In August 2018, shortly before I arrived in Germany, Chemnitz made the news because of large scale attacks on people who looked “foreign”, which were part of wider protests which took place in the wake of a fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old Cuban-German man, allegedly by a Syrian and an Iraqi. At the peak of protests, an estimated 5,000 far-right protesters clashed with around 1,000 counter protesters, and in total, at least 8,000 people were estimated to be involved in the protesting. Several people were injured over the course of multiple days, and police investigated at least three assaults on foreigners by the extremist protesters. Investigations were also opened in 10 cases of protesters performing the Hitler salute – a gesture which is illegal in Germany – with multiple people eventually sentenced to short prison terms and/or presented with fines.
Throughout August and September, national tensions remained high over the issue of migrants and crime, and there were other high-profile attacks against migrants in both Saxony and the neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt. For example, in one weekend during mid-September two Afghan teenagers were assaulted by a pair of German men in Hasselfelde, and three Somalis were attacked by a group of drunk German men in Halberstadt. In early September protests also broke out in Köthen in Saxony-Anhalt, when a German man died of a heart problem following an alleged fight with Afghan men. As Köthen is only 160km north of Chemnitz, parallels were quickly drawn between the two events, with a local pastor, Martin Olejnicki quoted in local media as saying that "it is always a kind of danger - we just had Chemnitz - and so things could escalate and I believe nobody wants that… [so] we are trying to appease all sides and to talk to people and tell them that it's not the moment to let things escalate." Fortunately, a large-scale escalation such as was seen in Chemnitz was avoided in Köthen.
Although things had appeared to settle down, in March 2019, the world’s eyes were back on Chemnitz, when the city’s football club, Chemnitzer FC, was widely criticised after a far-right activist and known hooligan was mourned in the stadium before one of the team’s matches. A minute’s silence was held, and related images were shown on the stadium’s video screens. Charges are being pressed against those who held banners intended to invoke Nazi-era images, as well as against one player who joined in with the tribute. Unnamed officials spoke of receiving threats from far-right groups of “massive clashes” if the club refused to allow the tribute, and as a result the club’s chief executive has accepted responsibility for the controversial tribute and resigned, while the club’s main sponsor has announced it will end its sponsorship deal (worth 170,000€) at the end of this season.
Events in Chemnitz and the surrounding region can be understood within the context of tumultuous race relations across Germany more generally over the past year. Perhaps most notably, last summer saw both a high-profile shut down over migration nearly bringing down the government, and Mesut Özil (a member of Germany’s national football team who is of Turkish descent) quitting after alleging racism from team members and fans. Together, these events have collectively forced broader discussions about the prevalence of everyday racism in Germany and have reopened questions about the extent to which Germany has learned from it’s past. However, the unrest in Chemnitz, has come to be seen as being representative of modern anti-immigration sentiment within Germany more generally. For example, Jule Löw, a 24-year-old student in Berlin, said in an interview with the BBC that Chemnitz was a sad reminder that Germany had not learned well enough from its own history. “Almost all of my life, I thought that with the things we’ve studied - German nationalism and the history of the last century - that we would have left that behind, that nationalism and racism,” she said. “And reality’s shown us differently”.
The Chemnitz protests were organised by far-right groups, including the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party - who hold seats in the German parliament – and the far-right street movement Pegida. The AfD politician Markus Frohnmaier, tweeted in support of the rioters that “if the state is no longer able to protect citizens then people take to the street and protect themselves”. Frohnmaier also declared that “it's a citizen's duty to stop the lethal 'knife migration'!”, further suggesting that immigrants are particularly dangerous and should be challenged. It is therefore unsurprising that protesters in Chemnitz were recorded chanting anti-immigration sayings such as “we are the people!” and “this is our city!”, while the far-right football fan group Kaotic Chemnitz called on its members to show everyone “who is in charge”. Angela Merkel publicly condemned these vigilante groups, declaring that their “hate in the streets” had no place in Germany.
