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The ‘Most German’ Voters? A Focus Group Analysis of Identities, Political Issues and Allegiances to the Right among Ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union before the 2017 Bundestag Election

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This paper has since been published in Ethnic and Migration Studies Immigrants Voters against their will? The oreprint on the first author's webpage. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369183X.2018.1503527 This paper presents the first evidence from the Immigrant German Election Study (2017), based on a focus group analysis of ethnic Germans who emigrated from the Soviet Union or its successor states. Aussiedler who represent the biggest group of immigrant voters in Germany are an extreme case study as they reveal a rare combination of socio-economic characteristics typical of immigrants and of identity as well as citizenship characteristics that are rarely found with immigrants. The size and rare combination of traits of this group make it particularly useful to study them in order to improve existing theories of immigrant voting. The analysis explores the following questions: What is the link between identities and political preferences? Which political issues are salient to this group and how does that salience relate to what is on offer? How is the relationship between the group and the Christian Democrats seen? In essence: (1) There is a cohort pattern of declining gratefulness to the CDU/CSU among younger cohorts that is also mirrored in differences in identity formation as German. (2) The perceptions of refugees and of the government’s refugee policies contrasted with the observed and constructed experience of their group, revealing a declining willingness to vote for the CDU/CSU. (3) The ethnic construction of being German, more pronounced among the old, finds an outlet for some Aussiedler among the supply of the new Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) that systematically targets this group as a handful of small right-extremist parties have tried before.
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The ‘Most German’ Voters?
A Focus Group Analysis of Identities, Political Issues and Allegiances to the
Right among Ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union before the 2017
Bundestag Election
Paper to be presented at the Council for European Studies Annual Conference in
Glasgow, 12-14 July 2017
Achim Goerres, University of Duisburg-Essen, Institute of Political Science and Interdisciplinary Centre of
Integration and Migration Research
Sabrina Jasmin Mayer, University of Duisburg-Essen, Institute of Political Science and Interdisciplinary
Centre of Integration and Migration Research
Dennis Spies, University of Cologne, Cologne Centre for Comparative Politics
We thank the German Research Foundation for funding the first Immigrant German Election Study
(IMGES) with the grant number GO 1833/5-1 (PIs Achim Goerres & Dennis Spies). We thank Jakob
Kemper and Erik Wenker for research assistance and Sebastian Krause for textual suggestions.
Abstract:
This paper presents the first evidence from the Immigrant German Election Study (2017), based
on a focus group analysis of ethnic Germans who emigrated from the Soviet Union or its successor
states. Aussiedler who represent the biggest group of immigrant voters in Germany are an extreme
case study as they reveal a rare combination of socio-economic characteristics typical of immigrants
and of identity as well as citizenship characteristics that are rarely found with immigrants. The size
and rare combination of traits of this group make it particularly useful to study them in order to
improve existing theories of immigrant voting. The analysis explores the following questions: What
is the link between identities and political preferences? Which political issues are salient to this
group and how does that salience relate to what is on offer? How is the relationship between the
group and the Christian Democrats seen? In essence: (1) There is a cohort pattern of declining
gratefulness to the CDU/CSU among younger cohorts that is also mirrored in differences in
identity formation as German. (2) The perceptions of refugees and of the government’s refugee
policies contrasted with the observed and constructed experience of their group, revealing a
declining willingness to vote for the CDU/CSU. (3) The ethnic construction of being German,
more pronounced among the old, finds an outlet for some Aussiedler among the supply of the new
Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) that systematically targets this group as a handful of small right-
extremist parties have tried before.
1
1 Introduction
“The Alternative for Germany [the nationalist, populist right-wing party]
is the genuine friend of the Russian Germans.”
“Die AfD ist der natürliche Freund der Russlanddeutschen.”
(III.3, Man, 65-69 years)
Ethnic Germans who migrated from the Soviet Union and their descendants made up 2.4 million
voters out of 6.5 million German voters with an immigrant background in 2015 (Mikrozensus
2016). They are with 37 % the biggest group of immigrant voters in present-day Germany. These
re-settlers (Aussiedler) or Russian Germans (Russlanddeutsche) as they are often called and call
themselves are clearly immigrants from a socio-economic point of view. They had to adjust to the
educational and labour market structures that were in place in Germany. These structures were
very different from those of their home country, the Soviet Union or any of its successor states.
Moreover, they had to adjust to the social life in Germany that was very different both from their
experience as a mostly German-speaking group in a Russian-speaking environment as well as that
of the majority population in their home countries. Therefore, the political consequences of these
‘typical’ socio-economic processes should be comparable to many other immigrant groups.
However, this group of Aussiedler is also an extreme case in all groups of voters of migrant
background (see Seawright and Gerring 2008). No theory of immigrant voting can be complete
without trying to explain this rare, but numerically large instance of a very idiosyncratic
combination of immigrant characteristics. Aussiedler have very strong socially constructed German
roots dating back to the 18th century that have been held high in families for centuries. This very
long construction and care for an ethnic identity contrasts with the fact that the individuals who
migrated had no experience of present-day Germany before their arrival. These migrants see
themselves as the descendants of emigrants from the 18th century that are returning to their Heimat.
Thus, as to their identities, they feel German in a way that no majority-population would feel
German. As to voting, this group also show some extraordinary irregularity. In the very few existing
studies (Wüst 2002), they were shown to overwhelmingly vote for the conservative Christian-
Democrats, a pattern that is very unusual for immigrant voters who normally tend to be more leftist
than the majority population (Heath et al. 2013; Zingher and Thomas 2012). Finally, this is an
immigrant group whose access to the host country was relatively easy up to 1993 (from the
receiving country) and whose members immediately received German citizenship upon arrival.
Thus in terms of political participation, these immigrants had no legal boundaries as complete
political integration by means of voting, standing for public office etc. From a political science
point of view, this means that one can study the impact of migration and socio-economic
integration on political integration by excluding any mechanisms that may surround citizenship as
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it does for other voters with a migration background. All these three aspects, self-image as German,
conservative party preferences and immediate German citizenship combined with their large size
make it of utmost importance to understand the voting behaviour of this group to enrich theories
of immigrant voting in advanced industrial democracies.
This paper explores the ways in which members of the biggest immigrant voter community in
Germany talk about their identities, the political issues that are salient to them and their allegiances
towards parties on the right. More specifically, we study how the members of our focus groups
reveal a decline of the dominant allegiance to the Christian-Democratic parties and their increasing
willingness to vote for the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland. We trace the role of
individual identities, especially ethnicity, and the receptiveness for certain political issues
surrounding the inflow of refugees in 2015 to 2017 in Germany.
The qualitative content analysis of four focus groups in 2017 reveals: (1) There is a cohort pattern
of declining gratefulness to the CDU/CSU among younger cohorts that is also mirrored in
differences in identity formation as German. (2) The perceptions of refugees and of the
government’s refugee policies is viewed and contrasted with the observed and constructed
experience of their group, revealing a declining willingness to vote for the CDU/CSU. (3) The
ethnic construction of being German, more pronounced among the old, finds an outlet for some
Aussiedler among the supply of the new Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) that systematically targets
this group as a handful of small right-extremist parties have tried before.
Section 2 contextualises the political history of the group as German voters. Section 3 puts forward
our theoretical framework. Section 4 describes the data and methods. Section 5 presents the
empirical results before section 6 concludes the paper.
3
2 The History and Politics of Germans in the Soviet Union
1
2.1 The History of Germans in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union
Between 1987 and 1997, 1.5 million Germans migrated from the Soviet Union or its successor
states to Germany (Hilkes and Stricker 1997). Russlanddeutsche are mostly the descendants of
emigrants to Tsarist Russia in the 18th century and 19th century from a multitude of German states
mostly in the South of Germany. The large wave of migrants back then ensued after the invitation
of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who was herself a German-speaking princess. Her
official invitation in 1763 specifically aimed at the small states in the Southwest of present-day
Germany came with the objectives to increase the number of free peasants (most Russian peasant
were serfs at the time) and to settle in regions of the fringes of the then-Empire to defend them
against nomads. The families who migrated from the German lands were motivated by the promise
of self-rule, the protection of their language and culture and religious freedom, a package that was
attractive in the lands hit by the Seven-Years-War.
Figure 1: Migration flows of Germans to Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries
Source: Ingenieursbüro für Kartographie Zwick Gießen and Bezirksregierung Arnsberg 2005.
1
This historical overview benefitted much from Kiel (2009, chap. 2).
4
An important fact was the settlement of the Germans in compact rural villages that were religiously
and ethnically homogenous. About 90 % of Russlanddeutsche today are estimated to be descendants
of these groups of rural settlers (Stricker 1997). The peasants mostly settled in the regions of the
Volga, the Back Sea, Volynia (in today’s Northwestern Ukraine) and Sibiria. Each village was
centred around a church that also ran the local school. In the 1896 census, 76 % declared
themselves to be Lutheran, 13.5 % Roman-Catholic, 4 % Mennonites and Baptists with the rest
scatted across other religions (Ingenhorst 1997).The inhabitants of these villages did rarely inter-
marry with the majority population of these areas (between 11.2 and 13.5 % in the 1920s) (Pinkus
1990). German was their first language, but each settlement was largely self-contained with little
interaction with the other settlements, meaning that their German dialects were largely preserved.
In 1926, almost 95 % members of this group indicated German as their first language.
Life in these colonies was focussed on maintaining an explicitly German set of culture and mores.
The construction of meritocratic principles for the group and the fostering of stereotypes by the
majority population created a unique environment that was legally supported by the add-on of
“German” as a nationality in all Tsarist and Soviet papers (Kiel 2009, 23).
Due to the liberation of Russian serfs in 1861 and emerging nationalist ideas of pan-slawism, the
privileges of the German colonies were reduced step-by step by the Russian Tsar at the end of the
19th century. Forced re-settlement of Germans from the Western border with Germany towards
the East began after the outbreak of Wold War I in order to prevent any kind of alliance between
the German Empire and these colonists. With Stalin’s rise to power, the Germans in the Soviet
Union suffered from the forced collectivisation of their free farms and the prohibition of the free
expression of religion, an important pillar of their identity. Increasing hostility sparked their feeling
of shared identity with 85 % still speaking German as a first language in 1939.
During World War II, they suffered from massive deportation towards more Eastern part of the
Soviet Union, the disenfranchisement to the status of non-citizens and the reduction of their legal
status to subjects with few rights in the new areas of settlement. Mandatory enrolment in labour
camps with minimal subsistence plagued the majority of the working age population (men and
women). The return to some kind of normality with more citizenship rights did not realise before
1955. However, German names, German language and German culture remained largely
forbidden, forcing these families, who now lived much more scattered across the Soviet Union
compared to the status quo before Stalin, to maintain their Germanness in the family. They were
not allowed to return to the mostly West-of-Ural regions and had to live mostly in urban areas.
The pressure to “russify” led to a decreasing usage of German with only 56 % mentioning German
as their mother tongue in 1979. Inter-ethnic unions with the majority population increased
massively to somewhere between 30 and 60 % in the 1970s.
5
2.2 The Politics of Immigration to Germany since 1945
The group of Russlanddeutsche plays a unique role in West German and United German Post-war
history. After the integration of millions of refugees from formerly German regions or expellees in
the 1940s and 1950s (East Prussia, Silesia), ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union were constructed
to be the last group that had to be taken “home” into the new republic. For instance, in a 1970
story in the weekly Der Spiegel, the front page read “Deutsche wie Du und ich [Germans like you
and me]” (Ipsen-Peitzmeier and Kaiser 2006, 419). To get them to Germany and to treat them as
if they had always lived there and not emigrated 250 years ago was a strong objective of the ruling
parties, especially the Christian-Democratic Union. Especially chancellor Helmut Kohl made very
clear statements about the unrestricted welcome of the Aussiedler in the late 1980s.
