works for the public cause and so can apply at public institutions for projects and funding, one needs to negotiate with the local tax office. One has to explain what kind of activities one wants to deploy, and why this would count as charitable or as a non-profit. After our application, we got in an extensive debate, regularly interrupted by illnesses and other absenteeism’s of the official responsible for our application, about the exact difference between “science” and “research”. To her mind, we were only in research and not in science. We did not understand the difference, but quickly realized it was better to give in and to admit that we did not have much expertise in this field. After about half a year, we got our certificate (“Gemeinnützigkeitserklärung”), a certificate that needs to be renewed on a yearly basis.

A social enterprise also needs a formal “Articles of Association” that stipulates the aims of the enterprise and how decisions are taken. This needs to be checked and approved by a civil law notary, who also has to sign the company on the Trade Register. Every time something changes in the company, including a change of address, the changes have to be formally documented and reported by the notary. He or she does not do this for free.

Cheap is also not the obligatory involvement of the next implicated institution: the tax adviser. Certainly, in the first years of our existence, of all involved actors this institution probably received the highest revenue from our activities. He or she needs to check the books at the end of every year and to prepare the annual financial statement for the tax office. The tax office examines this statement and decides whether the company is still non-profit and accountable. The approved financial statement also has to be published by the tax-advisor in the Federal Gazette.

The in-depth examination of all the financial transactions by the tax adviser, which on its turn is checked by the tax-office, is basically a rather expensive repetition of the checks already performed by the public institutions, that funded the non-profit projects of the social enterprise. At the end of every project, one has to report extensively to these institutions about every action undertaken and especially all the money that has been spent. The involved functionaries first check it themselves and then sent it to another administrative organization, the responsible Court of Auditors, to reexamine their examination. Every three years there is also a special in-depth investigation of this Court of Auditors, just to be sure, in which also all the “original” documents need to be handed over.[1]

The seriousness of this financial audit should not be underestimated. To give a small example: We regularly buy food and drinks for the participants in our workshops: fruit, coffee, tea, crackers, juice, et cetera. In the final accounting statement, all this has to be substantiated with receipts. In one statement we had forgotten to deduct the deposit of the Cola bottles from the total amount. This deposit totaled 1.78 euros and had accumulated over a period of five months. The official involved had made an excel sheet and had calculated per month the interest we owed the German state on the deposit. The relevant calculations had probably taken her at least one or two hours. In the end, the amount we had to pay back turned out to be so small that the German state formally decided not to claim it. The latter to avoid, as they said, “bureaucratic hassles”.

The constant checking and rechecking of all actions seem to be ultimately based on a deep distrust of people as well as of civil organizations and their activities. This distrust tires many actors out, drains positive energy, and furthers cynicism, lethargy and atrophy. It might be bearable, maybe, when the authorities would be reliable partners themselves, respecting their own rules and regulations, and following standards of good governance. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

2 Integration in the policy field

It is understandable that start-ups are not immediately welcomed with open arms by the other actors in the field. One first needs to prove that one is not only able to formulate great ideas, but also to bring these into practice. Is one able to manage a project from the beginning to the end? Is one able to organize in an appropriate way the financial administration and to economically spend the available budget? Is one able to build up the network that one needs to implement a project and to reach the target group? This all needs to be proven. Especially governmental institutions are risk-averse: when a project fails, this is readily defined as a planning-disaster that should have consequences for the politically responsible functionaries; when a project fails in the market economy, it is just a regrettable, but inescapable side-effect of laudable, brave entrepreneurship. Consequently, there is a big tendency among administrators to stick to existing programs, policies and partners, even when they are not performing very well.

The organizations already active in the field will also not applaud the arrival of any new actor. The available resources are always scarce, so why welcome a new competitor? This is no different as on the market: despite the habitually expressed ideology of open markets and competition, every corporation wants to close the market as soon as it has established itself in this market. It does so by buying up competitors, by driving them into bankruptcy via dumping, by forming cartels, or by asking governments to install regulations and tariffs (Schumpeter 1942, Lindblom 1977, Blokland 2006). In the field of academics, the situation is no different either: individuals try to protect their interests via elaborate and sophisticated strategies of “branding”. It is not always the search for “truth” that motivates scholars to establish paradigms, discourses, specialized journals, departments, conferences and (sub)fields. In an upright sphere where the organizations are supposed to further democracy, civil society, citizenship or respect, and to counter all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism or other kinds of discrimination, it is again no different. Idealism is high, but diminishes as soon as scarce resources are at stake.

Consequently, to convince cautious authorities to support our proposals, we applied with relatively small projects and hoped that we could build up our experience and reputation via incremental steps. Still, only maybe ten percent of all our proposals in the first years of our existence was approved. Other than in academia, in administration or in quasi non-governmental organizations (“Quangos”), the work put in all other developed projects, was unpaid.

Our most important competitors in Germany are the above-mentioned Quangos: large, politically or religiously based organizations that are structurally supported by the state but are supposed to act as private actors operating on a (mostly non-existing) market. Examples are the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (AWO), the Diakonie Deutschland, the Caritas Deutschland, and Deutsches Rotes Kreuz. They provide a wide array of social services, are active in the whole of Germany, employ up to 600.000 people each and with budgets going from 100 to 500 million. Since they are structurally financed, they never fail on the market. Specialized employees full-time writing project proposals are only in the very long turn harmed by high non-acceptance rates. These organizations are also in a very advantaged position because they can easily pay for the 20% “own resources” that German governmental institutions habitually ask when applying for funding. This requirement implies that non-profit organizations that work for the public good, and as a consequence cannot make a profit and create “own resources”, per definition work for 20% less. This protection of existing privileges is unfair and hampers innovation, but trying to argue with German officials about the unreasonableness of existing rules and regulations, is hardly ever productive.

Regarding our new partners or competitors in the field, we did not have high expectations. But even these were regularly flouted. German and European authorities always want civil society organizations to work together. Regularly, this is also made a prerequisite for funding. However, most organizations have no interest in this at all. Several organizations that we contacted to propose to cooperate, even went that far to pretend to be very interested, to ask for more and more information about our project, and then to apply themselves. When you start with this kind of friends, you do not need any enemies. Others were more respectful and only spread the word, that these arrogant academics from Berlin had no idea how common people from Brandenburg lived their lives. Why the organizations in question were better equipped to understand, for instance, refugees from Afghanistan, Chechnya or Syria remained unclear.[2]

Another problem for Social Science Works was that we predominantly became active at first in Brandenburg, a former state of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. In 2015 it was only 25 years ago that the DDR had ceased to exist. The years before the DDR was established were not very democratic either. Obviously, governmental structures can be changed overnight, but not (political) cultures. One can also not replace all the functionaries active in administrations, societal organizations or courts. This did not happen in 1945 and also not in 1989. It would be rather naïve to expect that all these people, that out of opportunism or for reasons had managed to climb their way up during DDR-times, suddenly had become staunched democrats in 1990, believing in open societies, pluralism and citizen-participation, and welcoming “Wessie’s” in their communities from suspect countries like West-Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, England or France.

Probably even more than in other former DDR-states, in Brandenburg former elites could keep their positions in the administration, in government and in the courts (Rüdiger and Catenhusen 2011; Müller 2020). In the nineties, Brandenburg was nick-named “the little DDR” for this reason (“die kleine DDR”). Now and then, there was a public outcry over the personal history of people in higher positions, but most people survived by keeping their heads down. A little help of friends with comparable backgrounds, was also of assistance. We indeed had to find out that many of the people that did not like Social Science Works were well connected.

Sometimes the ties with the past were that strong and the apparent aversion against representatives of the present time run that deep, that cooperation was foreclosed in advance. I give just one example. To get a better understanding of how exclusion works in practice, I will dwell on details a little longer here.

Every state in Germany has a relatively well funded “State Center for Political Education”. Obviously, these agencies are in principle important partners and supporters for an organization like Social Science Works: political education is one of our main activities. On the Federal level we indeed got into a successful cooperation with the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, based in Bonn.

