East Germany's troubled past makes the region more susceptible to Nazi rhetoric
German far-right holds country in headlock as violence expected to resume
Police in Chemnitz are bracing for more violence as thousands of people are expected to descend on the city on Monday for a rock concert organised by anti-racism activists in response to the worst far-right riots Germany has seen in a generation.
Muslim asylum-seekers have said they are too scared to go out after a mob chased migrants through the streets last week in an outburst of anger following the fatal stabbing of Daniel Hillig, a German man of Cuban descent. An Iraqi and a Syrian have been charged with manslaughter in the killing.
One eastern German mayor warned that “pogrom sentiment” was sweeping the country after a Syrian man was whipped with an iron chain in the northeastern town of Wismar last week.
On Saturday in Chemnitz, a 20-year-old Afghan man was attacked and beaten by four masked men as some 11,000 people marched in the fourth demonstration the city has seen in a week.
Police said 19 people including three police officers were hurt during protests on Saturday attended by 8,000 far-right supporters and 3,000 anti-fascist protesters who joined a rally dubbed “Heart instead of Hate.”
Demonstrators chanted “Germany for the Germans — foreigners out.” Several journalists were also attacked.
Police, who had been criticised for failing to contain the rioting last week summoned reinforcements from across the country. Some 2,000 officers were deployed and water cannon, armoured cars and police on horseback were on standby.
Analysts see Chemnitz as a beacon for neo-Nazis and warn that if they cannot be controlled there, the rioting could spread across the country.
Far-right groups have seized on the killing of Hillig to mobilise support against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy under which some 1.3 million asylum-seekers, including hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have entered the country since July 2015.
New arrivals have slowed sharply to levels last seen before the 2015 migrant crisis - 13,000 came in July this year, 21,384 less than in July 2015.
But the slow rate of deportations of people whose asylum requests have been rejected is a simmering source of public anger that erupts whenever a crime is committed by a migrant.
The prime suspect in the killing of Hillig was due to be deported to Bulgaria in 2016 but authorities never carried out the order. It is unclear why the deportation order was not implemented.
Ordinary people who joined the far-right protests have been condemned for not distancing themselves from neo-Nazis. But many in the city are frustrated at being labelled as far right for opposing Ms Merkel’s migrant policy.
“Islam will take over our churches one day because there won’t be any Christians left here,” said one elderly woman watching Saturday’s demonstration.
The images of protesters doing the Hitler salute, chasing migrants and hurling bottles and fireworks have gone around the world and are likely to haunt Ms Merkel for the rest of her term.
Growing support for the far-right brought her government close to collapse in July when Bavarian allies in her coalition, alarmed at the prospect of steep losses in a regional election in September, rebelled against her migrant policy and forced her to make some concessions.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned on Sunday that Germany was under particular scrutiny because of its history. “If the Hitler salute is shown again on our streets it is a disgrace for our country,” he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
The Social Democrat said his generation had been gifted freedom and democracy and had become complacent about it. “We mustn’t look away. We must show our face against neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Only if we do that will we prevent xenophobic crimes from doing lasting damage to Germany’s reputation.”
Immigrants in Chemnitz told The National they often receive hostile remarks and angry looks, particularly from older people. But the hostility had worsened sharply over the last week.
“I’m scared. I’m a man so I’m ashamed to say that,“ said Milad, 20, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan. “I get people shouting ‘Get out’ and ‘What are you doing here?’ A lot of my friends have left the city. Around here foreigners are blamed for everything.“
Andre Löscher, who provides counselling to people who have suffered racist violence in Chemnitz, said there had been 20 documented xenophobic attacks on migrants in the city last year, down from 31 in 2016.
“Two migrants who were chased through the streets last week came to us and said other migrants were scared and avoiding the city centre,” he said. “With the chants and the banners being shown and the Hitler salutes, the protests have had nothing to do with mourning,“ said Mr Löscher. “Ordinary people who are ready to march along with that become a part of it.“
Steep electoral gains for the far-right Alternative for Germany, which is now the third-largest party in the German parliament and has tried to capitalise on Hillig’s murder by joining the Chemnitz protests, show the country is shifting towards the right.
But neo-Nazi violence has been a particular problem in eastern Germany, and in particular in Saxony, of which Chemnitz is the third-largest city, ever since unification in 1990.
Analysts say the region is more susceptible to Nazi rhetoric because it is not accustomed to immigration and suffered social upheaval after communism. In addition, unlike West Germany, East German society did not imbue people with a sense of national responsibility for the Holocaust. The crimes of the Nazis, people were taught, were committed by fascists and had nothing to do with them.
“The West has more than 60 years of experience with democracy and with fighting right-wing extremist parties. In the east there is also far less experience with foreigners,” said Bernhard Vogel, who was governor of the eastern state of Thuringia from 1992 until 2003.
The proportion of foreigners in Saxony stands at 4.2 per cent, well below the national average, yet xenophobic attacks there and in the four other eastern states are the highest in the country on a per capita basis.
To make matters worse, long-held suspicions that some police and justice officials in Saxony sympathise with the far right were confirmed last week when an arrest warrant in the Daniel Hillig case was leaked to far-right groups by a prison officer.
The confidential warrant gave the full name and address of the main suspect, said he had a criminal record and that the victim had been stabbed five times in the chest — grist to the mill of the Alternative for Germany, which rails against “knife migration.”
Chemnitz carries big scars from its history. Eighty per cent of the centre was wiped out by allied bombing raids in the Second World War and communist reconstruction left it with drab blocks and broad streets and a wealth of Cold War-era monuments including a giant bust of a scowling Karl Marx.
The town, once one of Germany’s most important industrial cities, was so crowded with chimney stacks in the 19th century that it was dubbed the Saxon Manchester. It became a socialist model city and the communist authorities changed its name to Karl Marx Stadt in 1953. It was renamed Chemnitz in 1990.
Its unemployment rate at 7.3 per cent is above the 5.2 per cent national average, but manageable, and it is home to 3,000 companies including a Volkswagen factory.
Still, some older people appear to hanker after the old days when the city was only white.
“This wouldn’t have happened in the German Democratic Republic,“ said one demonstrator, complaining about the number of non-whites in the city.
The governments that followed the dissolution of the GDR have largely ignored the problem of racism and far-right violence in the east.
Ms Merkel hasn’t visited Chemnitz since the riots erupted — possibly because she knows that if she did, she would be booed out of town.
Today, calls are growing for the German chancellor to tackle the problem before it spirals out of control, and engulfs the rest of the country.