As conflicts force a record number of refugees to flee to Europe, local communities struggle to accommodate them. Naomi Conrad reports from Tröglitz, whose mayor was forced to resign as far-right protests grew.
The storm battering Tröglitz on Tuesday midday was relentless. It tugged at the bright plastic Easter eggs dangling from the scrawny bushes outside the small eastern German town's rows of beige and lemon-colored blocks of flats, many freshly painted, and pushed over its rubbish bins, scattering plastic bags, scraps of paper and orange peel all over the pavement - and it ruffled the hair of the old man who had stopped outside the town's notice board opposite the local convenience store.
He squinted at a faded advertisement publicizing a hairdressing service on wheels: "That's new," he muttered. Then he shook his head: "You'd have to tidy up yourself though, wouldn't you?" He shrugged, as if unable to decide whether this inconvenience outweighed the benefit of having one's hair trimmed at home.
He was also unable, or unwilling, to voice an opinion on the asylum seekers. He shook his head and, grunting something unintelligible, shuffled off in the direction of the local school, adorned by a huge communist-era mural depicting a group of heroic students clutching books and a dove above the rousing slogan: "We teach, learn and fight for peace."
Yet lately, the small, rather nondescript town of 2,700 residents has been anything but peaceful, ever since the district authorities announced plans to house some 40 refugees in Tröglitz, out of an estimated 650 refugees expected in the area in 2015. For as the wars that continue to rage in Syria and Iraq force more and more refugees to flee their homes, European countries including Germany are registering a record number of asylum seekers - and places like Tröglitz, where the percentage of foreigners, including EU nationals, amounts to under one percent, are for the first time called upon by local authorities to accommodate asylum seekers.
Following the far-right
A protest movement quickly coalesced around the local branch of the far-right NPD party, who organized weekly marches. Plans to increase the number of refugees to 70 were quickly shelved and promises made that the refugees would be made up of families, deemed less trouble.
Finally, the local mayor, who had called on Tröglitz to welcome the refugees, resigned in early March after local authorities refused to ban a march on his house. In his small, wood-paneled office, seated next to several intricate model ships, Markus Nierth, an earnest, eloquent man sighed: He had felt alone, he said, abandoned both by like-minded people in Tröglitz, but also local politicians. That, he added, "was extremely disappointing."
Nierth, a father of seven who runs a dance school with his outspoken wife in their home, a beautifully restored 100-year old farm house, said he had decided to stand for mayor because he wanted "to do my bit for Tröglitz." He was adamant that Tröglitz was not the far-right-extremist place it had been portrayed by the media - despite the death threats he and his family had received. "People here say what they think, admit to their fears, without being too politically correct, that's why it may seem as if they're more right-wing or xenophobic."
And, he added, neo-Nazis, many from outside Tröglitz, had orchestrated the protests and managed to build on and exaggerate existing fears that many people, particularly those "belonging to the lower social classes" in eastern Germany held. "You have to understand, that, following reunification, people felt abandoned and betrayed." He pointed to those who had lost their jobs and with it their social standing. Unemployment rose. "They still carry their wounds of having lost, basically overnight, everything they knew."
It was this trauma of loss and social decline that was resurfacing in the protests. "It's almost as if they need someone to trample on." Nierth sighed. "It makes me feel sad."
Then he shrugged - things had changed, he added, since his resignation - more people had come out to support him. But, he conceded, it was still too little and too late.
At a packed town hall gathering called by Götz Ulrich, of Angela Merkel's CDU, on Tuesday evening, the elected head of the district authority, Ingrid Weise, a small, elderly woman, said she had come expressly to offer her support to Nierth. "It's terrible what's happening here, that's why I came."
Others, though, were less supportive: From the balcony, an angry man yelled down his question to Ulrich: Why, he wanted to know as a sizeable minority in the audience clapped and nodded vigorously, was the government spending money on asylum seekers rather than helping people like him? "Why the f--- are you doing this?"
He turned away demonstratively as Ulrich, patiently and calmly, explained that it was Germany's responsibility to help those fleeing war and persecution and that while six million euros ($6.5 million) had been put aside by the district authority in this year's budget to pay for the refugees in Tröglitz and the surrounding towns, some 273 million euros had been earmarked for unemployment benefits and other social services. "So you can't say we're not spending money on the people living here." The majority clapped, loud and hard, drowning out the skinhead's angry, "that's rubbish."
A nervous young woman who had patiently waited by the microphone, piped up: She just couldn't understand, she said, staring down at her hands, why some people said "that you're not allowed to be here." She smiled shyly: "I'm from Thuringia, so if that's the case I shouldn't be here either."
Later, as the audience filed out, a local NPD supporter cornered Nierth, shouting abuse as two journalists made notes. A few steps to the left, Christian Giegold, who heads the local sports club that has publicly welcomed any asylum seeker wanting to join, struggled to make himself heard above the din.
The club, he said, had a certain responsibility to show "that it's not everyone fighting against everyone." The problems, he was certain, could be solved, had to be solved. He shook his head: "Otherwise, in ten years' time, we'll go down in history as being the same as Solingen, Mölln or Hoyerswerda," he said, referring to German cities infamous for right-wing hate crimes against asylum seekers.
Then he braced himself and headed out into the storm still raging outside.