The German government changed its policy of unrestricted welcome already at the end of the
1980s with changing German public opinion (Schneider 1996) and the expectation of a large
increase in the number of incoming Aussiedler. The command of German language of a potential
immigrant became an important policy instrument in order to steer the inflow of Aussiedler. Recall
that, compared to the 1920s, the Russlanddeutsche were as a group much less knowledgeable of
German due to the strong forces to russify in the 1980s. The Christian-democrats favoured a hard
language test, once in opposition after 1998, that could be repeated once failed (Golova 2006), a
position that was quite far away from their policy of open arms of the 1980s. Whereas the
CDU/CSU still constructed the group of Aussiedler based on their ethnic descent, the then-
governing SPD and Greens saw them as one migrant group among other and framed the argument
around that (Golova 2006). The SPD proposed policies for local integration that did not address
any notion of Aussiedler belonging to Germany anyhow, but as another migrant group that needs
help (Golova 2006).
The Christian-Democrats still catered to the Aussiedler from the Soviet Union towards the turn of
the millennium. For instance, Helmut Kohl attended the annual meeting of the Landsmannschaft der
Deutschen aus Russland before the 1998 election.
Overall, the strong interest of the CDU/CSU in the Russlanddeutsche can be explained with regard
to three aspects: (1) Christian beliefs were very important markers of the identity of the
Russlanddeutsche and the CDU/CSU the only party catering to these values, (2) the Christian-
Democrats were historically the party of the refugees and expellees after 1945 with, for instance,
another German party, the Bund der Heimatvertriebenen und Entrechteten, de-facto merging with the
CDU in the 1950s after participation in the Adenauer government. Still today, the Christian-
Democrats hold strong personal ties with the non-party organisation of the Vertriebenen. (3) The
Christian-Democrats until the end of the 1990s maintained the very conservative notion of
6
citizenship by descent. To have German citizenship, you had to descent from a family of Germans
who were characterised by a set of culture and language. With the Russlanddeutsche, this political idea
had to imply that these individuals were not migrants, but re-settlers coming back to the Heimat.
3 Theoretical Framework
3.1 Party Identification as the Foundation of Long-term Party Affiliation among
Immigrants and Non-immigrants
According to the most prominent model for the explanation of voting behaviour, the Michigan
model, vote choice is mainly driven by party identification, a long-standing psychological bond
with a political party, as well as shaped by short-term factors such as candidate and issue
orientations (Campbell et al. 1960; Campbell, Gurin, and Miller 1954). Its key concept, party
identification, is mainly acquired in primary socialization and therefore substantively transmitted
within the family. This linkage to a political party is relatively stable and only changes in the course
of life after far-reaching changes such as marriage, relocation or through outward events such as
wars or revolutions (Kroh and Selb 2009; Zuckerman, Dasovic, and Fitzgerald 2007).
However, this chain of transmission is interrupted for the acquisition of party identification of
migrants that were born and raised within another political system. Previous studies have shown
that political attitudes already hold in the country-of-origin may be transferred to the host country,
but only if both political systems are similar (Finifter and Finifter 1989; Voicu and Comsa 2014).
As this is not the case for our migration group, we explain sources of the group-coalition between
the Aussiedler and the CDU/CSU and draw guiding propositions for our analysis.
3.2 The linkage between Aussiedler and the CDU/CSU
Due to the Soviet Union’s one-party political set-up and the short period most Aussiedler
experienced the new democratic system in their respective home countries, persistent political
attitudes focusing on the democratic parties in the country-of-origin are rare: Such political
attitudes only started to develop by the time most Aussiedler already had left the country (Brader
and Tucker 2001). We suspect that the group-specific migration history affects the voting
behaviour and acquisition of party identification of Aussiedler (Schönwälder 2009). Most studies
have shown a general tendency for migrants voting left/center-left parties, often explained by e.g.
their lower socio-economic status (e.g., Abrajano, Michael Alvarez, and Nagler 2008; Bevelander
2015; Heath et al. 2013; Zingher and Thomas 2012). However, in Germany as well as in other
7
countries such as Switzerland, the vote of citizens from the former Soviet Union differs
considerably from the voting patterns of other migrants (Kroh and Tucci 2010; Strijbis 2014; Wüst
2004): Country-of-origin effects for voting center-right, even when political orientations and socio-
demographics were held constant, as well as a higher share of Conservative partisans were found.
What drives this strong link between the Aussiedler group and the Christian Democrats? Party
identification, although acquired in primary socialization, is deeply rooted in long-lasting social
group-party coalitions (e.g., Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002). According to Lipset and
Rokkan (1967), most European party systems were shaped by historical events such as state
building and the Industrial Revolution that created persistent links between political parties and
social groups. This leads to an antagonism between parties opposing each other at the poles of the
cleavage (Beyme 1984). As part of this coalition, the party represents the political interests of the
group in the political arena and is voted for by the group accordingly. Today, the dominant
cleavages in Germany are the class cleavage workers against owners and the state-church cleavage
transformed into a religious-secular cleavage (Stöss, Haas, and Niedermayer 2006). However,
these historical events may not be able to explain the emergence of partisanship within the Aussiedler
group as they returned to Germany’s political sphere after all these group-coalition processes were
already completed. We inspect whether the sudden ability to re-immigrate to Germany in the early
1990s acts as such a historical key event that fosters the strong link of the Aussiedler with the
CDU/CSU: These parties mainly drove the re-immigration process and are linked to the Aussiedler
by a motive of gratefulness for representing their interests. In addition, migrants often support the
electoral successfully parties by the time of their arrival and the re-immigration wave of Aussiedler
falls within the successful period of the Kohl government (Finifter and Finifter 1989). The
experience of whom one votes for in one’s first free election has been shown to create the
formation of political generation in the German electorate at large (Goerres 2008).
