′There′s a lack of civil society′ | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.05.2017
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'There's a lack of civil society'

A study on right-wing extremism has caused quite a stir. The CDU's Michael Kretschmer says the study makes generalized accusations against eastern Germans. Trade unionist Thomas Disselmeyer disagrees.

"In my opinion, the study contains many unsubstantiated stereotypes," said Michael Kretschmer in an interview with the German national radio station Deutschlandfunk. He criticized the study for not making clear that there were many social initiatives in Saxony. "There's an incredible level of engagement among citizens, for refugees, for people in need, and all of that is being trampled in the mud," the CDU politician said. Furthermore, he claims that the study deliberately brackets extremists with people who care about their home, a defining culture, values, and their fatherland.

Kretschmer likes to use words like "fatherland", "defining culture" and "values." He has also warned, most recently at a meeting at the local press association, against the use of excessively politically correct terminology.

'The darling of the enraged citizen'

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At that meeting, he said that political correctness was a truly terrible thing, and things should be spoken about and named for what they were. This, he said, included the naming of crimes: were they foreigners, or not? Kretschmer declared that all these details couldn't just be set aside.

The weekly paper Die Zeit once described Kretschmer as "the darling of the enraged citizen," a man who liked to present himself in Saxony as an eloquent hardliner, who praised Hungary for erecting its border fence, and who opposes adoption rights for homosexuals.

The trade unionist, Thomas Disselmeyer, is not surprised by Kretschmer's comments. "I know that Mr Kretschmer says the CDU has always spoken out against right-wing extremism. But the reality is different. Right-wing extremism was never seriously tackled. When the refugee numbers went up, there were right-wing extremist marches every week here in Pirna and Freital, and the politicians didn't do anything much to stop it," says Disselmeyer. He knows the area well: Until a couple of weeks ago he was the head of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) in the Saxon Switzerland/Eastern Ore Mountains region.

The Freital group

Disselmeyer gives the example of the investigation into the Freital right-wing extremist group. "It was only when the Federal Prosecutor's Office started proceedings against the group that it became an issue in Freital. A few days beforehand the town council was still saying that there was no problem with right-wing extremism. Instead, people in the town, and in the region as a whole, would always look away and dismiss the problem. Town society never engaged with it, either. Not even the SPD did," says Disselmeyer, who is himself a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Deutschland Dresden - Prozess gegen die Gruppe Freital (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert)

The trial of the right-wing extremist 'Freital' group has garnered national attention

Disselmeyer says this had negative consequences for local politicians. "All those who wanted to tackle right-wing extremism were attacked. There was open agitation against the Left Party's town councillor, Michael Richter, and the Green's direct candidate for the Bundestag, Ines Kummer, and nobody intervened. Richter's car was blown up in 2015. Kummer is regularly verbally abused."

CDU suppresses the problem

This corresponds to the findings of the investigation as presented by the Commissioner for Eastern [German] Affairs, Iris Gleicke (SPD). The investigation concluded that while right-wing extremism is not solely an eastern German problem, regional characteristics "that are more pronounced in eastern Germany" help to promote it. These include, among other things, socialization under the East German regime, a widespread "sense of collective discrimination," a lack of experiences with foreigners, as well as insufficient political education.

Deutschland PK CDU Sachsen und CSU zu Leit- und Rahmenkultur Michael Kretschmer (picture alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini)

CDU politican, Michael Kretschmer, is critical of the study

The CDU in Saxony accuses the researchers of having had a negative influence on the development of civil society in Saxony. People who stand up for themselves, the CDU said, are being disparaged as left-wing radicals and accused of dirtying their own nest.

The study was carried out by the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research. The authors examined several regions, including the towns of Freital and Heidenau, where protests against asylum seekers in 2015 made headlines across the country.

Disselmeyer confirms its findings. "Hardly any foreigners live in the region, but nonetheless there's a hatred of foreigners. The fact is that there are many people living here who didn't make the transition in 1990. That's the breeding ground for right-wing extremism. The Saxon branch of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) was founded in Freital. The [nationalist] NPD and the AfD have party strength in the Freital town council. And this AfD faction broke away from the CDU. That says a lot about some parts of the CDU in Saxony," says Disselmeyer.

Manifestly right-wing attitude

Deutschland Thomas Dißelmeyer (Privat)

Trade unionist, Thomas Disselmeyer

The trade unionist links much of this to the group known as Skinheads Sächsische Schweiz. Banned in 2011, in the 1990s this group was heavily involved in attacks on foreigners and those who disagreed with its ideology. "The issue wasn't addressed even then," says Disselmeyer. "They were barely prosecuted. It's 20 years ago now, and now these people have children who are perpetuating this. The Thor Steinar shop (a clothing brand associated with neo-Nazism) is part of the regional townscapes, as are other shops trading in right-wing extremist memorabilia."

Disselmeyer is glad he's now moved to work for the SPD in Lower Saxony instead. "I'm not aware of any region in Germany where the topic of right-wing extremism was dealt with as it was in the state of Saxony," he says. "I was never subjected to any serious attack, but I was always aware of the undertone of aggression, and I'm not sorry to be gone. I'm still actively opposing xenophobia and right-wing extremism – but in Lower Saxony now."

(With material from AFP, DPA and Deutschlandfunk)