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Germany

Let them eat cake: 'Refugees Welcome' party in Heidenau

The party took place in Heidenau after all, despite a police ban that was lifted following a political outcry. As Ben Knight reports, the event was largely peaceful, as refugees gathered a truck full of donated clothes.

Few disused hardware stores in neglected eastern German towns have received this much attention from major politicians in recent years. The Praktiker store in Heidenau, closed two years ago and hastily converted into a makeshift refugee shelter last week, has now hosted three major political leaders in the space of a week.

But the last of these visits, on Friday by Green party leader Cem Özdemir, was initially undertaken in a more troublemaking spirit than the first two. Both Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel's visit on Monday and Chancellor Angela Merkel's on Wednesday were standard displays of political defiance against the far-right violence that made Heidenau the most infamous town in Germany last weekend.

But Özdemir was here to a defy a ban, imposed by regional Saxony authorities on the grounds that "the available police resources are not capable of getting the measure of predicted developments in the situation."

In the event, Saxony police were spared the embarrassment of handcuffing a party leader, as an expedited court order ruled the ban unlawful, allowing a planned "welcome party" to show support for the refugees to go ahead.

Özdemir milder, with cake

Özdemir arrived, bearing cherry cake, and told reporters, "When I got on the train they said the party couldn't take place, and by the time I got off, they said it could." He also struck a much more conciliatory note than during his outraged appearance on the TV news show "Morgenmagazin," when he accused the Saxony state government of "suspending democracy."

"I'm pleased that the administrative court shares my opinion, and I think the opinion of everyone here, that there can't be a state of emergency, if only because one can call for help from neighboring states," he told reporters in Heidenau. "When there's a G7 summit, when there's a football game, [the police] can call for help from other states, why can't they do it when neo-Nazis and fascists threaten people?"

Özdemir got a much friendlier reception from volunteers than Markus Ulbig, Saxony's Christian Democrat interior minister, who had to be carefully shielded by security guards. Ulbig, who has been blamed for the failure to prepare for last weekend's violence and for condoning the police ban, was jeered as he tried to deliver statements to the press. "Get out! You weren't invited!" demonstrators chanted. "You could've come last Sunday."

"All I can say is that it is good that this party is taking place here today," Ulbig managed to tell reporters, before virtually being driven from the grounds by angry leftists.

With no sign of neo-Nazis throughout the afternoon, except for an isolated cluster of men who shouted abuse at passing anti-fascists from behind a bush across the road, this was as close as the party came to spilling over into violence. The police also kept their distance, though many were dressed in riot gear, while other units had been positioned around the town and at the train station.

Donations and local pride

In the event, the politicians' visits were largely overshadowed by the "Refugees Welcome" party itself - which came complete with barbecue, salad, fruit, Özdemir's cake, "anti-fascists" who juggled, span plates, and sang left-wing anthems, and a bouncy castle. There was also a truck full of donated clothes, toys, shampoo, and toothpaste, much of which was desperately needed in the shelter, which, the refugees said, had only the most basic hygiene facilities.

A few Heidenauers appeared at the party too, as much to defend the honor of their home town as to bring donations. "I was ashamed on Wednesday, when the chancellor came and they shouted 'traitor' at her," one old man told DW. "I was a refugee myself - at the end of the war, I was twelve when I came here."

"People left East Germany after the Wall came down, for much smaller reasons than these people are coming here," said a Heidenau woman, adding some of grandchildren's discarded toys to the pile. "I wouldn't like to have to flee a war."

The truck of donations, and the party, had been organized by a network of "anti-fascist" groups from Dresden and elsewhere, as well as a refugee group from the Oranienplatz protest camp in Berlin. Among these was Adam Bahar, himself a refugee from Sudan who has been in Germany for three years.

"It was important for us to show solidarity with other refugees," he said. "But we are also doing something good for Germany - we are showing that people are welcoming, you know, and that they have an open mind."

Bahar also expressed shock, as many in Germany have, that the authorities have appeared so unprepared to cope with the new influx of refugees. "There's been a war in Syria for more than four years," he said.

"I'm really surprised that the people who have the power in this country don't see this. Instead they make propaganda and say, 'Ah! Too many people are coming.' It's not true - for example in Turkey there are more than two million refugees from Syria - but I don't see Turkish people attacking refugees."

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