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Educating against extremism

August 31, 2018

The first government minister has visited Chemnitz after a week of far-right protests. Family Minister Franziska Giffey arrived to speak to civil society representatives about the need for better political education.

Chemnitz Franziska Giffey legt Blumen nieder
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Kahnert

The awkward task of being the first member of Angela Merkel's government to visit Chemnitz since the city was shaken by far-right violence fell to Franziska Giffey, a young family minister who has only just joined the federal Cabinet.

One of the first questions Giffey faced from reporters after a brief meeting with the city's mayor, was why no senior member of the Cabinet, such as Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, had yet come to Chemnitz.

"The Family Minister is the ministry for engagement — we have been running democracy promotion programs for years," she said. "We discussed this in the Cabinet, and we decided that I would do this today."

Safety and education

Ugly scenes in Chemnitz have now drawn international media attention for several days. In the early hours of Sunday morning, a German-Cuban man was stabbed to death, reportedly by a Syrian and an Iraqi. In the wake of the killing,  people of color were chased in the streets by right-wing mobs, and neo-Nazis traveled from across Germany to march through the city giving Hitler salutes, sparking violence with left-wing demonstrators. Meanwhile, police faced repeated criticism, either for alleged ties with the far right, or for failing to guarantee the safety of anti-Nazi counterdemonstrators.

Read more: Chemnitz, Saxony and Germany grapple with far right

"I can understand that people are concerned about safety when they see the images that we all saw," Giffey said. "And I can understand that people do not want safety and order to be negotiable."

From her discussions, she said two things were clear: Citizens want the government to work with young people to prevent extremism and educate them about democracy, and also to ensure that people can feel safe on the streets.

Chemnitz Franziska Giffey legt Blumen nieder
German Family Minister Franziska Giffey lays flowers at the memorial for the 35-year-old German-Cuban man whose fatal stabbing last weekend sparked days of violent far-right protests in ChemnitzImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

What now for Chemnitz?

This hinted at what the minister had really come to talk about — how the city would recover from this week's trauma once the media had left, and how the government can confront its neo-Nazi scene, restore trust in its ability to maintain order, and promote political education in Saxony, a state where far-right populism has taken root. In last year's general election, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) garnered 27 percent of the vote in Saxony, finishing ahead of Merkel's conservative CDU.

"If I could wish for something, it would be a democracy education law in Germany that really addresses these issues," Giffey told reporters on Friday. "We need a law that says that in all schools, wherever structured political education can take place, there will be a stronger focus on education in values and democracy, and on the question of how we can bring young people on the path to seeing themselves as citizens in a community."

To that end, Giffey spent 45 minutes discussing new political education programs with representatives of Chemnitz's civil society, including trade unions, churches, and cultural organizations. Though they appeared behind the minister as she gave her statement, some were cagey about offering an opinion of the meeting to the press.

Chemnitz Sachsengespräch mit Sachsen Regierung und Bürger
Local and state politicians also took time to listen to the concerns of Chemnitz residents at a town hall meeting on ThursdayImage: DW/Ben Knight

Nevertheless, the overall impression appeared to be positive. "I think she is really interested in changing things," said Felix Veerkamp, of the youth organization of the DGB trade union in Chemnitz.

Veerkamp had helped organize Monday's counterdemonstration, and was busily organizing another anti-Nazi demonstration on Saturday. But he says the "bigger challenge" is what happens next: Demonstrations are important, he suggested, but can only do so much.

"At the moment, we have right-wing people who feel like they're being pushed even further into the right-wing corner — rightly, in my opinion — and we have concerned citizens who don't know if they really want to belong to that," he told DW. "But if we just scream at each other, nothing will happen."

Crisis as an opportunity

"I think there is an awareness there, which is important, and the minister was interested in what happens after the media interest subsides — in other words, concrete measures," said Franz Knoppe, chairman for a local cultural education program named "New Undiscovered Narratives."

"This crisis is an opportunity, and she wants to see how we can undertake certain projects," he told DW. "Increasing funding is one aspect, but also how can we make certain things easier? How can we create more room for dialogue?"

One idea, he said, would be to introduce programs in schools where children learn to practice democratic processes — after all, as he pointed out, democracy in Saxony is not yet 30 years old. "Democracy needs practice, and especially in this particular state, it seems there is room for improvement," he said.

This theme was taken up by Katrin Siegel, part of a local network for cultural and youth work. "The government of Saxony has definitely made mistakes. For years now, neo-Nazi structures have been taking shape, but this wasn't talked about – it was played down," she said.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight