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Far-right flourishes in Dresden

Nina Haase | Sumi Somaskanda
June 16, 2017

Just how much support does Germany's far-right receive in eastern Germany and where does it come from? DW's Nina Haase and Sumi Somaskanda started a tour of Germany in Dresden to find out.

Pegida Demonstrators at Dresden's Altmarkt in 2016
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

Dresden is conservative - the only major city in Germany that leans right rather than left. It still bears the signs of its rich past - the historic old city's royal splendor, but also the sweeping destruction of the waning days of World War II. Historians and analysts told us these are just some of the reasons why conservative politics have flourished here in the capital of Saxony.

Read more of DW's special election coverage #Germany Decides

Right-wing extremism has cast a long shadow over the region. As more than 1 million migrants and refugees have arrived in Germany since 2015, the extremist scene has become more prominent, and tensions between asylum-seekers and locals have escalated. 

Just 20 minutes outside of Dresden in Freital, a group of eight people is on trial for creating a terrorist cell responsible for carrying out five attacks on refugee shelters.

Graph of right-wing extremist crimes in Germany

Across Germany, there has been an upswing in violence against refugee facilities and refugees themselves; according to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), 2015 saw a spike in violence, and Saxony was one of the states with the highest number of incidents.

Dresden: where PEGIDA came to prominence

The anti-Islamic protest movement PEGIDA, or People Against the Islamization of the West, which drew tens of thousands of disillusioned Germans to the streets in late 2014, has dropped off everywhere except Dresden. We met with PEGIDA demonstrators on Monday, and they told us they would not be kept quiet, particularly as 2017 is an election year.

Read more: Who is behind PEGIDA and what do they want?

But Dresden is also a city of paradoxes. It is modest but proud, right but with a streak of left-wing activism. We met various people fighting to cast off the stain of right-wing extremism, leading initiatives to welcome newcomers of all backgrounds and cultivate and an open, multicultural society.

Disillusioned and doubting government

What became clear to us quickly was that right or left of center, there is growing frustration with politics and the government.

Maps showing right-wing extremism in eastern and western Germany

Just a few minutes from the majestic villas near of the city center lies the Koitschgraben district, a sprawling complex of pre-fab concrete six and seven-story apartment blocks. In the 1970s and 80s, this settlement was fresh and clean; the more than 3,000 apartments were modern and sought after. Today, Koitschgraben is impoverished, battling high unemployment and petty crime. Many people here told us they were disillusioned, and that has driven rising right-wing sentiment among some.

We met Michel Honauer as he was helping set up a new ice cream shop next to a playground. His early years here were troubled. His mother suffers from epilepsy and, unable to secure steady work, struggled to provide for the family. Honauer, meanwhile, dipped in and out of school and various training programs and turned to his neighborhood's youth gang, though he said he never was violent himself.

Joining the German Bundeswehr at 19 straightened his path. He went on to find employment as a security guard, eventually working in a refugee facility. He said among between residents often spiraled out of control and he was forced to step in.

A different mentality

"Their mentality is completely different. I personally think that they have partly grown up with violence, that it's part of their daily lives," Honauer, now 26, told us.

"We have to treat the people well, of course. But they also have to accept that they are guests here, and when you're a guest in someone else's house you have to behave like a guest - friendly, willing to help, nice, loyal, and so on. But that's the problem - they didn't act that way."

That migrants and refugees now represent a majority in his old neighborhood is not a welcome change, he added. Honauer's views are clearly right-wing but he has little faith in politics - even in the right-wing AfD, or Alternative for Germany.

"They make all the promises in the world beforehand so they get elected and afterwards they don't follow through on their campaign promises," he said. "It doesn't matter who comes to power."

Read more: A guide to Germany's far-right groups

Like in the GDR, then come the refugees

The rising number of refugee families moving into Koitschgraben has also stoked tensions - particularly because they often receive newly renovated flats. Carmen, a 40-year-old mother of four, told us that has raised ire and put some of her neighbors at odds with the newcomers.

"The living standards we have are from GDR times - and then the refugees arrive," she said.

Carmen and her daughter holding a sign that says Germany Decide
Not everyone sees people from other countries and cultures as enriching Dresden, Carmen told DWImage: DW

It doesn't help that residents are battling rising rent, as well. Carmen's neighbor currently pays 600 euros ($670) a month for a four-room apartment; if she moves out, the company that owns the building complex would renovate the flat and charge 150 euros more.

Still, Carmen chose to live in Koitschgraben. The owners installed a new playground where she and her 2-year-old daughter, Victoria, spend their afternoons. She said she believes it is more important than ever to fight for a more open, tolerant society, despite the growing polarization.

"It's becoming more and more colorful here - you see that with the kids who play here. It's an enriching experience, but some people don't see it that way," she said, adding that some neighbors are verbally abusive to the children and newcomers.

Germany has the people willing to help

Amid the crowd of mothers at the Koitschgraben playground, we met Abdulqadeer Ahadi and his four daughters. Ahadi translated for the German army in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. His work quickly became a security liability, and he applied for a visa in Germany, arriving in Dresden in 2014.

He has worked hard to settle in his family in school and home life, and to help out in the neighborhood. He now assists Afghan families who have just arrived - but many of their asylum applications are rejected, he said. Afghanistan is not safe, he said urging Germany to open its doors to those in need.

"I hope and want the German government, especially the Saxon government, to please help these people," he said. "Right now in the world, of all the countries, Germany has the good people who are willing to help others, to help immigrants."

#GermanyDecides: A look at the AfD in Dresden