For the most time, the Aussiedler vote for the CDU/CSU was considered stable, and this group was
rarely targeted by other parties (Golova 2006; Wüst 2004). The CDU/CSU was also the only
established party who actively sought to implement policies for Aussiedler and to cater to their
symbolic interests (like recognition through high-level visits of Christian-Democratic politicians at
meetings of the ethnic German associations). Another reason that has been suggested but not
tested (Golova 2006) is that the CDU/CSU was the only established party that supported the old
idea of citizenship by descent: An individual is German because he or she descends from someone
who belongs to that people. Other parties have not held this notion high anymore apart from the
parties to the right of the CDU/CSU.
However, recent studies demonstrated a declining CDU/CSU vote by Aussiedler that was already
suspected in 2002 (Wüst 2002). Furthermore, the CDU/CSU partisanship of Aussiedler dropped by
8
about 20 percentage points from the 2000’s to 2016 (Litta and Wittlif 2017). Two possible
explanations that are not mutually exclusive, might hold true: (a) Aussiedler of the 1st generation,
that were born in the country-of-origin, but never lived there expect for small parts of their lives
as well as citizens of the 2nd migrant generation, born after the mid-1990s, come now more and
more of voting age. For these groups, the strong bound held by gratefulness might not be as
important as for the older generation that experienced the tedious process until they were finally
able to depart for Germany. (b) Changes may occur at several places of the link between the
Aussiedler and the CDU/CSU that affect the former bond (see Figure 2): Aussiedler may identify less
as Aussiedler (Arrow 1), Aussiedler may feel not adequately politically represented by the CDU/CSU
anymore (Arrow 2) or short-term factors such as issues that are assumed to be better dealt by other
parties (Arrow 3) may deviate the normal vote, i.e. instead of voting for the identification party,
voters choice another party that better accommodates their positions.
Put differently, there may have been a period effect for all Aussiedler in their first one or two
elections in Germany in favour of the CDU/CSU in the 1990s that became a cohort effect for
some, but those who came of political age later became less enchanted by the Christian-Democrats.
This may in parts be the results of different expectations of migrant generations. The first
generation, whose members migrated themselves as young adults or later, may have lower levels of
expectations that their children who migrated at a young age or are born in Germany (Maxwell
2010). Thus, we can expect that the attribution of responsibility and support for the CDU/CSU
happens more easily among those with lower expectations.
3.3 Aussiedler as the Target of Voters for Right-Wing Parties
Aussiedler became the target of voter recruitment strategies of right-wing parties as early as 2003. In
the regional Bremen elections, the Schill party (Partei Rechtsstaatliche Offensive) admitted
targeting senior and first-time voters in that group (Golova 2006, 25354). The NPD also tried to
target this group of voters in regional elections in 2002 and 2003, but it created some inner party
Figure 2: Potential causal links between identification as ethnic Germans and party identification
Possible places for decline
Vote for
CDU/CSU
Identification as
Aussiedler
PID CDU/CSU
1
2
3
9
conflict as some in the party argued that proficiency of German had to be a necessary element of
being a good German. Other examples of targeting stem from right-wing newspapers, internet
websites and Aussiedler organisations with links to the Deutsche Partei, a right-wing splinter party
(Golova 2006). In 2010, the right-wing party Pro-NRW (campaigning in NRW) tried to target this
group (Clemens 2017, 197). All of these attempts were not very successful as far as voting
popularity and organizational involvement can be measured.
In a way, the strong identification with ethnic Germanness is probably dying out as cohorts of
Aussiedlers for whom this identification was part of their defense strategy in the Soviet Union are
passing away. However, there remains a reservoir of potential voters for whom this is relevant.
What has changed on the supply side is that with the AfD a new viable choice has arisen. What is
also new is that the number of foreigners in Germany has increased by about 23 percent (+1.886
million) in 2015 and 2016, compared to 2014, and is now above 10 million for the first time
(DESTATIS - Statistisches Bundesamt 2017). Thus the defense of an ethnic understanding of
being German can be constructed again against the threat of new entrants into Germany.
Combined with notions of economic ethnic competition (Cunningham 2012), Aussiedler may turn
to nationalist parties in order to culturally defend their identities. Given the early insights into AfD
voters, the Russlanddeutsche seem like the perfect target for this right-wing nationalist party (Goerres,
Spies, and Kumlin 2017): AfD voters are anti-immigrant, have an exclusive understanding of
national identity and can be found in all educational strata.
3.4 Guiding Propositions
Due to the exploratory nature of our data, we will use guiding propositions instead of hypotheses
to structure our analysis.
First of all, we explore whether identification as an Aussiedler still prevails. In times where the term
‘Russlanddeutsche’ is often used in media reports and the new wave of refugees is compared to the
re-immigration of Aussiedler (Soldt 2016), it is likely that this identification becomes more often
salient and stable, even though the migration process took part twenty years ago. Drawing on
notion, we further look at how Aussiedler try to construct differences between their migration
process as ethnic Germans compared to new refugees that have not been raised as Germans/with
German language skills and do not share cultural similarities.
Second, we expect that the linkage motive for partisanship, gratefulness towards the CDU/CSU,
is stronger for older voters who experienced the re-immigration process as (young) adults than for
younger voters who only recently came of voting age.
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Third, we focus on the dissatisfaction with Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis in 2015 may be
a driving force in the shift away from established voting patterns that might later lead to a de-
alignment from the CDU/CSU and a possible re-alignment with another party.
Fourth, we explore the role of the AfD as a fresh political actor who caters to the demands of the
group of Aussiedler by looking at political issues and policies offered by the party and how it relates
to participants in our groups.
4 Data and Methods
Focus groups or group interviews as means of data collection were first introduced in the 1940s
(Merton and Kendall 1946). However, for a long time, they had mostly been used for market
research and were rediscovered for social research in the last decades. Especially in political science,
the use of focus group data has become more and more prominent only within the last years (Bartle
2003; Conover, Crewe, and Searing 1991; Conover and Searing 2005a; Conover and Searing 2005b;
Conover, Searing, and Crewe 2004; Goerres and Prinzen 2012a; 2012b; 2014). For a more thorough
understanding of our data collection and analysis, we will first start with an introduction to the
advantages of focus group interviews for our endeavour and a description of our data collection
process and participants. Afterwards, we will discuss the principles of our approach.
