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Chemnitz, Saxony and Germany grapple with far right

Nancy Isenson
August 30, 2018

Protests in Chemnitz underline a stereotype of Saxony as the stomping ground of far-right extremists. There is some truth to that, but the eastern state isn't the only place violence against refugees has shocked Germans.

Far-right protesters in Chemnitz light flares and carry German flags
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

Chemnitz, Freital, Heidenau: For many people in Germany, these places are inextricably linked not only for being in the eastern state of Saxony but also by the far-right extremists who have, sometimes violently, voiced their hatred there.

The death of a 35-year-old German man in the early hours of Sunday — allegedly at the hands of two asylum-seekers — sparked two days of protests in Chemnitz, with more planned for Thursday, that shocked many and led to another round of soul-searching over the reach of xenophobia in Saxony and the rest of Germany.

Read more: Violence in Chemnitz: A timeline of events

Jürgen Kasek, a Leipzig lawyer and activist, told DW he was not surprised by the events in Chemnitz.

"We've been seeing it for years. We saw it in 2015 in Heidenau. We saw it in Freital. We also saw it in Bautzen, though it was not of this magnitude," said Kasek, who was until recently co-chair of Saxony's Green party. "Here we had the death of a person. That is the starting point for people who think they have found an outlet. The issue is not to commemorate a dead person, but that pent-up anger and frustration need to get out."

Far-right protesters in both Freitaland Heidenau demonstrated against asylum-seekers being housed in local shelters and clashed with police in 2015. Eight people were convicted of crimes committed during the Freital protests and 31 police officers were injured in Heidenau.  Bautzen has been the scene of numerous conflicts between far-right extremists and refugees and gained nationwide attention after police tried to break up violence between two groups in September 2016.

Marked by history

However, if the issue is about finding an outlet for frustration, the question is what's causing the anger.

Hate and racism in Dresden

Eastern Germany lags behind the west economically, but researchers say that is not necessarily the reason far-right extremism has caught on in the region.

A study last year found that attitudes carried over from communist former-East Germany have made people in today's east far more likely to be virulently xenophobic. The report concluded that eastern Germans are socialized to have an "exaggerated need for harmony, 'purity' and order" as well as a "collective, overwhelmingly positive and ethnically pure identity." It also highlighted a "selective culture of memory," in which eastern Germans repress negative memories of the communist past, fail to come to terms with the legacy of Nazi anti-Semitism and tend to blame foreigners for social and economic problems. 

The study was slammed by Saxony's ruling Christian Democratic party (CDU) and months later disavowed by Iris Gleicke, who was then the federal government commissioner for eastern German affairs and had commissioned it. Despite criticism of the methodology, the findings were backed up by researchers in the field in eastern Germany.

Read more: 'There's a lack of civil society'

Far right fills gaps

There is no doubt that eastern Germany, and Saxony, have a problem.

"The right is so big in the meantime that it has created its own niches that provide everything," Andreas Zick, a professor at the University of Bielefeld and head of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence, told WDR public radio on Wednesday. "They now have the third generation of right-wing extremists. The right creates jobs; the right provides support and help. That has developed over years. The problem is that the state can no longer reach the scene."

Graphic on far-right violence in Germany in 2017

Since Saxony, along with the rest of what had been East Germany, became part of federal Germany in 1990, the state has been led by the CDU, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, at times in coalition with the Social Democrats or Free Democrats.

But with the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD), the CDU's grip on the state has begun to slip in recent years. The AfD won 9.7 percent in the 2014 Saxony elections, entering the state parliament for the first time. Then in the 2017 general election, it garnered 27 percent of the Saxon vote, besting the CDU by a tenth of a percentage point, to finish first in the state.

Read more: AfD mobilized irrational fears of future, especially in the east, say pollsters

"That far-right extremism, neo-Nazism is especially pronounced in Saxony also has to do with a certain attitude  [and with] the shortcomings of the Saxon state government, especially the CDU, which for far too long downplayed it, didn't take it seriously and didn't do enough against it," Kasek said.

Few foreigners - but a hotbed for xenophobia?

Saxony's CDU rejects such accusations, pointing to the town of Ostritz, where state Premier Michael Kretschmer took part in a three-day peace festival that drew thousands of people in late April to counter a neo-Nazi rally that drew around 1,200 to celebrate Hitler's birthday.

A problem in east and west

But the prevalence of the far-right is not limited to eastern Germany.

Over 1,000 attacks on refugee shelters occurred across Germany in 2017. This year, Kandel, a western town of 3,500 people in Rhineland-Palatinate, was overwhelmed by around 1,000 right-wing demonstrators, many of whom had traveled there to voice anti-migrant sentiments, after a German teen was killed by her ex-boyfriend, an Afghan asylum-seeker. Last year, the rape and murder of a student in Freiburg by an asylum-seeker garnered nationwide attention and prompted the AfD to rally supporters who blamed the German government's policy of welcoming refugees for the crimes.

"Situating the problem of far-right extremism in Saxony and the newly formed states of Germany is too easy," said Michel Friedman, a journalist and former deputy head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany who hosts two talk shows at DW. "It is, of course, a problem across Germany, and it is not a new phenomenon. After 1945 there was no zero hour when it came to racism, hatred of Jews and misanthropy. The powers that have upheld nostalgia for Hitler in Germany have now spanned three generations."