Unfortunately, in Brandenburg the state agency for political education has been headed since 2000, so already for more than two decades (which is not really advancing pluralism either), by a former graduate of the Akademie für Staats- und Rechtswissenschaft der DDR. This educational institution was closely allied to the ruling communist party and was the place to be for true believers, existing elites and future rulers of the DDR (Appelius 2009; Neiße 2008; Fuhrer 2009; Hensel 2009). The historian Stefan Appelius states on the legacy of this academy: “Thousands of former academy graduates can be found today in Brandenburg, but also nationwide, in important positions in politics, business and society”. One can think of members of parliament and their staff, functionaries in administrations, numerous lawyers, and teaching staff at universities. Hardly anyone mentions this dark spot on their resume” (Fuhrer 2009, translation this author).

Shortly after reunification, the Akademie für Staats- und Rechtswissenschaft der DDR was dissolved. In 1987, only two years before the collapse of the DDR, the current director of the Brandenburg Center for Political Education received her PhD at the academy for a dissertation in which she enthusiastically defended the ruling state. It was argued, among other things, that nowhere in the world human rights, like freedom of speech, conscience and religion, were as well protected as in the DDR, that every state had the right to forcefully keep its citizens from crossing its borders without permission, and that freedom could only mean that one was developing one’s talents and personality according to socialist principles, laid down by the state (Weyrauch 1987: 164, 123; for an extensive analysis of the dissertation and the way German society and politics have dealt and are dealing with former functionary of the NSDAP or SED, see: Blokland 2020).

Curiously, almost no one in Brandenburg seems to realize that the credibility, persuasiveness and efficacy of a (well-funded) public institution dedicated to political education and pluralistic democracy is rather limited when that institution is led by the same person for a quarter of a century and when that person has such a burdened past. Anyway, our chances to implement a project in political education in Brandenburg with support of this particular agency for political education, soon turned out to be rather small. In a meeting in 2016 we were told, that deliberation with citizens was rather useless: “there’s no point in people sitting around babbling, is there? It’s about quality!”[3] Quality was defined by experts and had to be spread via education. Our consistent defense of deliberation, of inviting the people, including those that leaned towards right-wing populism, to speak for themselves, stirred outrage. The meeting ended in hostility. Our invitation one year later to share our experiences with our populism-project (see Blokland 2017) was declined: „In the near future we have to realize different reorganizations and the renovation of our premises, so please understand that we will not immediately take up your offer for a meeting.”[4]

A year later again, we wrote a proposal for the Federal Agency for Political Education, which told us in reply that it would be helpful when local organizations would support our proposed project too. Thus, we politely inquired whether it would be possible that the state agency would also give some support to our ideas. The answer was clear: “Thank you for your inquiry. We are very busy preparing for the next year 2019, which will be an intensive election year for us (European, local and state elections). I can already tell you today that our projects and cooperation partners have already been determined and we will definitely NOT participate in your project.”[5]

In 2020, after an election year that brought the Alternative für Deutschland great successes, especially in Brandenburg, we contacted the State Center for Political Education again. In Hamburg we had implemented a rather successful school-project against all kinds of discrimination (see Blokland 2019). Since in Brandenburg racism, anti-Semitism, sexism or homophobia are not completely absent either, we respectfully inquired whether there were any possibilities to implement such a project in our home state as well. The inquiry had come on the desk of one of the ten employees of the national agency, which remarkably only counted females that had been born in the DDR. Apparently, she had forwarded it to a colleague, who had sent it back to her, forgetting to change the “subject” of the mail. This subject was: “Mister Blokland again has a project idea.”[6] And no, the agency was not interested.

Consistently, negative advices on our projects were also given to other agencies, to the point that other Brandenburg functionaries advised us to give up on Brandenburg and concentrate on our projects in other states in Germany.

3 Developing a social enterprise in a progressively hostile environment

Building Social Science Works has been a bumpy road. We regularly have been confronted by suffocating bureaucracies seemingly geared to discourage anyone trying to develop some kind of activity, by professional groups that appear to have lost much of their pride, energy and sense of direction, and by hostile local functionaries with rather authoritarian pasts and customs. Organizations working on democracy, freedom, civil society, tolerance, anti-discrimination, or political competences also do not belong to the priorities of societies dominated by the values of the economic market: production, consumption, growth, and pollution. The non-support that also the German state offered to this kind of organizations during, for instance, the Corona Pandemic, was an illustration. Still, despite everything, Germany is a positive exception in the Western world regarding the governmental support for institutions that work on democratic values. Its history explains this.

Had we been active in the West instead of the East of Germany, we probably would have made more progress in our institutional development than we did now, simply because politics and society in the West are more open towards ideas on citizenship, deliberation or pluralism. On the other hand, institutions that broaden open society are obviously more needed in the East.

Not a small number of organizations and functionaries in the former DDR, communicated to us, in their own peculiar ways, that there was no place in their communities for our ideas on democracy and pluralism. The aversion did not just come from the authoritarian left. We also felt the creeping increase of the influence of right-wing populists in decision-making or controlling bodies. In this regard, Schroeder et al (2020) showed how representatives of the Alternative für Deutschland and other right-wing organizations increasingly try to, what student leader Rudi Dutschke called in the sixties, “march through the institutions”. In August 2019, the AfD leadership also formally decided to follow this strategy in its internal paper “Strategie 2019-2025. Die AfD auf dem Weg zur Volkspartei” (Strategy 2019-2025. The AfD on the way to becoming a people’s party).[7]

Consequently, in all German states, representatives of the Alternative für Deutschland try to infiltrate public and civil society organizations. And in representative bodies they ask more and more questions about organizations devoted to political education, integration, or democracy. The main goal of these questionings seems intimidation: we are watching you. In every state of Germany, parliamentarians of the AfD have also proposed to simply put an end to, for instance, the local Landeszentrale für politische Bildung (State Office for Political Education), usually defined by the AfD as rallying points for radical liberals. Besides, the parliamentarian representatives of the AfD endlessly ask who is working at these institutions, what their political affiliations are, what projects they develop and why. Because the AfD is represented in the regional parliaments, they now are also represented in the boards of governors of the local offices for political education, given them the opportunity to undermine their activities from the inside.[8]

In the same vein, in 2018 the AfD opened in the whole of Germany online-portals where pupils and their parents could file complaints against teachers that had allegedly violated the requirement of neutrality in schools, especially by criticizing the AfD.[9] These portals, that stirred memories of the practices of the Nazis and the secret police in the DDR (the Stasi), triggered much resistance, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the portal was even outlawed, but still might have had an impact. Their presence probably has furthered the already existing strong tendency among teachers not to talk about politics and democracy.

In March 2020 the AfD-members of the Brandenburg parliament (where they have 23 of the 88 seats) also inquired which projects of Social Science Works exactly had been supported by the Brandenburg state since 2015, how high the support had been, which goals and contents these projects had, whether there had been any cooperation partners in the implementation of the projects, and if so, what their names were and whether they had received any support as well.

Likewise, individuals abuse the powers they have as functionaries of administrations to chase disliked organizations with endless requests for information, explanation, and justification. To give one unlikely example: a functionary of the Deutsche Rentenversicherung (the German semi-governmental institution responsible for pension insurance) launched an investigation in 2020 in the childcare of a two-day workshop that we had implemented three years before. To make it possible for female refugees to attend, we had hired a professional babysitter who had charged us 220 Euro. The functionary examined all our financial records, something that already routinely had been done by the responsible ministry, its accounting institution, the tax-advisor and the tax-office, and wanted to know exactly whose children had been cared for. His researches, that ran via our tax advisor, created a bill of almost 600 Euro for Social Science Works. Since it is hard to believe that any rationally organized institution with a sound understanding of its goals and priorities would ever invest the resources that the Deutsche Rentenversicherung had invested in this investigation, it seems plausible that the functionary had other motives. But maybe we overestimate the rationality of the involved institution.

Thus, right-wing populist individuals take their patriotic responsibilities as well. It would be rather naïve to hope that a society where about a third of the population votes for the AfD and another fifth does not vote at all, governmental institutions would not employ people with right-wing sympathies. Nevertheless, German politics and society are regularly shocked by the apparent presence of right-wing radicals or sympathizers in organizations like the police, the juridical system, the administration, and the military (Schimmeck 2019; Kopke 2019; Naumann 2020; Wette 2020; Tillack and Klühspies 2020). It is rather unavoidable that these kinds of organizations also attract people with a not always healthy interest in power, order, hierarchy, violence, uniforms, and uniformity. To a lesser extent this also goes for other hierarchal governmental bureaucracies. One can even expect that these bureaucracies particularly recruit and promote people that, without asking many questions, meticulously follow rules and regulations, no matter how inapt or absurd these are in individual contexts.

