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Leftist and far-right protesters clash in Chemnitz

August 27, 2018

Neo-Nazis and leftist protesters took to the streets of Germany's Chemnitz after a murder involving migrants. Saxony police mostly managed to cope with sporadic violence, although the protests caught them by surprise.

Demonstrators light fireworks
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

The eastern German city of Chemnitz was gripped by a febrile atmosphere on Monday night as several thousand people took to the streets to demand foreigners leave Germany. At the same time, roughly 1,000 opposing demonstrators collected in a small park opposite far-right protesters to call on "the Nazis" to get out of the city.

The evening began calmly enough, as a heavy police presence kept the two sides apart and the groups confined themselves to jeering at each other beneath the gaze of Chemnitz's colossal Karl Marx monument. But by around 9 p.m., when the demonstrations began to move, six people were injured by fireworks and rocks thrown by members of both camps who were wearing the customary black hooded tops, gloves, face coverings and dark glasses.

The protests eventually subsided and "everything was quiet during the night" the police said on Tuesday morning.

German-Cuban man killed

On Monday, the tension was palpable along the wide Brückenstrasse boulevard that divides the city center, where the rival protests had been called. Local shops, many run by people of Turkish and Arab descent, had been told to close early as the two demonstrations, one called by the local branch of the socialist Left party, the other by the far-right Pro Chemnitz group, slowly gathered.

The competing chants were familiar enough from the last three years of German demonstrations — "Merkel must go!" or "Close the borders!" or "Nazis out!" or "Refugees are welcome here!" But this time the marches carried an extra emotional weight, as they were triggered by the murder of a German-Cuban, apparently well-known by people of all political stripes in the small city.

Chemnitz protest
The protests in Chemnitz turned violent as the evening wore onImage: DW/B. Knight

The 35-year-old, named only as Daniel H., died in hospital on Sunday after having been stabbed multiple times during a fight late on Saturday night. Two other men, also reported to be of immigrant backgrounds, were also injured in the attack. Two younger people, a 22-year-old Iraqi and a 23-year-old Syrian, remain in custody over the killing.

Riot police, neo-Nazis and mourners

Adding to the emotional charge at the protests, the fatal fight had occurred only a few hundred yards along Brückenstrasse, at a spot on the sidewalk that on Monday had been turned into a small shrine. Several mourners were bringing candles and flowers to the place even as riot police, Antifa demonstrators, and neo-Nazis were gathering on the street around them. Several right-wing protesters were photographed giving the Nazi salute.

One of the mourners was Nancy Larssen, a young half-Cuban woman who had grown up with Daniel H., who she described as her "best friend."

Chemnitz shrine
The site in Chemnitz where the fatal stabbing took place has been turned into a shrineImage: DW/B. Knight

"I think it's horrible what's happening here in Chemnitz, and I hope that they know who they're doing this march for," she told DW. "I think it's sad that in the media they're just saying that a German has died, and that's why all the neo-Nazis and hooligans are out, but the media should describe who died, and what skin color he had, because I don't think they'd be doing all this if they knew."

According to his Facebook page, Daniel H. also liked an anti-Nazi page on the platform.

Another friend of Daniel H's, Marcel Kratzer, felt that the media had only emphasized the political divisions in Chemnitz without talking enough about the victim, "a really good man, a good father," or his family — or what he saw as the police's failure to control the three-day city festival where fighting had broken out.

That feeling was reflected in the leftist demo, at which several people shouted "Where were you yesterday?" at passing squads of riot police. Meanwhile, the chanting and counterchanting went on, as anti-fascists used whistles to try to drown out far-right speakers who could be heard claiming that "people didn't use to draw knives" before the Syrian refugees arrived. There was applause, and placards that read, "Stop the asylum flood."

Tim Detzner, the leader of the Chemnitz Left party who had co-organized the counterdemonstration, told DW: "This demo is so important because the pictures that came out of Chemnitz yesterday afternoon shocked a lot of people, and, as you can see today, a lot of people had an urge to react and to show that not all of Chemnitz is the way you saw there."

The police's damaged reputation

Police in the state of Saxony, where Chemnitz lies, spent much of Monday struggling to re-assert their authority following an awkward few weeks. After detaining a TV news crew in Dresden at the behest of a PEGIDA supporter who turned out to be a police employee, they faced serious criticism for their failure to control spontaneous outbreaks of violence on Sunday afternoon, which led to the Chemnitz festival being cut short.

Apart from preparing for two potentially violent demonstrations, the police also spent the day quashing rumors on social media, including that one of the other two attack victims had died of his injuries, and that the fight had been triggered by a sexual harassment incident.

Earlier in the day, there was some criticism that the media had chosen the word "demo" to describe Sunday's far-right marches. These were, organizations such as the Turkish Community Germany (TGD) said, pogroms. The police did report two cases of physical assault during the marches on Sunday night, while videos posted on social media showed neo-Nazis attacking people they considered to be of foreign origin in the street.

Chemnitz protest
The TGD said the far-right marches in Chemnitz were more pogrom than demonstrationImage: DW/B. Knight

Calls for vigilante violence

Meanwhile, the Saxony arm of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party tried to distance itself from Sunday's violence, and from Monday's Pro Chemnitz demo. Having spontaneously gathered around 100 supporters in the city center on Sunday afternoon, the party has now decided to wait until Saturday to stage their next anti-Merkel protest.

"The AfD expressly distances itself from any form of violence and expressly warns against participation in the demonstrations that have been called today by the NPD among others," Saxony AfD leader Jörg Urban said in a statement posted on Facebook, referencing Germany's right-wing extremist National Democratic Party. He went on to suggest that "provocateurs" may well be planted in the demo to instigate violence and "criminalize the justified protest of citizens."

Urban insisted that the "hunting scenes" in Chemnitz on Sunday had "nothing, absolutely nothing at all" to do with the AfD. Nevertheless, a tweet by AfD parliamentarian Markus Frohnmaier, which said it was "a civic duty to stop the death-bringing 'knife migration,'" amounted to a call for vigilante justice according to TGD chairman Gökay Sofuoglu.

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