There's hardly a more eerie sight anywhere in Germany than the 7-meter-high, 40-ton sculpture of Karl Marx's head on one of downtown Chemnitz's main streets, Brückenstrasse. Indeed, it's hard not to feel a bit anxious standing in the founder of Communism's somewhat baleful glare.
So perhaps fittingly it was here that police on Saturday halted the "march of mourning" co-organized by the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the city formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt. There, approximately 4,500 marchers reached a literal impasse with a counterdemonstration that included members of the leftist Antifa movement.
The police said the march was dissolved because it had exceeded its time limit and there was danger of violent clashes with the other side. The marchers, already angry about the stabbing of a Chemnitz man, Daniel H., allegedly by two refugees from Iraq and Syria, were incensed at what they saw as unfair treatment and let the officers know about it.
I found myself wondering what Marx would think about the scenes of deep social division that played out before his likeness' eyes. Some of what happened there might have seemed very familiar.
Alienated from others — and today's Germany
One of the countless ironies of eastern German cities like Chemnitz is that the people so fearful and outraged at what they see as a "flood" of foreigners also view their own government and society as deeply alien.
Hardliners within the AfD — to say nothing of the anti-Islam PEGIDA or "Pro Chemnitz" movement, which were also part of the anti-immigrant protest in Chemnitz — frequently accuse state authorities, politicians from the "old parties" and the police of conspiring against them. A few of the most extreme even assert that Chancellor Angela Merkel is secretly scheming to replace the German population with migrants and refugees. It's hard to get more alienated than that.
The vast majority of the people who marched on Saturday are neither bug-eyed conspiracy theorists nor extremists. But they are convinced, official crime statistics to the contrary, that their lives are rapidly becoming more endangered and that the authorities are doing nothing to help. These concerned citizens, too, use the vocabulary of the far right, saying they feel "swamped" by a "flood" of foreigners. And the killing of Daniel H. seems to be further evidence of their dramatic loss of control over their own society.
One woman at the march, for example, told my colleagues from DW television: "You should come back here with your camera some time at midnight when all the crowds are away, and you'd see those people (i.e. migrants) lurking around. We don't feel safe anymore."
Police studies have found that while foreigners are disproportionately involved in crime as both perpetrators and victims, the influx of migrants in recent years has not caused Germany to be overwhelmed by a wave of migrant crime, as the far-right has claimed. Indeed, many people around the world would probably find German cities, Chemnitz being no exception, quite secure. Migrants are less a cause of loss of control than an object upon which to project perceptions of lost control. The question is: why?
Gaps, real and imagined
For Marx, alienation resulted from industrial wage laborers having no stake in the products they made and being exploited by bosses who claimed all the profits from their work. But industrial production is no longer the center of German society, the national economy in the Merkel era has boomed and Germany's standard of living is excellent. In theory, Germans should be very content.
But as the fall of European communism in 1989-90 showed, there's a huge gulf between theory and practice.
One of the most common explanations for the rise of right-wing populist anger is the growing gap between rich and poor in the country. Expressions of class resentment among AfD and PEGIDA supporters are hardly unusual. But these people are hardly a monolithic class block. One marcher himself even characterized some of his fellow protesters as "simple-minded people who live from social benefits and aren't able to reflect on the whole situation."
Instead, one leitmotif of right-wing populism in Germany is envy. Leftist counterdemonstrators are given preferential treatment, the marchers fumed. Refugees are showered with money, designer clothes and state-of-the-art mobile phones while working Germans struggle to get by. And political and media elite line their pockets and have no contact any more with "common people." This is actually one similarity between Marxist and right-wing populist dogma: If you don't like what you read in the papers, it's because the journalists are all bought and paid for. These arguments are repeated over and over by today's German right.
Jealousy is part of human nature, going back to the Bible and far beyond it. But the advent of social media and the attendant filter bubbles has changed the environment in which this ugly human characteristic exists, augmenting it and making it more easily mobilized to political ends, often by propagating misinformation. That was one major reason why the air crackles with such hostility in Chemnitz right now.
Co-opting Germany's revolutionary past
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has scolded the German populace for passivity, saying that the silent majority needs to speak up against xenophobia and for cosmopolitanism. But given the fact that the AfD look poised to win a plurality in Saxony's 2019 election, it's far from certain that there's any such silent majority in Chemnitz and elsewhere in Saxony and the eastern Germany. In fact, many people have other ideas.
"I'm not at all a right-wing extremist, but I am against the flood of refugees into the country," a man with his English-speaking Asian wife told me. "The AfD and PEGIDA are the only ones addressing this issue, so where else am I supposed to go?"
Germany's current right-wing populist movements cast themselves as the rightful heirs to some powerful historical legacies. Angry marchers chanted "Wir sind das Volk" ("We are the people!"), the slogan from the fall of communism on Saturday, drawing an explicit parallel between their protest and the ones that freed eastern Germany from stultifying socialism nearly three decades ago. Some even carried white roses to be laid a makeshift memorial to Daniel H., co-opting the symbol of the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany.
A keener interest in German history would perhaps give AfD and PEGIDA supporters pause for thought about where highly emotionalized political movements based on nativist fears of foreign others have taken Germany in the past. But the chances of changing minds right now in Germany are slim.
Many of the marchers are so skeptical of mainstream media and politics that it is difficult to imagine them having a dialogue with people of different views. "Lying press!" was the second-most frequent slogan chanted, second only to "Merkel must go!" and journalists were attacked not far from the oversized bust of Marx.
The extreme hostility towards the media is a conspicuous facet of right-wing populism in Germany right now. Whatever the flaws of today's media, without consensus forums in which debates can be held there will be no loosening the loggerheads in places like Chemnitz.