Consequently, proposals and communications regarding democracy, pluralism and anti-discrimination regularly disappear in black holes. This is probably not always only because of the widespread malaise and inaptitude at issue in the next paragraphs.

4 Are democratic institutions falling apart as well?

An important reason why the discourses in social and political science on social capital, social cohesion, citizenship or deliberation have developed in the last decades, is the widespread fear or observation that the bonds, connections and values that keep our societies together, are dissolving. This also explains the existence in Germany of well-funded policy-programs like “Demokratie Leben!” (Living Democracy!) or “Zusammenhalt durch Teilhabe” (Cohesion through Participation). Consequently, the fact that the recruitment of participants for deliberative projects, or for any other project trying to bring people together, is the biggest hurdle to take in the implementation of these projects, cannot be surprising. Democratization or integration projects in Germany regularly fail exactly because of the lack of participants. Still, the magnitude of the problem, as well as the extent to which the underlying causes have penetrated even those spheres of society where we can afford it the least, have regularly taken us aback.

4.1 Cooperating with social workers, teachers and other professionals in Brandenburg and beyond

As in previous years, in early 2019, so before the Corona pandemic[10], we received a project grant to implement workshops with refugees. Many refugees were already in Germany for several years, and it was considered important to keep up the conversation about issues like democracy, pluralism and gender. As the first trauma of fleeing and arriving was over and some daily routines could have been taken up, many migrants could also be more interested in these conversations. Besides, the number of refugees had gone down dramatically since 2016 and, consequently, the relative organizational disorder that typified the first years after the arrival of massive numbers of exiles in 2015, could have been overcome.

We contacted in 2019 a total of 87 organizations and individual functionaries to offer the workshops, first through a detailed inquiry via e-mail and then regularly by phone and follow-up e-mails. We also offered to pay the people a visit and explain in person what our project was about. Flyers to recruit potential participants were provided in six different languages. The contacted actors were all active in the shelter, support and integration of refugees. They were the “Commissioner for Integration” for regions or towns, they were civil servants responsible at different bureaucratic levels for this policy field, they were functionaries working at quasi-public corporations or quasi-governmental organizations like the Internationaler Bund (IB), Deutscher Caritasverband or Arbeiterwohlfahrt (AWO), and they were working at or were in charge of refugee homes. Thus, the people involved were not volunteers or amateurs, they were paid professionals.

The people we addressed were not asked a lot. They basically only had to let us in, and allow us to meet the people they were caring for. Everything was paid for by the government, the government considered our project important (which explained why it got financed), we were experienced and well prepared, and we would organize all events ourselves, often together with the participants of the workshops. We could even pay rent for the needed room, or pay for the coffee.

No more than 4 out of 87 contacted functionaries got back to us after our first communications. Only one row of workshops resulted from this. The other 30 workshops that we in the end implemented, were made possible because social workers and other functionaries in our set of contacts were willing to use their social capital to put pressure on actors in their own network.

As stated, we did not write or call the involved actors once, but regularly several times. Most E-mails and phone calls remained unanswered though. Many offices could not be reached by phone for weeks or even months. With several people we were in peculiar communications for long periods, all the time interrupted by holidays, illnesses, and other absenteeism’s, in which on and on promises were made and broken, and appointments were made, but never respected. Fourteen times a workshop that had been planned and organized was suddenly cancelled for unclear or invalid reasons, regularly only a day in advance. One big quasi-public corporation running a refugee-home managed to cancel a three-day series of workshops twice at the very last minute, whereupon its director was invited by a committed functionary of the ministry of education for a personal talk: as a governmentally supported organization, they were obstructing the realization of other governmental goals (integration, cohesion, deradicalization). It did not change their behavior. Instead of providing access to our target groups, many persons and organizations in the field were to a large extent a barrier that first had to be overcome.

Still, even in this swamp of unwillingness, disinclination, cynicism, indifference, and lethargy we found now and then people that cared, that had not given up, that had not been wholly infected by the prevalent culture. However, already in 2019, they formed a tiny, but heroic minority. During the Corona pandemic these last men and women standing were almost completely wiped out: the measures that were taken to prevent the spreading of the virus, implicated that all interactions between people needed for integration and cohesion came to a hold. After the end of the pandemic in 2022, civil society did not bounce back. To a large extent, it had evaporated (cf. Blokland 2023: Chapter 3).

In the end, in 2019, we managed to implement 38 three-hours workshops. We visited a big refugee home on the country side nine times, despite initial reservations of its managers. Once we were inside, we tried to make the participants responsible for the workshop, asking them to advertise it, bring other people and translate for those who did not speak German or English well. We were fortunate with the presence of several committed asylum seekers from, among others, Turkey, Palestine, Ingushetia, Cameroon and Kenia. We met every Friday morning, and over the weeks the group grew and the deliberations became more open and intense. At the end of the year the meetings had to be stopped – most projects have to follow the yearly budget-cycle of the government. Thereupon, the participants requested the management of the refugee-home that the deliberations would be continued. The workshop had become an institution. The managers were surprised by this request – something like this had never happened before. They formally proposed the involved jury to award Social Science Works the “Brandenburger Freiheitspreis” ( We did not win.

Unfortunately, our experiences with other professionals in comparable fields are not much different. In 2021 the European Union gave us a grant for our project Our Europe for All. The intention was to hold three-hour workshops about the EU in 20 schools in Brandenburg and Berlin, in which not only knowledge about the EU was furthered, but in which the in total 500 participants also had the opportunity to indicate what they thought should be improved about the EU and its policies. Each group of students aged 15 to 19 then choose one or two representatives, who would later meet in Berlin with the 11 parliamentarians representing Berlin and Brandenburg in the European Parliament. The questions they would put to the parliamentarians would first be prepared together in a separate meeting (see for the project: Blokland and Perrin de Brichambaut 2022).

The workshops were designed around an interactive survey using the online platform Mentimeter. The results could immediately be projected onto the wall. Participants were asked to analyze the results together and discuss why they had answered in a certain way, providing more in-depth reasonings for their opinions and feelings. When there was reason to do so, for instance because the answers were demonstrably incorrect or because the opinions expressed differed greatly, we were able to dwell longer on specific questions. The workshops’ quiz-like character retained participants’ attention and the pupils provided very positive feedback about the design of the workshops and its interactive format.

Our aim was to reach pupils from the metropolis of Berlin and rural Brandenburg, as well as pupils enrolled in various types of educational facilities. Since educational careers, especially in Germany, are strongly determined by social origin (Pfeffer 2008; Maaz 2020), we hoped visiting different types of educational institutions would enable us to reach various social strata. 138 schools were contacted from April 2021 onward to schedule workshops for the following school year. Most schools did not respond to e-mails and had to be reached via frequent telephone calls. Of the 85 schools contacted in Brandenburg, only two accepted hosting a workshop. The majority of schools did not answer, but among those who rejected our invitation many administrators justified their decision by stating that their students were not interested in politics. We received this response from almost all non-gymnasium schools. In Berlin 53 schools were contacted and 12 were recruited. The majority of the contacted Berlin gymnasiums with pupils from often privileged backgrounds were happy to participate, and the approximately 110 schools in rural or disadvantaged areas with pupils who could have benefited most from the project did not respond.

Teachers and school directors most of the time did not care about giving their pupils the opportunity to participate in the project and to learn something about the European Union and its policies. Unfortunately, only one of the eleven EU parliamentarians invited to the conference in Berlin joined the deliberation with the students. We had started to contact them half a year in advance and nine had pledged to come. At the very last minute, almost all canceled, incidentally with alibis whose shrewdness would make the average pupil jealous. Nevertheless, the 25 students representing their schools managed to have a very lively and engaging discussion in which they talked of their worries, hopes and wishes.