4.1 Collecting focus group data
Compared to standardised random-sample surveys, focus groups have the advantage that
researchers can be much more confident about the validity of what they are measuring as they can
flexibly adjust their moderation behaviour to specific group dynamics. Compared to semi-
structured or narrative single interviews, focus groups benefit from the multiple stimuli that
participants are exposed over the course of the discussion. Also, focus groups allow not only the
measurement of what people think, but also how their thinking and verbalisation depend on group
dynamics. The fluidity, ambivalence, non-attitudes and complexity of individuals and their political
minds are easier to measure in focus groups than in single interview. Thus, participants do not react
to what the interviewer or moderator says but to what the other participants say as well. Therefore,
this qualitative technique is often either used for exploration or for process tracing to gain a better
understanding of a certain causal chain found in other analyses.
The limitations of focus groups are that there is no way of knowing whether certain dynamics
measured in focus groups are widespread or not in the population. Like with any qualitative method
of data collection, the proportion of realisation of a certain event like attitudes towards a certain
object does not matter outside the sample itself. Moreover, focus group data are less reliable than
11
other individual-level data sources. The moderator has a very strong role for stimulating
discussions, meaning that repetitive measurement of the same data is impossible.
For this study, the data stem from transcripts of four focus groups with 5-6 participants that were
conducted between February and June 2017 in the cities of Duisburg and Cologne in the most
Western part of Germany. Three of the groups were artificially composed, meaning that the
participants had not known each other before the discussion. One group, consisting of participants
aged 60 and older (Focus group 3) were members of an amateur choir who regularly saw each other
for choir practice. This group was particularly useful to cover higher age groups. All participants
had migrated to Germany themselves. About two thirds of all participants had migrated at age 12
or younger. The participants had migrated from Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. All
were of “ethnic” German descent and German citizens, about 20 percent held dual citizenship.
The participants had been recruited through a multitude of ways, such as various ads, postings, and
mouth-to-mouth news in German and Russian. Volunteers could take part in a German-speaking
or a Russian-speaking focus group, but all chose the former over the latter. The focus group
participants filled out a written questionnaire before they took part in a conversation between 80
and 100 minutes.
These participants are not representative of the population of Germans of Soviet descent. Most
importantly, females are over-represented and participants are better educated, younger and
politically more interested than this population at large (see Table 1). Age wise, the focus group
participants cover a broad range of ages from 20 to 79 years, with a median age of 27. Religious
affiliation also varies, and includes people without religious affiliation, Protestants as well as
Christian Orthodox. The participants knew that the discussions were about politics in Germany
before the discussion, so it is not surprising that they differ for the average level of political interest
by 0.65 point from the mean in the German population (GLES 2013 estimate with data set
ZA5701).
Table 1: Descriptive statistics of the 22 participants
Variable
Results
Age
Range: 20 79 years; mean: 39.1, median: 27
Gender
63% female
Education
68% Abitur, 32% Fachhochschulreife
Religious
affiliation
45% Protestant, 23% none, 23% Christian orthodox, 9 % other Christian
affiliation
Political
Interest
Range: 1-4; mean: 2.5, median: 3
Turnout
in 2013
71% (of those who were allowed to vote then); PID (party identification: yes):
87%, MPID (identification with more than one party): 75% of all partisans, mostly
within political camps
Political interest measured on a 5-point scale, 1 “very highly interested to 5 “not interested at all”
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Focus groups bring together participants to talk about a topic of interest to the researchers. The
participants must be selected such that they can talk together using the same language, concepts or
“social codes” (Barbour 2007; Lamnek 2005). This means that there must be some form of
similarity within the group. This similarity stems most importantly from all participants being
German citizens who have migrated from the Soviet Union or one of its successor states. Since the
topics were chosen to be of relevance for this group, they could refer to this commonality in
exchanging opinions and questions in the discussions. The group composition thus facilitates the
easier communication around specific experiences, but does not presuppose the existence of
something like a group opinion, for which much more homogenous groups would be needed
(Bohnsack, Przyborski, and Schäffer 2006; Mangold 1960).
The discussions were moderated by the first two authors of this paper. We used a series of stimuli
to efficiently guide the discussion towards content elements of relevance. The stimuli were revised
and adapted after each focus group to take advantage of updated knowledge after each discussion.
Among the stimuli were: a confrontation with actual data comparing levels of party identification
of voters with their background with the autochthonous voting population, a Q-sort exercise for
which participants had to sort statements about the meaning of “being German” to them personally
from most to least important, a card exercise about the meanings of political left and right, a
fictitious vignette with a politically disenchanted voter with their background, open questions about
homeland politics, such as about Putin and the Ukraine conflict and their meaning for their
assessment of parties and politicians in Germany.
The discussions were audio- and video-taped and later transcribed by a professional transcription
office. The transcription was executed verbatim without regard for non-verbal expressions like
laughter or breaks in speech. We quote the participants answers anonymized and provide
information on gender and a five-year age-range.
4.2 Analysing focus group data
We employ qualitative content analysis on this text material (Schreier 2012). Starting from a few
broad codes like German Identity, Dual Identity as a Aussiedler, Political Issues, References to Other
Migration Groups, we inductively developed a catalogue of other codes from the material. We were
guided therein by our questions and our theoretical framework. Once we noticed a certain level of
saturation, we stopped developing further codes and consolidated a codebook of 28 codes. We
trained two research assistants who then applied the coding scheme on the full set of material. The
scheme can be found in the appendix. Once the coding was reliably finished, we conducted the
code-based analysis. After each focus group, we conducted an immediate analysis in order to learn
from the data for the collection of new data in the next focus groups.
13
This code-base analysis required us to carefully read through the codings of a code in the inner
context (the immediate episode of the discussion) to see whether there were any other structuring
elements that needed the expansion or adaptation of the code scheme and to concentrate on the
essence of the groups discussion that we will present in the empirical section.
