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A predictable fiasco in Chemnitz

Pfeifer Hans Kommentarbild App
Hans Pfeifer
August 28, 2018

A right-wing mob has been rampaging through the eastern German city of Chemnitz. The police are on site, but authorities seem out of their depth. They lack the will to intervene, argues Hans Pfeifer.

Chemnitz - Proteste nach Todesfall
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Nightfall marked the end of reporting for many journalists in Chemnitz in the eastern state of Saxony on Monday. The situation was too chaotic, too dangerous. Groups of potentially violent far-right radicals lurked throughout the city, and the situation kept on escalating. One reporter sustained a broken nose, another man performed the Hitler salute, an illegal gesture in Germany, live on television and then sought to impede the journalists. Hundreds of neo-Nazis, hooligans and violent residents were seeking an outlet for their aggression. 

The police were out of their depth, lacking the necessary manpower. It was a black day for fans of an open society. 

Read more: German police fight far-right infiltration claims

There's an astonishing and depressing explanation for why it could have come to this: To this day in Germany, home of Adolf Hitler's atrocities, right-wing violence and threats by far-right groups are underestimated, underplayed and even accepted. The escalation in Chemnitz is further proof of this, as it was anything but spontaneous.

Deutsche Welle Pfeifer Hans Portrait
DW's Hans PfeiferImage: DW/B. Geilert

Neo-Nazis have been active in Chemnitz for years among supporters of the local football club. Their supporters' group name, "NS Boys," hardly seeks to conceal their National Socialist (i.e. Nazi) sympathies, even if the NS supposedly stands for "New Society."

In some parts of the city, right-wing groups sought to take over the streets. Their actions were well-organized, those of an established subculture with a nationwide network. They're small groups, but well-drilled and effective. That's how they were able to arrange, and swiftly mobilize for, Monday's marches.

Read more:  Study links far-right extremism and eastern German mentality

The police knew about this mobilization and about the structures enabling it. Nevertheless, they did not arrange for more officers to provide security and order on the streets. Politicians and policing services simply aren't taking the threat seriously enough.

Why not?

Because the majority of politicians and civil servants are not the primary object of the right-wingers' rage. What's lacking is empathy with the victims.

Police and politicians lack empathy

One dangerous misconception ought to be cleared up now: The hatred shown by people on the streets is not directed against refugee policies or Angela Merkel.

It's against German democracy as a whole.

For this seething mob rejects pretty much every key point of the German constitution: human dignity, citizens' equality, and the ban on discrimination on the basis of religion, sex or country of origin.

For years now, this new right has gone after people with different political views, or different color skin, and in recent years, they've focused increasingly on Muslims. They freely associate themselves with Adolf Hitler, performing Nazi salutes, celebrating the German Wehrmacht's World War II crimes, and fighting their opponents wherever possible. They want to return terror to the streets. 

But there's a larger danger.

In recent years, extremist marches are merging ever more, as is the case now in Chemnitz, with protests by those who are disappointed or feel left behind by globalization. This latter group does not support fascism. But it has dangerous tie-ins with racist and anti-democratic schools of thought.

This is alarming because German history teaches us that an organized mob can go a long way, if it manages to unite the broader society in frustration and anger. 

German politicians should consider themselves warned.

Pfeifer Hans Kommentarbild App
Hans Pfeifer Hans Pfeifer is a DW reporter specializing in right-wing extremism.@Pfeiferha