A year later we repeated the project, this time with support of the German Foreign Office. We also invited regular citizens. To recruit them, we contacted 51 civil society organizations.[11] None of these organizations replied or was willing to cooperate. We also contacted 14 schools that had showed interest in the previous year. Two Gymnasiums accepted the invitation. In total 86 persons took part in workshops and about 25 participated in the meeting at the Foreign Office with policy-makers. Of the 33 political representatives invited, five accepted and four ultimately took part (Neebe and Blokland 2023).

Civil society organizations also played a central role in another project we implemented in 2019 (so again before the Corona pandemic). In this project we organized deliberations with citizens on gender equality (see Blokland 2019). We wanted to find out, what they knew about the topic, what problems they encountered regarding gender equality and what possible solutions they saw, and whether their opinions would change after having discussed the issue with fellow citizens and experts. Our first deliberation, which was more or less a try-out, we organized in Berlin in November 2019. One of our colleagues worked on this for almost three months. She contacted 82 organizations. First by mail, after a couple of days by telephone, and thereupon with many of them several times in person. She talked to unions[12], local civic and community organizations[13], fire brigades, NGO’s, corporations[14], Sport clubs, women’s organizations[15], social enterprises and the press, and she posted well designed flyers on several Facebook sites, slack channels, and in local shops like Aldi and Lidl.

Unfortunately, only four people showed up on this very first meeting (later, successful deliberations took place in 2020). Most of the more than fifteen  persons that had assured us that they would come, were absent. Some explanations for this disappointing show up seem evident: many citizens and organizations simply do not care much about (discussing) gender equality; Berlin has a culture of non-commitment where people, able to choose from thousands of available events, do not always feel obliged to keep up promises; it is easier to recruit people in smaller communities with more social cohesion and control; people are not used to deliberative events during which they are supposed and allowed to speak out their minds; or maybe democratic engagement in our societies has become so low that we should not only have offered free meals, interesting talks and good company, but should also have paid the participants for their services (Flake 2019; Blokland 2006, 2018, 2024).

4.2 Working with civil servants

Obviously, when civil society is struggling, when it is or has become hard to create or maintain reliable alliances, when too many people seem not to care, then the presence of well-functioning, trustworthy, and predictable governmental institutions grows in importance. They could set a standard, implicitly and explicitly forcing their environment to uphold comparable bench marks. Unfortunately, certainly in Brandenburg and in the policy spheres where Social Science Works has been active so far, such institutions are not common. It would take a long historical, anthropological and sociological inquiry to ascertain what exactly explains the state of governance in Brandenburg and comparable German federal states. The partly Prussian ancestry, the comparably authoritarian DDR-heritage, the fact that democracy was formally established only three decades ago, the continuous presence of many people in the administration with a specific ‘past’, the tardiness characterizing many rural societies, the widespread feel of decline and decay, and the resulting mood of desperation, ineptitude, inefficacy and lethargy, probably all play a role.

In practice, it works like this: In 2018 we proposed to the ministry of education a project addressing unaccompanied minor refugees. In the two previous years, we had already successfully implemented projects with this particular group of refugees, paid for by another ministry in Brandenburg. Their budget had been cut and therefore we were advised to contact the colleagues. After some time, we were informed that the proposal had been forwarded several times and had reached the head of a division that seemed to be responsible for this policy field. They had funds available but were not spending it. We managed to reach the person a fortnight later. He informed us to wait another week and seemed irritated that we had called him already that soon. Unfortunately, he did not come back to us. Hence, we called him several times again but never reached anybody in the office. His phone was not connected to a secretary or to colleagues. He did not reply to E-mails. After two weeks we finally got another person on the line telling us we should call next week Wednesday at 2 p.m. On this day, we called again and again but again found nobody in the office (of eight people). The following days we kept trying to get into contact – we had invested in the proposal and the expertise underlying it, and believed that it served the target group. After about ten calls we suddenly got the responsible functionary on the phone. He was in a meeting and asked us to call back next Monday at 1 p.m.. On Monday we phoned persistently between 1 and 4 p.m., but again, found nobody behind a desk. The week after, we simply went to his office. He was there, and seemed a very affable person. The responsible referent, we were notified, would look at it next week and then would get back to us. The referent never did. After two weeks, we called the director again. He was in a meeting and said that the referent would formally answer us next Monday. The person never got back to us. We informed the director about this in writing and also wrote that we always appreciated some feedback, so that we could improve our work. We never got an answer.

We have plenty of this kind of anecdote. Already out of a kind of anthropological curiosity, we regularly kept a diary of our encounters with functionaries of governmental and civil organizations. It would be tedious to present many more stories of these encounters, because the thrust is rather constant: people that for whatever reasons do not believe (anymore) in what they are doing. And because they are many – maybe they are not even a minority – , they constitute an established culture where individuals are constantly confirmed and strengthened in their habits and attitudes. This culture drains much of the still available positive energy in their own organizations and in society at large. A substantial part of our working time is filled with repeatedly contacting officials, administrators, social workers, educators to remind them, that we had an agreement or appointment. What is striking about these communications is that people are mostly long past shame. Rarely if ever do they apologize for their negligence, unreliability and unpredictability: why should they apologize for a common culture of non-commitment?

In the spring of 2018, we proposed the same ministry of education a project on political education for secondary schools. A year later we implemented this project in Hamburg (see Blokland 2020). We addressed a specific section which forwarded it to another one where it would be better rooted. The section in question did not agree and forwarded it to still another one. Often this kind of communications just disappear in a kind of governmental black hole and like in physics nobody really knows how this black hole came into being. In this case, though, we were able to trace back these transfers and could contact the person in charge. She informed us that the responsible referent was ill at the moment. It was unclear how long the illness would prolong, but we should call back regularly to try to make an appointment. We managed to do this after some weeks.

The referent was also a part-time teacher at a secondary school and strongly supported the project. When we would receive any funding, she definitely would love to have the project implemented in her own school as well. We were invited by the department to formally apply for funding, using the forms of the ministry. Thereupon we got into a protracted communication with another referent, responsible for budgeting. The person in question substantially lowered the budget we had in mind, particularly by bringing down the fees per hour to those what a Brandenburg civil servant with only an A-level graduation would earn. This because, we were informed, teaching about democracy, pluralism, racism, anti-Semitism or gender did not require any particular higher-level training.[16]

We fully adjusted the budget to the wishes of the department, submitted all the forms and supporting documents, and started waiting for the formal grant notice. After six weeks we still had not received this and so in July we politely inquired about the state of affairs. We were informed that at the moment the ministry did not have any funds available for our project, but were asked to call back in September and certainly in December. For next year funding would be reserved for the project, but we needed to remind the ministry in December about this. It was possible that also in September some funding would be available, and that we could already start implementing a part of the project in the Autumn.

In September 2018, we contacted them once more and were noticed that there was still no funding on hand, but that in December we should definitely apply again for next year. This we indeed did, with a new time schedule and new letters of intent of schools that were eager to participate. We did not get any response so we tried again to get into contact with the responsible referent, calling her up and sending her emails. Nobody ever responded to our application, calls or mails. After two months we just gave up.

4.3 Tolerance in Brandenburg

When formal ways of communication and policy making are inappropriately functioning, and still, now and then, decisions are made, how do these decisions come about? The answer probably often is via informal, nontransparent ways of bargaining or dealing. In governmental policy making it is not much different than in academia. Despite the suggested objectivity, of which numbers of publications and citations are supposed to be indicators, in actual practice personal relationships and loyalties play an enormous role in decision making processes on assignments, publications and funding (Blokland 2018; see also the daily publications on these matters of the NGO Retraction Watch). The overall importance of networks, of personal relationships, is illustrated by the popularity of academic conferences, a form of science-communication made obsolete by print, post, fax, E-mail, Skype and Zoom, but undergoing a still growing popularity (cf. Blokland 2015).