5 Empirical analysis
5.1 Identification as an Aussiedler and as a German
When asked as what they describe themselves in the closed questionnaire before the discussion,
about 63 % of our participants indicated, that they feel as Germans contrary to 45 % that identify
as Aussiedler and 22 % that identify as Russians/Ukrainians/Kazakhs etc. (multiple responses were
possible). However, the proportions differ rather highly between the older and the younger groups
for identifying as German; of the older participants, all describe themselves as German compared
to 43 % for the younger participants. Thus, the evidence for these 22 individuals reflects the notions
consistent with cohort differences. The older the birth cohort, the higher the meaning of German
as a concept of identity.
For the identification as Aussiedler, no substantial difference between age groups were discovered
(50 to 43 %). In addition, participants were asked two questions on dimensions of their
identification with Germany, “I feel as a part of Germany” and “I am glad to belong to Germany”
to measure their level of identification on five-point rating scales, ranging from 1 “totally agree” to
5 ”totally disagree”. Here we could see interesting differences between the age groups. All the older
participants indicated for both questions “totally agree”, whereas the younger group has a somehow
lesser level of identification.
In the group discussions, in all groups, specific parts of the Aussiedler history were mentioned as
formative for an Aussiedler identity, the offer of Katharina II to come to Russia, how they founded
their own cities, how they continued speaking German within their community, the Russification
after World War II, and the transmission within the family that Germany is the Heimat. Recall that
none of our participants still belonged to those Aussiedler who had experienced the old days of
compact settlements intact until the 1920s. Still, these focus group participants revealed their
construction of a shared history that they had learnt themselves rather than directly experienced.
Concerning a specific Aussiedler lifestyle or values and believes, participants mentioned language.
With other Aussiedler they often change frequently between Russian and German or use certain
phrases that exist in Russian but cannot be properly translated into German. One participant (IV.3,
Woman, 20-24 years) described her own inaptitude to express certain jokes, images and puns in
14
German despite her fluency. As most Aussiedler in Germany were socialized in the Soviet Union or
its successor states, participants mentioned that other values dominated in their education,
compared to native Germans, e.g., especially older Aussiedler were raised in a patriotic way […]” (I.1,
Woman, 45-49 years), and many Aussiedler still live the values from over there [Russia](I.3, Woman,
30-34 years). In addition, this leads to cultural differences between family values of Aussiedler and
Germans that native Germans may not understand instantly:
[Es gibt] kulturelle[n] Unterschied zwischen Deutschen und Russlanddeutschen. Also ich hab zum
Beispiel, wenn ich mit Freunden, mit russlanddeutschen Freunden rede über irgendwelche Sachen, die in der
Familie passieren, die wissen, was ich meine. Das sind dieselben Sachen.
[There are] cultural differences between Germans and Russlanddeutsche. I have, for example, when I talk
with friends, with russlanddeutsche friends about some things that happen in the family, they know what I
mean. These are the same things.“ (I.3, Woman, 30-34 years)
Other participants mentioned that it is especially important to their parents to live in a German
way, e.g. [my mother] lives in a very German way and does not like it, if you behave otherwise or do not want to
assimilate (II.2, Woman, 25-29 years).
What seems crucial for the Aussiedler identity, is the way they were perceived in the country-of-
origin and in Germany, which was mentioned in all groups, regardless of age. Back in the country-
of-origin, they were always referred to as Germans by the native population, but later in Germany
they were/are called Russians, irrespective if they actually lived in Russia or another country of the
former Soviet Union. This is probably due to the fact that most had at least a slight accent, even
the children in the beginning, and were often distinguished as foreign-born because of that: in
Russia, we were called Germans […] And here we are seen as Russians” (III.2, Woman, 60-64 years), In
elementary school I was… was always the Russian. Back in Kazakhstan we were always the Germans(I.3,
Woman, 30-34 years). However, their own perception as Germans was not always met by the native
German population were they were often seen as „not real Germans“/ as „German Germans“,
e.g. And then you come to Germany, where you think, yes, now I am a German and then they say that you are a
foreigner(IV.1, Woman, 25-29 years). In addition, the older participants mentioned how negative
they were perceived as Germans in the Soviet Union, sometimes called Fascists, which might
explain they high shares of them identifying as Germans because they spent most of there earlier
years in the Soviet Union: “This is the reason why another German might not understand us. Because a German
in Russia was always in the subconscious of a Russian a negative example. A negative subject. (III.3, Man, 65-
69 years)
This unique situation, where people were perceived both in the country-of-origin and in the host
country as different from the general population might explain the formation of an Aussiedler
identification:
15
Weil wir als Russlanddeutsche sind ja etwas Drittes. Wir sind weder der Deutsche im Sinne des
einheimischen Deutschen, der hier geboren und aufgewachsen ist seit Generationen. Weder sind wir Russen.
Die zwar dort geboren sind, aber nie die Mentalität voll besaßen und besitzen. Wir sind etwas Drittes.
Dazwischen liegendes. Wir sind eine Symbiose zweier Kulturen.“
Because we as Russlanddeutsche are something third. We are neither Germans in the sense of the native
German that was born here and raised since generations. Neither we are Russians. That were born there, but
never fully had the mentality and have it. We are something third. Something between. We are a symbiosis of
two cultures. (III.3, Man, 65-69 years)
So we can still see that identification as an Aussiedler prevails in our groups, and is traced back to
their shared history and values, regardless of age for Aussiedler of the first migrant generation.
Participants also feel as Germans. However, due to the experiences in the country-of-origin, this is
stronger for the older generation. There are thus traces of the necessary condition of cohort
differences in our group that can explain a long-term trend in the change in identity.
5.2 The link between CDU/CSU and Aussiedler
Previous studies showed a high share of CDU/CSU partisans/vote choice for the CDU/CSU in
the Aussiedler group. Indeed, when asked to recall their voting decision in 2013, 3 out of 9 (that
voted/were allowed to vote back then) of the younger but 5 out of 6 of the older group reported
voting for the CDU/CSU. All of the older but only 5 out of 16 younger participants stated feeling
close to the CDU/CSU nowadays. This lines up with reports on the declining party identification
for the CDU/CSU in the Aussiedler group from representative date from 2016 (Litta and Wittlif
2017). Thus again, the evidence among our participants is consistent with a cohort difference in
the attachment with the CDU/CSU.
