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Germany

'New facet of violence' in Germany

A knife attack on a local politician, mock gallows for the German chancellor at an anti-migrant march, continued attacks on refugee shelters - the mood is changing, a psychologist warns.

Anti-immigrant sentiments in Germany are on the rise, and taking on harsher forms. DW spoke to Professor Andreas Zick, an expert on violence and conflict, as the anti-migrant Pegida movement was getting ready to celebrate its first anniversary in the group's eastern stronghold of Dresden.

DW: A man who was active in the far-right scene in the past on Saturday stabbed the Cologne mayoral candidate responsible for refugees in the city. Germany's interior minister said the attack underlines growing concerns over hatred and violence amid the refugee crisis. Is this in fact a new "quality" of violence? Are people losing their inhibitions?

Professor Andreas Zick: Yes, we're seeing a new facet of violence. In Germany, we've had 179 right-wing extremist killings since 1990, there have been more than 500 hate crimes against asylum housing, and now there's the same phenomenon of "lone-wolf" terrorism that we observe on the Islamist terrorist scene.

Is the mood in Germany changing?

Dramatically. A year ago, when Pegida started these marches in Dresden, we already argued that from the perspective of extremism research, the symbols and the communications via the Internet were very aggressive. It was violence-oriented from the beginning. We know the right-wing extremist milieus tried to be in the streets and also on the Internet, where they discussed what to do. Over the last few months, the idea in the radicalized milieu of not only communicating and shouting out the hate, but of acting and controlling the streets has gained momentum.

Andreas Zick

Take the aggression seriously, Zick urges

At an anti-migrant Pegida march last week, protesters displayed a wooden gallows "reserved" for the German chancellor and vice chancellor - has the Pegida movement become more aggressive, too?

Yes. What has changed is that there is now a move toward control by action. At first, they played with attitudes and ideologies. Now, it's along the lines of: "Now we act; we won't communicate anymore. We will send a message against the influx of immigrants to Germany." Frank S., the man who knifed the Cologne politician, was socialized and radicalized within the right-wing extremist milieu. He even explicitly refers to the climate in Germany. We'll see that such 'lone wolves' invoke the parties - and act out what the ideology demands.

If we were to get a grip on the refugee situation right now, and fewer asylum-seekers were to enter the country, would these right-wing extremist leanings vanish?

No, that's an illusionary correlation. We had the same problem in the 1990s, when politicians said, if we manage the immigration flow and reduce it, we'll show the citizens that we are in control. But that didn't stop right-wing extremism. The NSU group killed 10 people. Radicalization within the right-wing populist and extremist milieus continues - because they don't respect what civil society is doing.

Is this a threat to democracy in Germany?

Very much so. Our surveys over the past 12 years show: one-third of society, which we call "civil society," is helpful - these people show solidarity and a lot of commitment; one-third says 'No, we don't agree"; and the last third doesn't participate in democracy at all anymore. These people have the attitude that is prevalent among Pegida and other far-right movements.

This is a threat to democracy because democracy lives on participation and the regulation of conflicts without violence, while what we are observing in Germany is an increase in violence. A third of the offenders in right-wing hate crimes are not noted right-wing extremists: they are regular people who argue that they are just demonstrating, while throwing a Molotov cocktail at a refugee shelter.

In Swiss parliamentary elections on Sunday, an anti-immigration party won the biggest share of the vote; the far right has also made gains in Austrian local elections this year. Is western European society shifting toward right-wing populism?

Yes, this has been going on for many months. In the UK, UKIP is strong. We have the Front National in France; there's Austria and Switzerland. And there's been a right-wing populist shift in Sweden and Finland. What we see on the Internet is that they are linked; Pegida is strong because they have the sentiment that they are part of a big European populist movement. So, this is a problem for Europe, too.

What's the solution to the problem?

It's important to take the aggression and violence very seriously. We speak about immigration, but we don't speak about right-wing extremism and right-wing populism, and the widespread hatred of minorities, the hostility. These are things which we have to face early on. A simple answer to a complex question: people have to be trained in what I call 'civic education.'

We know that strong civic societies, multicultural, diverse societies and urban neighborhoods, may have conflicts - but they are trained to regulate conflict without violence. Strong civic societies are the best prevention, starting from kindergarten. A democracy is strong when people can participate. People in Germany feel their participation is not wanted in the areas where we have a lot of hate crimes, and this is a debacle. When the media and local politicians aren't anchored in local society, people get the impression that the new right-wing populist movements can solve that problem.

Andreas Zick heads the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence (IKG) at Bielefeld University. The institute analyzes the different forms, dimensions and causes of conflict and violence.

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