Conferences are also on high demand among policy makers and practitioners working in the spheres of education, migration, integration, democratization, radicalization, and anti-discrimination. And the participants engage here in comparable activities as their academic colleagues: the molding of networks or personal affiliations that ease the acquisition of financial support and the decision-making on funding. In a context of complexity, caused by the high problematic of the policy sphere and the large number of providers of projects or policies, an important short-cut of decision-makers simply is: Do I know you? Do I like you? Are you one of us? In this process, corruption, nepotism and cooptation are always just around the corner. The line between an open, pluralist society and a cartel ruled by clientelism and favoritism is thin. Critique and change are also difficult since too many people benefit from the status quo and the privileged can always put aside criticism as sourness.

In the examples above of communications with a Brandenburg ministry, indolence and sloppiness probably were the main driving forces. The functionaries involved are not necessarily bad people, no matter how annoying their (non)actions regularly are and how much they drain positive energies and spirits. They do not always have bad intentions; they just do not care. When asked by the anthropologist David Graeber (2018) they would probably often state themselves, that they carry out a kind of “bullshit job”.[17] This is unfortunate because this is not how it could be. In principle they could regularly make a difference.

The situation gets worse though, when bad intentions kick in. We already gave an illustration of this above. Another, almost hilarious example, is a governmental organization in Brandenburg aimed at bringing “tolerance” to the people. The organization in question has a yearly budget of about one million Euro, and is the largest sponsor of projects in Brandenburg in regard of discrimination, and respect. It is also supposed to coordinate all governmental activities in this sphere. Consequently, encountering this organization is soon inescapable. Oddly enough, like the State Office for Political Education in Brandenburg, it has no calls for tenders. It is unclear what kinds of projects Brandenburg considers important, how decisions on funding are made, what kind of criteria are used, who or what got how much support for what project, or what the outcomes of the supported projects are. Decision making is almost completely informal and heavily dependent on the goodwill of the director. In good Machiavellian or DDR manner money is spread around, making receiving people and organizations compliant to the system. Do never spit in your own soup.

The organization in question awarded Social Science Works one time a small grant for a project on populism. In this case too there was no tender or transparent decision making. We had some ideas, asked around which funder could be interested in these, were directed to the head of the office in question, had one meeting and got the funding. A reason for this might also have been that the grant we asked for was probably much lower than any commercial organization or university would ever have done. But we were very much into the subject ourselves and were willing to invest in it, as well as in the reputation of Social Science Works.

We reported on the resulting project in Deliberation against Populism (Blokland 2018; Blokland and Münstermann 2018): we tried out the possibilities of especially social media to restore the conversation with citizens that have lost their trust in the current social and political system. Obviously, considering the social disintegration and desolation on the Brandenburg countryside, this was not an easy project. For this reason too, we tried to get into an ongoing conversation with the responsible policymakers hoping to tap off their experiences and insights. The responsible director had also suggested this exchange. Thus, in April and May 2017 we kindly proposed in writing to schedule a meeting where we would report about our advances. No response followed. In August we sent an interim report, explaining everything we had done, our achievements and setbacks, and proposals to deal with these setbacks. No response followed. In October, a week after the national elections in which the Alternative für Deutschland became the second largest party in Brandenburg, we sent the summary and the conclusions of the project to the office. We asked for a meeting to discuss our experiences: we had worked hard on the project, had something to say about the election results, and also wanted to publish about our thoughts and to participate in the debate that proliferated in Germany about the ascent of the AfD.[18] No response followed. A week later we brought our report and all supporting documents to the office in person. No response followed. Thereupon, we wrote the director: “Six weeks earlier we sent you a report on the project Deliberation against Populism. Different people have worked on this project with a lot of passion and commitment. Populism, radicalization and democracy are close to our hearts. We would like to publish our experiences and we would also like to continue. A feedback would therefore be very appreciated.” Again, no response followed, which was one of the reasons for the person who had invested the most in the project, to leave Social Science Works.

Our project had brought us many insights and ideas for a continued effort to reach out to citizens that had come under the spell of right-wing populist sentiments. One of the things we wanted to try out was whether we could get these alienated citizens around the table by inviting them via their friends, colleagues, family-members or neighbors. Maybe we could invigorate civil society by making use of the still available social capital that was not based on political motivations. We wrote a project proposal and the right-hand of the director managed to schedule a meeting to discuss it, also with the director, two weeks later. Unfortunately, the new project proposal turned out not to be on the agenda, but only the first populism-project. The director had hardly read our reports, nevertheless had a row of opinions on it. We were attacked in particular because only about 45 people had started a communication with us of the around 1400 people that had been invited via Facebook Messenger to attend one of our deliberations and only seven people had in the end turned up. We considered this very unfortunate too, but were not prepared to take the full blame for the fact, that Brandenburg society had been falling apart in the last couple of decades. Besides, the project had obviously consisted of many more layers and dimensions, and had brought relevant insights regarding, among others, the potentials of social media, and the messages circulating in the social media that were used by the target group (see Coughlan 2018).

We rewrote the end report to the wishes of the director and three week later we sent in the new report with all possible supporting documents. Unfortunately, nobody got back to us, so two months later, in April 2018, we politely asked the office whether they already had had the opportunity to have a look at the end report and whether they already had developed a standpoint regarding the proposal for a follow-up project we had sent them in January 2018.

We did not get any answer. Thus, about six weeks later, we wrote again. In total, there were now five project proposals of Social Science Works waiting for a decision by the “office for coordination”. This heap had developed since October 2017. In this month, we had been requested by the Ministry of Education to develop projects to counter processes of religious radicalization. Apart from the three proposals we developed, applications regarding populism and refugees were still in anticipation of decisions. In our letter we gave a short overview of the projects and asked to inform us about the state of the decision-making process.

We not did not get any answer. Therefore, in a last effort to get into something of a professional communication, another three weeks later, in June 2019, we sent all the relevant documents by post again, suggested that maybe all our previous communications had, for whatever reason, got lost, and added: “We hope we can resume our dialogue about funding applications and possible future projects. If there are any dissonances or problems regarding a future cooperation, we would also very much like to clarify and eliminate them together with you.”

Another two weeks later we received a short email. All the available money had been spent already, unfortunately.

Other organizations that had contacted us with the invitation to cooperate in anti-radicalization projects, withdrew after they found out that the chance to get funding via this center of coordination was considerably less, as soon as the brand Social Science Works was mentioned. We were advised by several, also governmental actors to file a complaint at the administrative division formally responsible for the workings of the center. The involved principal administrator shared a political past with the person we were complaining about of at least three decades, a quick google search already revealed. Nevertheless, we sent an overview of our failed efforts to get into a communication with his employee and of our project proposals that mysteriously had disappeared. In July 2018, we asked for a meeting to discuss our future in Brandenburg.

We were indeed invited for a talk which took place a couple of weeks later. The top civil servant came half an hour late, announced that we had 15 minutes to state our case, and also redefined our complaint: we had not received funding. We were lectured that the budget of the government was limited, unfortunately, and that not all applications for funding could be awarded. The director was also invited. She explained that she simply did not believe in deliberation, as her colleague of the State Centre for Political Education. She admitted though, that people at the Ministry of Education and the Commissioner of Integration in Brandenburg were much more positive. Unfortunately, these actors did not have any funding themselves. The top civil servant apparently became intrigued about our deliberative projects and asked us to deliver a lecture on deliberation, which we indeed did two months later.

Hoping that the air had cleared a bit, we applied with a new project half a year later. In 2019 local, state and European elections would take place in Brandenburg. We argued that a democracy in which a quarter or even half of the eligible voters did not use their right to vote at all and about a quarter of the eligible voters were highly opposed to the entire political system, had a problem of legitimacy.[19] Therefore, the aim had to be to invite citizens who seemed to have lost faith in democracy, to participate in the social debate again.

To promote this participation, we proposed to organize twenty citizen dialogues. We would try to create a sincere exchange of ideas, values and facts, as well as a common learning process that would help citizens to get an improved understanding of their own values, fears, frustrations and hopes. We especially wanted to bring together people from different social strata and with different political affiliations. This should counteract the evolving segregation and division of society.

The participants we wanted to recruit with the help of members of (civil) social organizations such as the church, voluntary fire brigades and sports clubs. We would ask these members to invite friends, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, family members who are more difficult to reach, also because they had been alienated from politics and society. The aim was to collect and assess the social and political problems, as well as possible solutions, seen from the perspectives of the people of Brandenburg. Furthermore, we wanted to inform politics and media about these perspectives.

