BY SHASHI MALLA
The eastern German city of Chemnitz – renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt during the Communist regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR/under the tutelage of the Soviet Union)—has been the site of far-right protests and clashing counter-demonstrations since weeks. A week back, the gatherings were mostly peaceful but the atmosphere was tense. It was a mirror representation of two Germany’s – one (the overwhelming majority) embracing multi-culturism. The other, a minority one had been incensed by the migration policy under Chancellor Angela Merkel (of the ruling Christian Democratic Union [CDU]), especially her 2015 decision to welcome 1 million (mostly Syrian) refugees from the civil wars in the Middle East – a decision perceived as highly misguided, inopportune and untimely even according to moderate Germans.
Earlier in the week, the violent death of a 35-year-old German-Cuban, Daniel H., allegedly at the hands of Iraqi- and Syrian-born men (both of whom are now in custody), was manipulated as a rallying cry by far-right extremists. Rumors spiraled in the social media around his death and incited anger from many right-wing supporters. However, the authorities quickly quashed the misconception. According to Michael Kretschhmer (CDU), the Minister-President (governor) of Saxony: “The mobilization [by the right-wing extremists] was based on anti-foreigner comment, false information and conspiracy theories.” The state of Saxony (one of 16 states in the Federal Republic, one of the 5 ‘states’ of the former GDR), where Chemnitz is located, is a stronghold for the ant-Islam far-right party, the “Alternative for Germany” [Deutschland], and has long struggled with neo-Nazi bellicosity.
Last week, right-wing extremists and thugs took to the streets, harassing those who looked foreign and shouted xenophobic insults. The violence reached a pinnacle when 6,000 right-wing protesters mobilized in the streets, facing off against 1,500 counter-demonstrators and overpowering the outnumbered police forces. Authorities have since opened at least 10 cases against extremists who were seen making Hitler salutes. The salutes as well as swastikas [adopted by Adolf Hitler as a symbol for the pure Aryan, and emblem for the Nazi party/an ancient Hindu symbol and that representing the Goddess Saraswati] and other Nazi insignias – are illegal in Germany, a country that has – successfully – shaken off its cataclysmic Nazi past. However, Merkel’s 2015 immigration policy has emboldened Nazi sympathizers to come out into the open.
Right-wing protests and anti-demonstrations have continued unabated. Police forces had come under criticism for not responding with enough officers, even prompting some suspicions of collusion with right-wing agitators. Some of these held German flags and chanted: “We are the people” and “Merkl has to go.” Demonstrations were now being jointly organized by the far-right party “Alternative fuer Deutschland” (AfD), the main opposition party in the Bundestag (German federal parliament), alongside the anti-Islam xenophobic citizen’s organization “PEGIDA” and members of the “Pro Chemnitz” nationalist citizens’ movement.
The violence in Chemnitz has challenged the perception of modern-day Germany as a country welcoming of foreigners. Merkel’s spokesperson promptly condemned the brutality: “What was seen yesterday in parts of Chemnitz and what was recorded on video has no place in our country.” He continued: “People ganging up, chasing people who look different from them or who come from elsewhere…is something we won’t tolerate.” The fact is, nowhere else in Germany is the AfD so popular as it is in Saxony. A quarter of the state’s voters chose the party in last September’s federal elections.
Chemnitz has not seen anything like this — and to a great extent, neither has post World War II Germany. The rampage is the pinnacle in the outflow of anti-immigrant hatred that has expanded as Germany has struggled to absorb the1 million asylum seekers allowed to enter in 2015. Critics have pointed out that Merkel’s government has lost direction of the state of affairs and in addition is struggling to cope with the rising anti-immigrant backlash. Neo-Nazis are getting better organized, more powerful and audacious. With regard to this developing assertiveness of the far right, “Chemnitz has become a test of state authority. Some say it has even become a test of Germany’s postwar democracy” (NYT).
According to Ms. Barbara Ludwig, the mayor of Chemnitz, a Social Democrat SPD): “They are challenging our democratic state in a way they have not done before . . . . We must pass this test”. Leaders of the far right, on the other hand, claim that the events of the last few weeks are a turning point in Germany’s current history, the beginning of both resistance and resurgence, i.e. “A pivotal moment they want to use to change the direction of Germany” (NYT). They want nothing less than to topple a ‘failed system’.
Ironically, the huge bronze head of Karl Marx in the city centre was once the meeting point for demonstrations demanding the end of Communism in the GDR. Now, the far-right supporters assemble here in their onslaught on liberal democracy. The neo-Nazis have long
demonstrated in Chemnitz, as on March 5 each year to mourn the Allied bombing in 1945 which devastated the city. “But they were always in the hundreds and the counter-demonstration was always bigger,” Mayor Ludwig said. Now they demonstrate in the thousands.
Even experts have been astonished by the coming together of far-right extremists and AfD voters, since the latter organization — in order to maintain a veneer of respectability — normally keeps distance from such extreme groups. However, after garnering 27 percent of the votes in Saxony, the AfD feels upbeat and has started to channel the fears and discontent of disgruntled voters and, often using the internet, mobilize crowds to an extent that would not have been possible previously.
The symbiotic relationship between neo-Nazis and the “Alternative fuer Deutschland” has been studied by Matthias Quent who said: “We have a strong neo-Nazi scene in eastern Germany, but we also have a strong current of far-right extremism in all of Germany – not just in Parliament but in society.” It seems that the authorities and liberal society in general underestimated the possibility of mass mobilization of an extremist fringe – leading to substantial gains for them. People are wondering as to what has happened in eastern Germany, in Saxony, in the 29 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall (Der Spiegel).
A test of which way the wind blows will happen this month with the state elections in the neighboring state of Bavaria. Here Merkel’s sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) had reigned supreme until being challenged by the AfD in the last federal parliamentary elections. Since then, the CSU itself has veered sharply to the right and been something of a troublemaker for the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the centre. It remains to be seen whether this tactic has paid off.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]