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Attacks on politicians in Germany on the rise

May 6, 2024

The weekend attack on a center-left politician in eastern Germany has been widely condemned. But insults, threats and attempts at intimidation have long been a part of campaigning.

Demonstration in Berlin after the attack on SPD politician Matthias Ecke in Dresden
Protesters converged on the Brandenburg Gate on May 5 to condemn attacks on politiciansImage: Christian Mang/AFP/Getty Images

First, the good news: politician Matthias Ecke, of the center-left Social Democrats, is recovering from an operation after suffering a broken cheekbone and eye socket. The 41-year-old candidate for the European Parliament elections was knocked down and seriously injured while he was putting up campaign posters in Dresden, in the eastern state of Saxony, on Friday evening. Fellow campaigners have said Ecke intends to continue campaigning after his recovery.

Four suspects, aged 17 and 18, have been identified by the police.

The bad news, however, is that anyone involved in politics in Germany is living an increasingly dangerous life. The attack on the Social Democrat is just the tip of the iceberg: local politicians, in particular, are being attacked, threatened and insulted on a daily basis.

Max Reschke, who has been the leader of the Green Party in the eastern state of Thuringia for a year, is familiar with the threat.

"We have seen a pile of dung in front of the door of our party offices, eggs on the windows, smashed windows at several offices and also mailboxes blown open," Reschke told DW. He said he and his colleagues have also been threatened with physical assault.

"Violent language has definitely increased in recent years," added Reschke.

Local politicians stepping up security

Green Party supporters, in particular, have increasingly become targets of attacks. During the campaign for the local elections set to take place at the end of May and the European elections in early June, they have decided to never venture out alone. The campaigners have been trained to always speak calmly to people, to de-escalate and not to allow themselves to be provoked.

"There are people who used to just think things and now say them out loud. They also like to try to intimidate families. And there are others who make sure that such thoughts are turned into actions. Unfortunately, we have now seen that in Dresden," said Reschke.

An increase in election-related crime has been observed for a number of years. In Essen, a major city in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, two Green Party politicians were recently insulted and then physically attacked. The attack left one injured.

Local lawmakers increasingly insulted, threatened, attacked

In Brandenburg, angry demonstrators attacked the car of Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a member of the Green Party and the vice president of Germany's parliament, preventing her from continuing her journey following a campaign appearance on May 1. And in Gotha, a city in central Thuringia, the house of an SPD politician was set on fire in February after he had organized a demonstration against right-wing extremism.

Reschke has called for local politicians to be given more police protection. "It shouldn't be the case that something has to happen first for people to take action," he said. "And society as a whole must ask itself what direction we want to take. I don't believe that more violence and more fear make sense."

Political violence increasing across Europe, US

In a recent representative survey of more than 6,400 mayors across Germany conducted by the opinion research institute Forsa, 40% of respondents said they or people close to them had been insulted, threatened or physically attacked. Some admitted they had thought about quitting politics as a result.

However, this isn't a purely German phenomenon. Attacks on politicians have increased throughout Europe and also in the United States, according to Sven Tetzlaff, head of the Democracy and Cohesion unit at the Körber Foundation.

Politician's killing an 'alarm bell' for Germany

Tetzlaff told DW that social media has played a part in changing the public discourse. "People are egging each other on to express their hatred of the state, of the system, of politics, of 'those at the top'. And we also know that the inhibition thresholds for physically attacking people drop significantly if language continues to develop in this direction," he said.

Democracy under attack

The willingness to find a compromise or a balance of interests is declining, said Tetzlaff. "And that means that people then say, if my interests are ignored, then I reject the system, then I insult the politician who does not act on my interests," he added.

"Stark im Amt" ("Strong in Office"), an online portal for local politicians, was launched in 2021 by the Körber Foundation together with the German Association of Cities, the German Association of Counties and the German Association of Towns and Municipalities. Around 3,000 local politicians visit the site every month to read about strategies to prevent and combat threats and online hate speech.

Tetzlaff is worried the recent attack on Ecke could spur local politicians to step back out of fear for their own safety — a threatening scenario.

"If people at the first level of democracy, in the 11,000 plus municipalities in Germany, no longer get involved," he said, then people will get the impression that democracy no longer functions. "And if we no longer have confidence locally that this democratic state will continue to function, we really do have a massive problem in Germany."

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.