We suspected that the linkage between the Christian Democrats and the Aussiedler group might by
founded on a general feeling of gratefulness for the chance to immigrate to Germany. Indeed, when
we talked about the close link between the CDU/CSU and the Aussiedler, participants of the older
focus group (FG 3) mentioned being grateful for the CDU/CSU and Helmut Kohl in particular
who are seen as responsible that the Aussiedler were able to re-immigrate to Germany:
Ich denke, die Russlanddeutschen, warum sie für die CDU/CSU sind, weil es war auch der Helmut Kohl
an der Spitze, an der Macht, als die Russlanddeutschen diese die Grenze wurde dann aufgemacht. Dann
konnten die Russlanddeutschen nach Deutschland kommen. Und das zählt.“
“I think, the Russlanddeutsche, why they are for the CDU/CSU, because it was also Helmut Kohl at the
top, at the power, when the Russlanddeutsche, the border was opened. And then the Russlanddeutsche could
come to Germany. And that counts. (III.3, Man, 65-69 years)
When we talked to the younger groups, these participants could also corroborate such reasons of
gratefulness for their parents and older relations, e.g., my great-aunt once said, Kohl, he brought us to
Germany“, “have not experienced that myself, but we have relatives [….], they have a sense of gratefulness” (IV.1,
Woman, 25-29 years), This saying is always there in some sort of sense(IV.3, Woman, 20-24 years). They
16
also assume that this founding moment for the relationship between the CDU/CSU and the
Aussiedler might also be traced back to chance and if another party would have been governing
Germany by that time, Aussiedler might be feeling close to this party nowadays:
fortunately [that the re-immigration process was triggered at the time of their governing coalition] for the
CDU/CSU. But I mean, the programme could have been from the SPD or the Greens or from
Liliac/Purple. And then you would probably feel connected to this party.
also zum Glück für die CDU/CSU. Aber ich meine, das Programm hätte auch von der SPD oder von
den Grünen oder von Lila, Purple irgendwas sein können. Und man wäre wahrscheinlich vielleicht auch
denen verbunden. “ (IV.2, Woman, 25-29 years)
They also declined these feelings for themselves: Therefore I am really glad that I am here. But I am not
of the opinion that I have to be grateful towards the CDU” (IV.3, Woman, 20-24 years).
So a feeling of gratefulness might be specific for Aussiedler that experienced the re-immigration
process themselves at a conscious age. From this evidence, we would expect that younger cohorts
refer less to this gratefulness of policy decisions now 20 to 30 years in the past. But the Christian-
Democrats still seem to have quite a stronghold among those who were born earlier.
5.3 Political Issues: Aussiedler and the Refugee Crisis
When asked for the most important problem facing Germany today, the three most cited topics
were immigration (9), right populism (5) and foreign politics towards Russia (3). So we see that
immigration politics and how the German government deals with the rising number of refugees is
a very important topic for our participants in general. Whereas we can expect the majority
population to name similar topics like the first two, the relationship towards Russia is likely to be
more specific to this group. This interest in German policies towards Russia and vice versa seems
to run from part of their families still living in Russia and other Soviet successor states. The interest
in Russia dominates the interest in any other Post Soviet-state. This means that even those with
roots in Kazakhstan hardly had an interest in Kazakh politics.
Several participants mentioned not being sure whether the CDU/CSU was their party anymore,
tracing this back to Merkel’s policy decisions in 2015 when she agreed on grating refugees entry to
Germany even though this violated the legal regulation that requests for asylum can only be made
by entrants from other than secure states, i.e. a refugee has to travel to Germany by plane: Only
that what happened in 2015, has shaken my security, my personal believe into politics, Merkel especially” (III.3,
Man, 65-69 years). This leads to a feeling of unsureness if the CDU/CSU is still the right party to
vote for in the German federal election 2017: But until today, I have voted CDU. This year, I do not
know whom to vote for. And if to vote at all or not. I am not sure (III.6, Woman, 70-74 years), “[…] I was
for the CDU. Have voted for it. […] But… but there are so many buts“ (IV.5, Woman, 25-29 years).
17
When comparing their migrations process to Germany back then to the actual wave of refugee,
participants referred to differences and sometimes mentioned that these differences are judged as
unfair by some while they had to wait for several years: We had huge problems entering the country. And
other people have it really easy. They are simply waved through (III.3, Man, 65-69 years). Furthermore, their
job/training qualifications and university degrees were often not official acknowledged, and some
participants had to work in lower-level jobs because of this, whereas the situation of the
acknowledgment process of degrees has become much more standardized and easier nowadays.
As mentioned before, most of our participants see themselves as Germans or Aussiedler. They also
provided several reasons why they differ from other migrants or the new wave of refugees. First,
they referred to the fact that they integrated much easier into German society, due to the facts that
they are mostly Christians (but still, we are Christians, and for sure we are closer to Germans”, IV.5,
Woman, 25-29 years), their mentality is closer to the native German population and that they
cannot be told apart physically from other Germans (I.3, Woman, 30-34 years). They also protest
to being called refugees as well. To contrast themselves to the refugees nowadays, they often prefer
to relate to their roots, that they were invited back to Germany, they have German ancestry and
therefore much more legitimate reasons for being here (somehow a legitimate reason, why you come from
abroad to Germany”, II.1, Man, 35-39 years). Furthermore, because of their German roots, they had
a specific, culturally-based reason to come to Germany contrary to refugees without these roots.