We sent in the proposal in December 2018. A month later we were informed by an employee, that the proposal was under consideration. Then it became silent. In May we politely informed whether any decisions had been made. A member of staff informed us that it had been decided not to support the project. Unfortunately, they had forgotten to tell us earlier.

Although we are based in Brandenburg and this state has many social and political problems that we would like to help to solve, we were advised by several insiders to forget about Brandenburg, at least about the state of Brandenburg and its governmental institutions. And this is what we did. We went up, only dealing with federal German agencies and the European Union; we went down, dealing with lower administrative levels and local organizations that wanted us to implement deliberative projects in their towns or regions; and we worked in other German states like Hamburg, Berlin, Rheinland-Pfalz and Hessen.

5 Radicalization and political disenchantment in East Germany

Several recent studies show that radical right-wing views are widespread among German citizens in general and among East Germans in particular and are also growing in popularity (Decker, Kiess und Brähler 2023). This trend is no less to be observed among young people, as studies in Brandenburg, among others, show (Sturzbecher und Pöge 2023). The Corona epidemic and the measures taken to combat it have further contributed to now pervasive feelings of loneliness and isolation, feelings that in turn appear to make young people more susceptible to conspiracy theories and misanthropic and anti-democratic views (Neu, Küpper und Luhmann 2023). To understand the previous paragraphs better, it helps to go a bit deeper in these studies. They illustrate the radicality of prevailing political views and the minimal commitment to existing democratic institutions. This should spur action, but instead those in the position to do so have sunk into a morass of indifference.

For their Autoritäre Dynamiken und die Unzufriedenheit mit der Demokratie: Die rechtsextreme Einstellung in den Ostdeutschen Bundesländern (2023; Authoritarian Dynamics and Dissatisfaction with Democracy: Far-Right Attitudes in the East German States), Oliver Decker, Johannes Kiess und Elmar Brähler surveyed 3546 citizens in the former GDR in the summer of 2022. The survey has been conducted in Germany since the year 2002. Respondents ae asked to respond to 18 statements on a scale from 1 (totally disagree) to 5 (totally agree). The researchers aim to measure various political dimensions: Advocacy of a dictatorship, anti-Semitism, trivialization of National Socialism and social Darwinism (summarized as neo-NS ideology), as well as xenophobia and chauvinism as elements of ethnocentrism (2023: 5). The authors distinguish between “manifest” rejection (category 1 “totally disagree” and category 2 “mostly disagree”) and “manifest agreement” (comprising the two explicitly affirmative categories 4 and 5). The respondents who answered “3” are “latently” in agreement with the statement, “as it gives respondents the opportunity not to have to take a clear position, but still to agree in part with the content of the extreme-right statements” (2023: 6). [20]

The support for right-wing extremist views, the authors find, “is high in the eastern German federal states” (2023: 2). Xenophobia and chauvinism in particular feature prominently. Some results illustrate this. The statement “We should have a leader who governs Germany with a strong hand for the good of all” has 15% manifest and 19% latent support. The statement “What Germany needs now is a strong party that embodies the national community as a whole” received an even stronger backing: 26.3% manifest and 24.9% latent. Widespread support could also be observed for the following views: “As in nature, the stronger should always prevail in society”: 12.4% manifest; 22.5 latent. “Germans are actually inherently superior to other peoples”: 10.5% manifest; 21.1 latent. “Even today, the influence of the Jews is still too great”: 11.2% manifest; 22.6 latent. “We should finally have more courage to have a strong national feeling again”: 36.7% manifest; 27.7 latent. “Foreigners only come here to take advantage of our welfare state”: 41.3% manifest; 28.2 latent. “Germany is dangerously alienated by the large number of foreigners”: 36.6% manifest; 24.8 latent (2023: 8-10).

Looking at the sociodemographic backgrounds of the respondents, other studies are confirmed: the more educated and (partly related to this) the higher the income, the smaller the agreement with right-wing extremist theses (2023: 17). Furthermore, the differences between men and women are not large. The same goes for the differences between age groups. This contrasts with the situation in West Germany, where right-wing extremist views are found to a higher degree among the elderly. East Germans between 16 and 30, however, are significantly less xenophobic and anti-Semitic than East Germans over 30. A separate group constitutes the unemployed: “As in comparable studies, there are significantly more people among the unemployed who agree with extreme right-wing statements… This applies to all dimensions of the questionnaire” (2023: 12).

Furthermore, although the majority of the respondents endorse the idea of democracy, support for real-existing democracy is low. In the East, only 43% of respondents (59% in the West) support “democracy as it functions in the Federal Republic of Germany” (2023: 19). When asked about the meaningfulness of political participation, the attraction of populist parties becomes evident: over 77% agree with the thesis “People like me really have no influence on what the government does”; almost 65% believe “I think it’s pointless to get involved in politics”; and over 37% state, “When dealing with authorities and administrative offices, I often feel at their mercy” (2023: 23). To the last feeling, Social Science Works can relate. The functioning of many administrative offices is not just explained by the presence of significant numbers of right wing populist or extremist employees, this functioning also furthers right wing populism and extremism in society.

Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Politikverdrossenheit (political disillusionment and disenchantment), a desire for authority and uniformity, and the belief in conspiracies are according to the researchers widespread in East Germany, as well as a declining willingness to communicate with people of different opinions and to find compromises. In their conclusions, they sound the alarm: „There are clear signs that the fragmentation and polarization of society, which has been progressing for two decades, will lead to a further spiral of radicalization in the coming years“ (2023: 26).[21]

Indeed, researchers and practitioners are increasingly alarming in their statements about the ongoing radicalization. Apparently, they feel that too many are looking away or are not paying attention. Illustrative is a recent report of the Bundesverband Mobile Beratung (BMB), the umbrella organization of around 50 mobile counselling teams across Germany that provide advice on dealing with right-wing extremism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-feminism and conspiracy narratives. They observe: “Right-wing extremism has moved closer: into the private sphere, into the neighborhood, into the workplace” (2023: 4). We could add that it has also spread in politics and the administration. The practitioners see three main reasons for this: “The extreme right-wing AfD is more successful than ever, and its narratives are increasingly being adopted by representatives of democratic parties.[22] The coronavirus protests have given rise to a stable, anti-democratic protest milieu that charges every crisis with conspiracy ideology. In addition, extreme right-wing actors have bought real estate in many places and have thus penetrated further into social spaces – both in the East and the West” (2023: 4).[23] People working against right-wing extremism are more in demand than ever, but “exhausted” at the same time, the authors report. Civil society is in a “precarious” state: “Many volunteers are burnt out, feel alone and let down by politics. In some areas, they are the only ones who get engaged and are being threatened and harassed. These are gloomy omens in view of the election year 2024, in which the extreme right-wing AfD could make gains in many places” (2023: 13). The authors call for the protection of those still battling radicalization: “Decision-makers in security authorities, the judiciary and politics must take democratically committed people seriously, support and protect them” (2023: 13; see also the next footnote).

As already noted, the political views of youth are not significantly more liberal or openminded than those of older people, at least not in the East. This is illustrated by a recent study by Dietmar Sturzbecher and Andreas Pöge. Between November 2022 and January 2023, they surveyed 3142 school students in Brandenburg aged 12 to 23. Almost half (47.2%) of the respondents think “rather” or “completely” that “we should stop talking about our guilt towards the Jews”. Almost a quarter think that National Socialism “also had its good sides” (24%) and that the Germans are “superior to other peoples” (22.8%). 44.1 percent of young people are “somewhat” or “completely” of the opinion that there are too many “foreigners” in Brandenburg. 48.2 percent think that this leads to problems on the housing market. In response to the thesis “Foreigners are an enrichment for the culture in Germany”, 13.7% answered “not at all” and 42% “rather not”.

Disenchantment with politics among young people is pervasive. Political engagement was considered “important” (28%) or “very important” (6%) by only about a third of respondents. “Actively participate in political life” was therefore their least important ambition in life. In comparison, the life goal “earn a lot of money” was rated as “very important” by 35% and as “important” by 52% of the youth and the goal “to be financially secure” was considered “very important” by 57% and “important” by 37%. Other significant ambitions were “living a healthy life”, “having a fulfilling job” and “enjoying life”.

