Fighting far-right violence in Germany is “the challenge of a generation”

“We have to call the problem by its name. We have a racism problem,” says Kerstin Köditz, regional deputy in the German state of Saxony, in the country’s east. It is there, in the medium-sized city of Chemnitz, that thousands of people gathered for far-right demonstrations in late August and early September.

Leaders of the far-right party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, which currently holds 92 seats in the German Bundestag) marched alongside neo-Nazis and members of various fringe groups within the movement. Some demonstrators gave Nazi salutes and violent xenophobic attacks took place on the sidelines of the rallies.

On 3 September, attackers hurling anti-Semitic slurs assaulted and injured the owner of a kosher restaurant in Chemnitz. According to RAA Sachsen, the regional centre for counselling service and assistance to victims of hate crimes, “Since 26 August, 2018, our organisation has recorded a total of 24 cases of physical injuries and 11 cases of threats made against migrants, journalists and counter-demonstrators in Chemnitz.”

This new wave of right-wing violence, which never completely disappeared from Germany, has shocked the country.

“What happened in Chemnitz? This is an organised campaign by the far-right,” said political scientist Andreas Zick, director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at the University of Bielefeld, in an interview with German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. “Some increasingly view such activities as acts of resistance,” he continued. For years, Germany’s far-right has been shouting its opposition to taking in refugees and to the policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“There are more of us”

“There is no excuse for racist violence,” said Chancellor Merkel on 12 September in a speech before the Bundestag. “Jews and Muslims are as much a part of our society as Christians and Atheists. They all have a place in our society, in our schools and in our political parties. I am grateful to everyone who is committed to upholding our democracy,” she added, also addressing “all of the refugees living peacefully in Germany,” and the volunteers who have helped and continue to help to welcome them. Because this Germany, the Germany that opened its borders and its doors to hundreds of millions of primarily Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees in 2015, hasn’t gone anywhere.

German society responded to the violence in Chemnitz with a demonstration for tolerance on 1 September, which brought several thousands of people to the eastern German city. On 4 September, more than 50,000 people attended an anti-fascist concert organised under the motto ‘There Are More of Us.’ And throughout the summer, tens of thousands of people demonstrated across the country to demand a more welcoming European migration policy.

In its manifesto, Seebrücke (“Sea Bridge”), the group that called for the demonstrations, writes: “Letting people die in the Mediterranean for political reasons is unthinkable and goes against human rights. Migration is and always has been a part of our society…Instead of closing borders, we need an open Europe, cities in solidarity and open ports. We stand in solidarity with all those who have fled or remain in flight and who expect German and European policy to provide a safe route to exile, the decriminalisation of rescue at sea and a humane and dignified welcome. We call for an end to deportations and closures and for freedom of movement for everyone.”

“We launched the movement in Berlin in late June when the Lifeline was still floating in the Mediterranean because no countries wanted to let it into their harbours,” says Maura Magni, one of the movement’s coordinators. “Tens of thousands of people participated in dozens of demonstrations in more than 100 cities throughout the country, including very small cities,” she adds. The demonstrations continued into September. “Many of the people who volunteered to welcome refugees in 2015 are the same ones demonstrating today,” adds Magni. On 1 September, more than 2,000 people took to the streets of Berlin at the call of Seebrücke at the same time that a far-right demonstration and counter-demonstration were taking place in Chemnitz.

Immigrants seen as a threat

“We have this persistent gap between those at the top and those at the bottom, between those who are against migration and those who are for it. The institutions responsible for moderating these conflicts have failed to act or have lost the confidence of the population,” said Andreas Zick of the University of Bielefeld in an interview on German public radio. In 2016, Zick’s institute conducted a study that clearly illustrated the division in German public opinion between openness and xenophobia. “According to the study, the majority of the population has a positive attitude towards receiving refugees in Germany. More than half of the respondents were in favour of welcoming them.”

However, 40 per cent of the people surveyed said they believe that Islam poses a threat to German society. This trend towards intolerance was more pronounced in former East Germany. The study concluded that, “Compared with 2014, agreement with far-right views has doubled among former East Germans.”

Even part of Germany’s left-wing party Die Linke has begun to adopt anti-migrant positions.

On 4 September, Sarah Wagenknecht, the party’s parliamentary chairperson in the Bundestag, founded her own movement called Aufstehen (‘Get up’ or ‘Rise’) which, though itself not a political party, will in fact compete with Die Linke. For years now,Wagenknecht has been challenged within her own party for her positions relating to migration. Whereas Die Linke is in favour of open borders, Wagenknecht has called for an end to labour migration. She views migrants as competitors who drive down the wages of national workers. Aufstehen has received the support of 80 prominent individuals, some politicians from Germany’s Social Democratic Party and Green Party, but above all academics, writers and artists. More than 100,000 people have signed up online to joint the movement. Wagenknecht’s stated objective is to win back non-voters and above all voters lost to the far right – particularly in former East Germany, where the far-right AfD has seen its best results.

In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2017, the party received 25 per cent of the vote in Saxony, 18 per cent in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and 22 per cent in Thuringia. These regions are also the most affected by unemployment, which remains significantly higher in former East Germany at 6.8 per cent compared to former West Germany at 4.8 per cent. GDP per capita in the east is still much lower than in the west, and the east has experienced significant population loss since reunification in 1990.

“Since 1989, everything has fallen apart. Jobs have disappeared, people have left, schools have closed. And since there’s no schools, there’s no buses...Wages have remained much lower than in the west, as have pensions,” says Köditz, a member of the Landtag (regional parliament) of Saxony for Die Linke.

The National Democratic Party of Germany (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD), an overtly neo-Nazi party, sat for ten years in Saxony’s Landtag. “This means that for ten years, we heard things like ‘foreigners are criminals’ in parliamentary sessions and in public debate. The NPD lost its seats in the Landtag in 2014, but the AfD was won seats for the first time in the same election. It was also in Saxony that the far-right terrorist groupNSU (National Socialist Underground) found refuge when it went into hiding,” adds Köditz.

“Nowhere else in Germany has seen as many cases of extreme right-wing violence as Saxony. In recent years there have been incidents in Dresden, Heidenau, Bautzen, Freital, Meissen…What is happening at these demonstrations is an attack on our democracy and our rule of law,” warned former Social Democratic MP and former East German Wolfgang Thierse in late August on German public broadcaster NDR. “The danger here is huge and the problem has been downplayed for years. I hope that it will finally be given the attention it deserves and that the police and the politicians will do the right thing.”

“When people today ask me what to do to stop the rise of the extreme right, I tell them that it may already be too late,” Köditz tells Equal Times. For her, fighting the far-right in her region is the “challenge of a generation. The police and the judiciary have to prosecute violent racists. And we have to work on education. But all of this will take time.”

This story has been translated from French.