5.4 The Alternative für Deutschland as an alternative for Aussiedler voters
With the refugee situation in 2015-2016 and the growing disenchantment with the governing
CDU/CSU, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) became more and more popular in German
politics. The AfD was founded in 2013. In July 2017, it held seats in 13 of the 16 German state
parliaments. It has a primary position to attract disappointed CDU/CSU voters, especially
Russlanddeutsche, as it heavily targets the Aussiedler group. This appeal may be differentiated into
three important aspects: language/identity, policy positions, and political representation. First, its
election programmes were translated into Russian (and Polish), e.g. at the Berlin state election, to
accommodate Aussiedler. However, translating its programme into Turkish or Arabic was declined
by the party, as these migrants are not deemed a target group and are supposed to integrate
themselves and learn the German language (Schmidt 2016). Second, the AfD catered to the policy
positions of many Aussiedler. It answers to the wish of many Aussiedler voters for an improvement
of the Russian-German relationship: It wanted to end sanctions against Russia and explicitly stated
its interest to foster a good relationship with Russia and closer economic cooperation, contrary to
its stance towards Turkey deemed not to be belonging to Europe. It also has a clear-cut stance on
immigration politics that contrasts Merkel’s policy in 2015: The AfD proposes stronger border
18
controls, the abolishment of family unification for refugees already living in Germany, and wants
to change the citizenship law back from Jus solis to Jus sanguinis. Furthermore, it supports
traditional cultural values concerning family politics (Alternative für Deutschland 2017).
Figure 3: Election poster "Russlanddeutsche vote for the AfD", North Rhine-Westphalia 2017
Source: AfD NRW, 2017 regional election campaign.
Third, the AfD embraces Aussiedler by having an own network for “Russlanddeutsche in der AfD”
with several state branches as well as Russlanddeutsche candidates running for office such as Eugen
Schmidt on the North Rhine-Westphalian state list for the German federal elections. It also targets
Aussiedler specific with election posters (see Figure 3) that use its Russlanddeutsche candidate to draw
them towards voting the party.
Because our group discussions were held in German which already required a high level of German
proficiency, Russian language election programmes were not seen by the participants as helpful for
themselves. However, when they referred to other relatives, they think that this might be helpful
for some Aussiedler (“But this is a language, that the party offers, which is understood to 100 percent by them,
and they can talk about the contents with their people in their environment“, IV.3, Woman, 20-24 years). In
addition, this might also lead to a sense of feeling appreciated for some: [a] rather important point,
that you feel valued and regarded by a party (II.3, Man, 20-24 years). The AfD’s open nationalistic
position also appeals to Aussiedler, because (a) they were often educated in a patriotic way (I.1,
Woman, 45-49 years) and (b) were used to stick up for the German identity (III.3, Man, 65-69
years).
Disappointment with Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis was often voiced by CDU/CSU and
other voters, not only of Aussiedler descent. In general, participants named the immigration politics
of the CDU/CSU as something that lead a lot of voters towards the AfD (I.1, Woman, 45-49
years), because it was the only party for a long time that opted for another handling of the situation
19
(I.3, Woman, 30-34 years). Some reported that Merkel’s actions at the peak times of the refugee
crisis had shaken their sense of trust in the CDU/CSU’s politics (III.3, Man, 65-69 years).
Furthermore, a sense of envy was reported for Aussiedler that voiced concerns that refugees get so
many resources on arrival whereupon they were treated differently when they arrived in Germany
(II.4, Man, 20-24 years).
The AfD’s position towards an improvement of the relationship with Russia and an end of the
sanctions against it seem also to be noticed by Aussiedler, which is seen as a unique position within
the Germany party system at the moment (IV.3, Woman, 20-24 years).
However, the importance of Aussiedler candidates varied between age groups. The younger groups
did agree that they would not vote for a party simply because its candidates have the same migration
background, but guessed this might be something more relevant for the older generation (IV.4,
Man, 25-29 years). Participants in the older group mentioned indeed that there is only one
Russlanddeutsche member of parliament at the moment, compared to politicians from other migrant
groups (III.2, Woman, 60-64 years), and this is something they would like to see changed, even
though they would not vote for someone simply because he/she is an Aussiedler.
So especially the appeal based on language/identity but foremost by policy positions might draw
the Aussiedler towards the AfD. Political representation might also be important but its meaning
seems to vary between the age groups.
6 Conclusions
This paper presents the first evidence from the 2017 Immigrant German Election Study. It puts
forward a qualitative content analysis of four focus groups that were carried out in the first half of
2017 with Aussiedler, ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union or its successor states. The exploratory
analysis focusses on identities, political issues and the relationships of this group to parties of the
right. The evidence portrays a group that arguable is very different depending on cohort
membership (and the age at which individuals having migrated playing a vital role). First generation
migrants, regardless of cohorts, still heavily identify as Russlanddeutsche. However, gratefulness as a
found moment of the close connection to the CDU/CSU is much stronger for migrants that were
socialised back in the Soviet Union.
The focus group participants reported numerous ways of constructing an ethnic German identity
within the families. This makes their ethnicity a strong factor in their relationship to politics and
affects the ways in which the refugees and policies thereto are perceived within the group.
Foremost, the CDU/CSU’s unpredictable stance on immigration politics, that is even more
important for Russlandeutsche voters than other Germans, is decreasing the decade-long connection.
20
AfD seems to be best alternative, policy position-wise (specific focus on Russia), identitarian
(acknowledges that Aussiedler are German/target group but caters to language needs) and offers
political representation.
The exploratory evidence suggests that identities can be an important driver of party allegiances.
The typical leftist stance of many immigrant voter groups does not characterise the Russlanddeutsche.
Rather, their allegiances to the party that was in power during their migration to Germany and that
supported that group most clearly out of the establishment gained much of the stable partisanship
for about two decades. The decline of this allegiance is certainly driven by the current high salience
of another immigrant group in German politics, namely refugees, and as such, it is unclear how
enduring this turn away from the Christian-democrats is. Thus, political xenophobia among
immigrants can be an important factor in the formation of their party allegiance.
By implication, this means that political preference formation among immigrant voters can be
affected both by the politics and policies of their own arrival, but also of the politics and policies
of the arrival of other immigrant groups. A political decision that may be considered good to attract
the voters of one migrant group may thus have the adversarial affect for the votes of another
immigrant group.
21
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