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Chemnitz: A stronghold of Germany's far-right AfD

Hans Pfeifer in Chemnitz, Germany
June 17, 2024

In almost all of eastern Germany, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has become the strongest political force. Even in Chemnitz, this year's European Capital of Culture.

Nico Köhler next to an 'anti woke' election campaign poster
Nico Köhler, AfD leader in Chemnitz, has campaigned on security and anti-immigration sentimentImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

"The blue wave" — this is how supporters of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) have celebrated their party's recent successes. Blue is the color of the radical right. On an electoral map of Germany, where the AfD emerged as the strongest political force in the recent European and local elections, practically the entire eastern part of the country is blue — including the city of Chemnitz.

"You can really tell that people are waking up," explains Nico Köhler. The 48-year-old AfD district chairman in Chemnitz is pleased. He is an entrepreneur and represents the AfD on the city council. He is friendly, dressed in sporty casual clothes, and is happy to take the time for a chat. His party has become the strongest political force in Chemnitz, winning 24% of the vote in the local elections and 28% in the European elections. What does his party plan to do with this success?

"Order and security, that's what we need to establish," he says. He is calling for more police in his city: "People don't like going into the city center, especially at night. A lot of things happen, whether it's muggings or people being robbed, or women being groped. It has been constant since 2015." He could also have said: "It's the foreigners," but instead he says, "since 2015."

Fear and mistrust in Chemnitz

For the AfD and the political right, the year 2015 is code for just about everything they think is wrong with Germany. In 2015, some 2 million people fled to Europe from Syria and Iraq. Most of them to Germany. The AfD opposed them being welcomed and rose in the polls.

AfD: against refugees and migrants

According to police crime statistics from 2023, Chemnitz is one of the safest cities in Germany. And Germany is one of the safest countries in the world. But the AfD is fomenting mass prejudice and fear against migrants.

Chemnitz has a population of 250,000, and the number of foreigners has risen to almost 35,000. They have become part of the city's landscape, where tea rooms, shisha bars, and Arab grocery stores can be seen.

Nico Köhler is calling for tough measures against migrants and foreigners in Chemnitz: he wants to see their children removed from classrooms: "The proportion of migrants in classes must fall," he says. And he is calling for a ban on foreigners with a criminal record from entering Chemnitz.

Karl-Marx-Monument in Chemnitz
The monument of Karl Marx is an iconic landmark in ChemnitzImage: Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance/dpa

Ukrainian refugees

The asylum and migration debates intensified after Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022, triggering a new influx of refugees into Germany. Along with it came a sustained backlash from the AfD.

The party calls the acceptance of refugees a "population exchange." It has declared all other parties to be enemies of Germany for destroying the country and pushing it into war with Russia. This is catching on with voters.

"I would say that someone who comes from western Ukraine, where everything is pretty much fine, is someone I shouldn't have to feed," says Nico Köhler in reference to a region, which has seen fewer Russian attacks than the east of the country.

Köhler is against German arms deliveries to Ukraine. He feels it is quite reasonable that the AfD faction in parliament almost unanimously boycotted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to the Bundestag on June 11, 2024.

Campaigning against the AfD

Zeran Osman has been living in Chemnitz for eight years. She studied here and now does educational work in development policy for the ASA-FF association, a network for democracy and against racism. She has a very different view of her city than the AfD.

Three women, the middle one with her back turned to the camera
Zeran Osman (right) and the staff of the ASA-FF association in Chemnitz have been fighting for a cosmopolitan and tolerant city for years.Image: Hans Pfeifer/DW

Zeran thinks it's good that there are now more foreigners living in the city than 10 years ago. "The streets in the middle of the city used to be completely empty — now they've been revitalized and that wouldn't have happened if there weren't migrants living here." Zeran Osman is fighting for a democratic and diverse Chemnitz. And against the AfD.

The rise of the AfD has had real implications for life in Chemnitz: verbal abuse, insults, and attacks against migrants in the city are on the rise. Statistics from victim counseling centers prove this.

Chemnitz — safe haven for neo-Nazis

Chemnitz has been a refuge for German neo-Nazis for many years. TheNational Socialist Underground (NSU) , a neo-Nazi terror group, was able to operate from here in the late 1990s. It was able to rely on a large network of sympathizers and helpers in the city.

In August and September 2018, neo-Nazi marches and riots continued for days in Chemnitz, sparked by the killing of a man at a festival a few days earlier. According to media reports, the alleged perpetrators had a migration background. As a result, a far-right mob went on the hunt for real or alleged migrants, counter-demonstrators, police officers, and members of the press. Right-wing extremists also attacked a Jewish restaurant in the city.

The AfD's victory in the June 9 European vote and the local elections "was to be expected, and yet it hit harder, and is even worse than feared," says Osman.

Far-right march in Chemnitz in 2018 Björn Höcke and numerous activists from the extreme right-wing scene took part
Far-right politician Björn Höcke (m) took part in a far-right march in Chemnitz in 2018Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

The AfD has been on the rise in Germany for years although, or perhaps even because, it is becoming increasingly radical and extremist. It is also becoming more aggressive when it comes to debates with other parties. What Zeran Osman finds particularly alarming is the voters' reaction: "I personally have the feeling that voters want these changes. And it's quite shocking to realize that."

People like Zeran Osman and many politically-committed associations in the city have been passionately fighting for change in the city for years. And they have also received a lot of support. But the rise of the AfD has put that support at risk. This is because the AfD generally rejects democracy projects like those by Zeran Osman at ASA-FF.

Yet Zeran Osman is not discouraged by the AfD's successes. Neither are her fellow activists. Instead, they feel even more determined. After all, it's their city, their country. At the same time, however, the rise of the AfD also raises concerns about possible attacks. Not only for Osman.

"There are some parts of Chemnitz that I wouldn't dare go to," says Avery. The 19-year-old sits in front of the Karl Marx monument in the heart of the city. It is a city landmark, which was still called Karl-Marx-Stadt in the former GDR. "People shout 'f***ing faggot' at me." Because there is a rainbow printed on his sneakers, the symbol of the LGBTQ+ movement.

The AfD has rejected all accusations that it incites hatred. And that it is an extremist and racist party. It calls itself "normal." In Chemnitz, normal means that Lars Franke, a man who once walked around in a T-shirt with a Hitler smiley face, is joining the city council for the AfD. A man who has taken part in neo-Nazi marches. And has been linked with the far-right terrorist group NSU. He is a friend of AfD member Nico Köhler.

Also in front of the Karl Marx monument, our DW reporter meets Leon, a friendly guy in a hoodie who rides a BMX bike. Yes, he voted AfD, he admits. Because of the foreigners. What does he think of the fact that opponents of the AfD say it's a Nazi party? That doesn't bother Leon. He thinks it over. Maybe that's partly true. But Hitler also did some good things. But I don't really know German history that well, says Leon.

This article was originally written in German.

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