Defenders vs. explorers: Germany ‘divided into two bitterly opposed ideological camps’

A third of Germany society now belongs to two hardened camps, a new study has found. One the one side are the "aggressive" defenders who believe in ethno-nationalism, on the other side the "arrogant" explorers, who are pushing for an end to the ethnic state.

Defenders vs. explorers: Germany 'divided into two bitterly opposed ideological camps'
Opposing demonstrations for/against lockdowns in Heilbronn. Credit: Christoph Schmidt/dpa

The study by the University of Münster took a scientific look at a phenomenon that many people have become aware of in recent years due to increasingly aggressive demonstrations against migration policy, lockdowns and other touch-stone issues.

“Who belongs to our country, who threatens whom, who is disadvantaged? It’s amazing how far apart the positions are across quite a few conflict issues,” co-author Mitja Back told DPA.

Based on a survey of 1,400 Germans, Back and his colleagues found that 20 percent of the population fell into the camp of ‘defenders’, while 14 percent belong to the opposing camp of ‘explorers’. In between are two groups who hold more diverse “centrist positions.”

What defines the two camps?

‘Defenders’ tend to believe that German identity is formed by birth, having German ancestors, having spent most of one’s life in Germany, and having Christian roots.

At the same time, roughly half of this group feel threatened by “foreigners” – i.e. Muslims or refugees – and see themselves as culturally disadvantaged. Only a small proportion of ‘defenders’ are satisfied with democracy; few of them trust the government and parliament.


According to the survey, every fourth person in this group has a low social status; better educated people are less represented than in the “explorers” group.

Among the explorers, the researchers identified only a minority who supported a narrow concept of belonging based on ethno-religious criteria.

No one felt threatened to any great extent by Muslims and refugees. Instead, they saw immigration and diversity as opportunities. The majority of explorers were satisfied with democracy and had a high level of trust in political institutions.

Explorers are comparatively well educated and tend not to be affected by material hardship.

The population survey was also conducted in France, Sweden and Poland. According to the authors, the conclusions for Germany can also be applied fairly broadly to France and Sweden.

All in all, around 5,000 people were surveyed by the market research company Kantar at the end of 2020.

Aggressive vs. arrogant

The study can also be read as a warning to politicians about the threat of further polarization.

It found that ‘defenders’ are increasingly transforming their need for security into an aggressive attitude toward strangers and foreigners – and towards members of the explorer group.

Meanwhile, explorers are pushing ever more vehemently for social change “according to their own ideas of maximum openness and diversity.”

The study identified “an increasingly irritable and arrogant attitude,” among explorers which “provokes the other side all the more.”

Among all four groups that were identified in Germany, strong support for the right-wing populist AfD was only found in the ‘defender’ category. People belonging to this camp also had a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories and were attracted to the idea of a “strong leader.”

“This identity conflict will not resolve itself,” Back warned. He added that the ongoing changes brought about by globalization had the potential to further radicalize the debate.

“Politicians should not take sides, but rather break down both demands to their core,” he said. “Compromises are needed on legitimate needs such as stability and security on the one hand, and openness and change on the other.”

IN NUMBERS: A breakdown of Germany’s Muslim population

Member comments

  1. This is a struggle playing out all over Europe at the moment. I fear that there is no desire from either side for compromise and therefore, the outcome will be victors and vanquished.

    The explorers have big tech, the media and the state behind them in most of Europe so logic suggests they should come out on top.

    However, history suggests otherwise…..

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How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

While far-right groups have been celebrating, other politicians in Germany see the results as worrying. Here's a look at the reaction.

How Germany is reacting to far-right election victory in Italy

According to initial projections following Italy’s election on Sunday, the coalition led by Georgia Meloni and her radical right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party has won a majority of seats in the two chambers of the Italian parliament and will lead the next government. 

Meloni is a euro-sceptic who has previously spoken about having an “aversion” to Germany and referred to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as “socialist” while on the campaign trail.

However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s deputy spokesman Wolfgang Buechner told reporters on Monday: “We of course have to wait for the official final result from this election but at this time what the chancellor would say is that Italy is a very Europe-friendly country with very Europe-friendly citizens and we assume that won’t change.” 

READ ALSO: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A Finance Ministry spokesperson added that Berlin expected the new Italian government to continue to respect the stability pact that sets the fiscal rules for the eurozone.

Despite these reassurances from the central government, German politicians in the EU parliament have expressed concern about the new direction for Italy.  

Rasmus Andresen, spokesman for the German Greens in the EU Parliament, said the “unprecedented Italian slide to the right” will have massive repercussions for Europe and for the European Union.

“Italy, as a founding member and the third strongest economy in the EU, is heading for an anti-democratic and anti-European government.”

Though Meloni no longer wants Italy to leave the eurozone, she has said that Rome must assert its interests more and has policies that look set to challenge Brussels on everything from public spending rules to mass migration.

The Greens’ co-leader in Brussels, Thomas Waitz, told Die Welt that the EU can only function if it sticks together, for example on cooperation in energy markets, decisions on Russian sanctions or dealing with the Covid crisis. “Meloni, on the other hand, would back national go-it-alones. It can be a disaster for Europe,”  he said. 

READ ALSO: Euro falls to 20-year low against US dollar

The FDP’s expert on Europe, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, takes a similar view. He said on ARD’s Morgenmagazin that cooperation with Italy in the European Union will become more difficult. He said that it will now be much more difficult to achieve unity in Europe, especially on the issues of migration, reform of the Stability and Growth Pact and the single market.

Speaking on RTL, Green Party leader Omid Nouripour called the election results in Italy “worrying” and pointed out that people within the Italian right-wing nationalist alliance have “very close entanglements with the Kremlin”.

“We can’t rule out the possibility that people in Moscow also popped the corks last night,” he said.

Germany’s own far-right party – Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – has been celebrating the victory. 

AfD member of the Bundestag Beatrix von Storch wrote “We cheer with Italy!” on Twitter late Sunday evening.

Referring to the recent elections in Sweden, where the right was also successful, von Storch wrote: “Sweden in the north, Italy in the south: left-wing governments are so yesterday.”

Her party colleague Malte Kaufmann tweeted, “A good day for Italy – a good day for Europe.”

With reporting from AFP