The researchers had created an index based on questions such as “I don’t think politicians care much about what people like me think”, “The parties only want the voters’ votes, they don’t care about the voters’ views”, “People like me have no influence on what the government does anyway” and “Apart from voting, there is no other way to influence what the government does.” On average, on the basis of their answers, around 80% of respondents were classified by the researchers as “disenchanted with politics”. The lower the level of education, the lower the interest and trust in politics.

Unfortunately, people who have no interest in politics often still have political views, as the above mentioned survey results already showed. Regularly these opinions are also extreme. On the basis of their “extremism index”, the authors come to the conclusion that over 14% of young people in Brandenburg can be described as right-wing extremist. Around a third of respondents are “xenophobic”. Here too, the higher the education, the lower these tendencies are: right-wing extremism is up to four times more prevalent at secondary schools preparing for vocational jobs (24.6%) than at gymnasia or grammar schools (6%), preparing for higher forms of education.

In view of the latter observation, it is regrettable that NGOs such as the SSW with their political education programs have little or no access to non-gymnasia: as we saw above, as a rule, the school directors and teachers concerned decide for their pupils that such projects are not meant for them. Social and political inequality is furthered in this way: those who get the least political education at home, also get the least political education at school. It also cannot be ruled out that a significant proportion of teachers in Brandenburg can themselves be classified as right-wing populist, extremist or xenophobic and therefore do not want their students to be exposed to suspect academic NGOs that work for democracy, pluralism and respect.[24] There is no reason to assume, as remarked before, that people who are hostile to democracy, pluralism, academia and foreigners are not employed in schools, administrations and other public institutions.

There are indeed major differences between the schools. The authors write: “At one of the schools surveyed, only 8.6 percent of young people hold ‘xenophobic’ attitudes, compared to 66.7 percent at another school (scale values ‘High’ and ‘Rather high’). Depending on the school, between 0.0 percent and 47.6 percent of pupils have right-wing extremist attitudes (scale values ‘High’ and ‘Rather high’)” (2023b: 8; translation HTB). There are several possible explanations for this. The regions in which the schools are located and the social background of the pupils are different. However, the fact that certain views are considered more acceptable in some schools than in others, may also play a role. The good news though is, that these differences could indicate that interventions to counter right-wing populist and extremist ideas could work.

The need to intervene is high, researchers that concentrated on the political consequences of loneliness conclude as well. Feelings of loneliness and social isolation are widespread, also among youngsters, but got another boost during the Corona epidemic. In June 2022 Claudia Neu, Beate Küpper and Maike Luhmann surveyed 1008 young people in the age of 16 to 23. They found that 55% of the young people reported “sometimes” or “always” to lack company, that 26% did not feel that they were close to other people, and that around a quarter did not feel that they were on the same wavelength as the people around them.

The political consequences are significant. The researchers found that “people who frequently feel lonely, disconnected, and misunderstood are more likely to believe conspiracy narratives, endorse political violence, and agree with authoritarian attitudes” (2023: 4; translation HTB).

Indicators of a conspiracy mentality include agreeing with the statement that the government hides important information from the public or with the claim that the government often knows about terrorist attacks and still lets them happen. These beliefs are significantly more pronounced among loners than among nonloners (58% vs. 47% and 46% vs. 31%, respectively). The statement “Some politicians deserve it when anger against them sometimes turns to violence” is agreed to by 25% of the non-lonely, but 34% of the lonesome respondents. Indicative of authoritarian attitudes is, among other things, agreement with the statement “I admire people who have the ability to dominate others.” This statement is agreed to by 46% of the lonely, but “only” 35% of the non-lonely adolescents (2023: 5).

The authors also found that the young people they surveyed “can only paint a vague picture of what they mean by society and [exhibit] little collective consciousness.” Just 57% of the respondents considered democracy to be the best form of government. The widespread loneliness among young people harbors, the researchers conclude, “a potential threat to democracy”. The results “show an urgent need for action for science, prevention work and federal, state and local politics” (2023: 5; translation HTB).

The chances that their call for action will be heard, seem low though.

6 Some concluding observations

When one builds a social enterprise in a specific political environment, in the process one also learns much about this environment itself. In a number of ways, despite the fact that most of us are at home in political science and sociology, we at Social Science Works greatly underestimated the cultural, social and political legacy of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik and the totalitarian or autocratic systems that preceded it. Thus, we underestimated how many former DDR officials were still on the road in the administrative apparatus and how much they defined themselves as a kind of underground resistance fighters against Western influences. Equally, we underestimated the presence of a political culture in which many officials see citizens primarily as enemies constantly bent on undermining their authority and the state. Ideas of deliberation, in which citizens are invited to participate in public affairs and to participate in public decision-making, are viewed with great suspicion in this culture. This suspicion and resulting distrust also affects civil society organizations, which helps explain why civil society is developing so slowly. The nature and manner in which these organizations are endlessly controlled regularly exhausts many of their members and turns idealism and commitment into cynicism and resignation, the latter presumably to the great relief of those in authority. Instead of participating in thought, discussion and decision making, citizens engage in noisy demonstrations and street marches, which each time represents a defeat for democracy and deliberation. Citizens themselves are further not accustomed to, nor are they made familiar with, substantive political participation, which partly explains why it is so difficult to get them to engage in social and political affairs. The ongoing processes of individualization, rationalization and the dissolution of communities reinforce the lack of motivation for social participation. Rather, people stay at home, take to the streets in anger, or vote in protest for a populist political party that also propagates aversion to the existing order, without incidentally presenting a somewhat workable alternative. The resulting general paralysis finds both its origin and precipitation in the administrative apparatus and among professionals active, for example, in the social, educational, migration and integration sectors. Nobody cares anymore. Phones are not picked up, letters and e-mails remain unanswered, appointments are not kept, nepotism, co-optation and abuse of power are accepted as a normal part of life with a furtive smile. Collectively, people give each other the finger.

At Social Science Works, we often discuss whether the current social and political developments could lead us to disaster. The small, incremental societal changes that take place daily, changes to which we can always, it seems, adjust and get used to, might hinder us to see the big picture. Are we sleep-walking into a catastrophe? Or are we just witnessing the usual social and political transformations, maybe at a higher speed, but still inherent to humankind?

It seems evident that several pivotal, interrelated institutions, practices, and features of our societies progressively have become under pressure: economic, social and political equality, democracy, pluralism, civil society, social capital, social cohesion, trust, respect or civility, fair and informed competition of ideas, political efficacy, rationality of public decision-making, individual well-being, and sustainability, to name just a few. The Corona pandemic made many of these problems even more visible.

Even more visible are the very same problems in most of the former totalitarian states of the dissolved Warsaw Pact: economic, social and political equality, democracy, pluralism, civil society, social cohesion, civility, political competences, rationality of public decision-making were already importantly less developed than in many western democracies and there is not much reason to believe that these states have caught up in the last three decades. Partly because of the disappointment over unrealized promises and prospects, the democratization process soon deteriorated. Consequently, in countries like Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Rumania, and East-Germany democratic structures are continuously under threat.

The societal reformations needed to counter the tendencies at hand can probably only be brought about when the social awareness of the problems and their interrelations increases. It seems though, that it has become increasingly difficult to further this awareness. Already Karl Mannheim, in his Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (1940), observed that we are in a kind of race between societal complexity and political competence. An increasingly complex society can only be successfully ordered and steered in preferred directions when the understanding of this complexity also increases. It seems we are losing this race. At least in the political environment Social Science Works is active, the democratic mood of citizenry, civil society and governmental organizations is alarming. Unfortunately, the political knowledge and competences are so low, that hardly anybody notices and cares.


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[1] One of the problems we encountered in this context is the exact meaning of “original”. Most of our exchanges with the outside world occur on the internet. So, bills, contracts and other documents are sent around as attachments of emails after they have been electronically signed, or hand-signed and then scanned in. Do these PDF-documents count as “original”? Not so in the State of Brandenburg. Consequently, in 2019 we spent weeks contacting dozens of people and all kinds of organizations to beg them to send us via the post authentically signed “originals” (with stamps, if available) of our previous dealings.

[2] Regularly, it also turned out that we as outsiders, not belonging to the history and the power structures of the East-German national states, had easier access to citizens than established organizations.

[3] „Es bringt doch nichts wann die Leute ein bisschen miteinander quatschen? Es geht um Qualität!“

[4] „Wir haben in nächster Zeit verschiedene Neustrukturierungen und die Renovierung unseres Hauses zu realisieren, daher haben Sie bitte Verständnis, dass wir Ihr Gesprächsangebot nicht umgehend aufgreifen.“ E-Mail of June 6, 2017.

[5] “Danke für Ihre Anfrage. Wir sind intensiv bei der Vorbereitung des nächsten Jahres 2019, welches bei uns ein intensives Wahljahr werden wird (Europa- Kommunal und Landtagswahlen). Ich kann Ihnen heute schon sagen, dass unsere Projekte und Kooperationspartner schon feststehen und wir uns definitiv NICHT an Ihrem Projekt beteiligen werden.“ E-Mail from August 5, 2018.

[6] „Herr Blokland hat wieder eine Projektidee.“ E-Mail from April 4, 2020.

[7] The research of Schroeder et al looked at trade unions, charitable organizations, churches, and the organized sports and cultural sector. Regularly, the involved institutions cannot decide how to react.

[8] Scattered around the country, regional newspapers report in this. See, for instance:;art19070,3955564;;;!5606177/


[10] It is important to note that most of the examples I give here of social disintegration are from the period before Corona. The pandemic made the situation even worse, also because the measures taken to fight the pandemic were regularly used as a welcome alibi for not even trying to further social interactions. Society has still not recovered from this period, and might even never do.

[11] Organizations we contacted, included: Soziale Stadt Potsdam, Landessportbund Brandenburg, Koordinierungsstelle Ehrenamt Brandenburg, Landesjugendring Brandenburg, Caritas Brandenburg, Ländliche Erwachsenbildung Brandenburg, Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Kinder- und Jugendhilfe – AGJ, Arbeitskreis gemeinnütziger Jugendaustauschorganisationen, Gewerkschaft Polizei Berlin, Bund Ostdeutscher Gemeinschaftsdienste, Frauencafe Gropiusstadt, Gesicht Zeigen! – Aktion weltoffenes Deutschland e.V., Muslimische Jugend, Bund der Deutschen Landjugend.

[12] She contacted IG Bau (union for employees in construction, gardening and agriculture with 250.000 members), IG Metall (German Metalworkers’ union with 2.2 million members), NGG (Food, Beverages and Catering Union with 200.000 members), Verdi (union for the service sector with 2.1 million members), DGB (German Trade Union Confederation), and GGBO (union for (former) prisoners; number of members unclear, probably not as many as potentially in the USA).

[13] Other examples were the Berliner Tafel (distributing rescued food to 125.000 poor people in Berlin) and Über den Tellerrand (“Beyond the Plate” facilitating encounters and exchanges between cultures via culinary, creative and sporting events).

[14] She contacted, among others, DM (drugstore-chain), MBN Bau (construction company), Securitas (security services group), Rolls Royce (Aerospace), Bombardier (transportation), and several moving and cleaning companies.

[15] Examples were KOBRA (Counselling for women on profession, education and employment), Inpäd Berlin (further education and counselling for women), Xochicuicat (Latin-American women’s organization supporting migration and integration), Frauen aufs Podium (promoting women for top-positions), and Hinbun (education and counselling for women).

[16] “Da Ihre Tätigkeiten zu 95 % weder ein Bachelor-Studium noch eine wissenschaftliche HS-Ausbildung voraussetzen, müssten Sie beide mindestens eine Honorarstufe tiefer und es kann auch nicht der Höchstsatz angesetzt werden.” (Since 95% of your activities do not require a bachelor’s degree or an academic university education, both of you would have to be paid at least one fee level lower and the maximum rate cannot be applied too). Mail from May 31, 2018 of the Ministry of Education in Brandenburg.

[17] The American anthropologists David Graeber researched in his “Bullshit Jobs: A theory” (2018) how many people in different countries considered their own job as meaningless or pointless in terms of the contribution their work offers for society and human welfare. The results were stunning: up to 40% of the surveyed people are of the opinion that if their job were to vanish, it would not make a difference to anyone. Obviously, when even the people themselves believe that what they are doing does not make much sense, then mental and social health are endangered.

[18] When projects are paid for by the government, in Germany one usually needs permission to publish the results.

[19] In 2014 the turnout in Brandenburg was 47.9% in the state elections and 46.2% in the local elections. The percentage for the federal elections in 2017 was 73.7%. In the polls at the end of 2018 the AfD was scoring around 25% of the vote. Eventually it reached 23.5 (a win of 11%), only shortly behind the social-democratic party SPD (26.2%). . As in other states, current polls is Brandenburg predict that the AfD will get more than 30% of the vote in the elections in 2024, far ahead of the SPD and other parties (

[20] The last assumption can be criticized. Indeed, there are plenty of people who have simply never thought about the subject matter expressed by a proposition. In the absence of a “no opinion” category, in that case they mostly just answer in the middle. Such disinterest or apathy in political matters is often difficult for researchers to imagine. Citizens who have never thought about anything, by the way, can be no less a danger to democracy than those who have.

[21] Berlin is in Brandenburg but has the reputation of being an island of openness. Nevertheless, comparable trends can be observed here. Every two years a similar survey to the one described above is conducted in the capital, the last time in the summer of 2023. Again, only a minority of the respondents can be described as right-wing extremists. However, the authors state in their press release that since 2021 “a clear increase in approval of right-wing authoritarian statements and right-wing extremist beliefs [can be observed]. This also corresponds to a sharp rise in approval of authoritarianism. […] Authoritarian aggression can be found in 54% of respondents, and the manifest conspiracy mentality has risen from 18% in 2019 to 31% in 2023. The results also show an increase in anti-feminism and anti-Semitism, as well as trans hostility among one in five Berliners. The desire for strong leadership has increased too: around 19% of Berliners surveyed want a strong leader, compared to 10% in 2021” (Pickel and Celik 2023; translation HTB). Very widespread is also an anti-Muslim sentiment. 20% of respondents are explicitly Muslim hostile, up to 70% endorse individual anti-Muslim theses. This hostility can form a so-called bridge to other right-wing extremist views.

[22] See for this too: Blokland 2023.

[23] Right-wing populism and extremism are especially present in the countryside. Harrendorf, Dünkel and Geng (2021) observe: “There are very strong indications that an increased incidence of racism, xenophobia and right-wing extremism in the population is closely linked to peripheralization processes, their socio-economic consequences and socio-psychological effects. While left-wing extremism is primarily a phenomenon of the cities, right-wing populism and extremism can be found above all in (peripheral) rural areas… Rural areas are increasingly being used as places of retreat as right-wing extremists experience less resistance there than in cities, where there are often already well-established and effective civil society counter-structures. Rural areas can act as crystallization centers for right-wing extremist structures. Regional networks and the open or disguised activities of right-wing extremist protagonists, who act as ‘helpers’ on the ground, lead to an increased presence of the extreme right in everyday life. This can lead to a further ‘normalization’ of right-wing extremist views and behavior in the rest of the population” (translation HTB; for the decline of the country side in Brandenburg, also see Blokland 2016).

[24] Telling are the experiences of two teachers in the town of Burg in southern Brandenburg who in an open letter called attention to the right-wing radical views and statements of their pupils: “We are experiencing a wall of silence and a lack of support from school administrators, school boards and politicians in the fight against anti-democratic structures, both among pupils and parents as well as among colleagues” (translation HTB). At school, children greet each other with the Hitler salute, declare themselves happy to have joined the Hilterjugend, support anti-democratic and misanthrope views, and terrorize dissenters: “Ihr scheiß linken Zecken, geht ‘nen N*gga ficken und frisst seine Scheiße” (You fucking leftist sluts, go fuck a nigger and eat his shit.”) The two whistleblowers did not receive the support they requested. Instead, parents, the school and local authorities turned against them. Six months after their cry for help, they decided to resign (Schönborn 2023; Modersohn and Spiewak 2023).

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