More than one million migrants have arrived in Germany as part of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy since the 2015 migrant crisis. Merkel's popularity has waned significantly since her decision to open the borders to refugees and migrants, and at the same time, there has been a surge in support for anti-immigrant parties, with the far-right AfD entering the parliament for the first time in the 2017 election, winning 12.6% of the vote and more than 90 seats, becoming the biggest opposition party. Across Europe, violence perpetrated by ethnic minorities has been a major concern in recent years, and Germany has been no different. In 2016, police in Chemnitz arrested several Syrian-born suspects believed to be planning a bomb attack. AfD are particularly prominent in stoking fears about the alleged dangers of immigration, and recently, the deputy leader of the AfD claimed there has been “447 killings and murders” by illegal migrants in Germany last year.
However, the German interior ministry disputed this number by saying that in fact last year 27 illegal migrants either committed or attempted murder or manslaughter. Overall, crime levels in Germany have actually fallen to the lowest level since 1992, and it is also clear that a lot of the crimes which are committed by refugees and asylum seekers, especially violent crime, are committed against other refugees rather than against native Germans. It is also worth nothing, that while the riots in Chemnitz were widely reported as being in response to the murder of a “German” by “foreigners”, the victim of the initial violence was from a Cuban-German background, and a woman with a Cuban background who grew up with the victim, argued that "the media should describe who died, and what skin colour he had, because I don't think they'd be doing all this if they knew", while another friend of the victim condemned the protesters and described the victim as left-wing.
Events in Chemnitz are especially significant, because the AfD has seen a particularly strong rise in support in eastern parts of Germany, despite these areas often not being home to the largest migrant communities within Germany. The far-right has made gains across Germany and is represented in each of the country’s 16 states, but support for the AfD in the east is on average more than double that in the west. In the eastern states, 22.5 per cent of voters (and one in four males) voted for the AfD in 2017. In Saxony, the AfD even emerged as the strongest party in the 2017 federal elections, outperforming Merkel's CDU. Also in 2017, the East German state of Branderburg had the highest number of hate attacks per capita - 85 per million residents - followed by Saxony - 61 and Saxony-Anhalt - 51. By comparison, the western states of Hamburg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Bremen had respectively 7, 5 and 3 per million inhabitants. However, the origins of the success of right-wing parties in the east goes back much further than the 2017 election, which is evidenced by the fact that as early as 2006 Germany’s security service was reporting that in Saxony there were 75 right-wing extremists per 100,000 people (as compared to the Germany-wide average of 47 per 100,000).
Between 1953 and 1990, Chemnitz was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt, and many of the city’s protests were centred around the town’s large Karl Marx monument, which is a focal point of the city centre and a throwback to the city’s days as a model socialist city in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Around the world, Germany is often regarded as a beacon of wealth and efficiency but living standards in the east remain lower than in the west. During the 1990s, the reunification process was damaging to the fragile eastern Germany economy, which was in the process of transitioning to a market economy. The introduction of the western Deutsche Mark to the east in the mid-1990s put the east’s industries on a competitive footing with West Germany’s powerful economy and led to a collapse of the east’s commerce – with unemployment shooting up from almost zero in 1990 to nearly 20 per cent in 1996, where it remained for a decade. In some parts of the east, unemployment was over 35% during the 1990s. This difficult reunification led to some of those living in east Germany turning away from the west’s political system and liberal values.
As such, one eastern man describes (in an interview with the NY Times) feeling like a “third-class citizen”, commenting that "first there are western Germans, then there are asylum seekers, then it’s us”. Similarly, Petra Köpping, the minister for integration in Saxony has argued that unemployment has led to “a crisis of masculinity in the East… [which] is feeding the far right”, and speaks about local residents calling for their needs to be dealt with before the needs of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. This “crisis of masculinity” is compounded by gender attitudes within certain areas, with Frank Richter, an eastern theologian and prominent thinker arguing that “the anger of eastern men also has something to do with the success of eastern women”. Under communism, women tended to be relatively highly educated, and were employed in large numbers, often in more adaptable service jobs than eastern men. After the wall came down, the east lost more than 10 percent of its population. Two-thirds of those who left and did not come back were young women. Statistics from 2015 show that while there are an average of 9 women for every 10 men in the former East, many of these women are living in big cities, with very few in smaller towns and rural areas. Chemnitz has 8 women for every 10 men aged between 20 and 40. This compounds the hostility often felt towards immigrants, many of whom are young single men. It also explains some of the anger felt by eastern men towards Merkel, who as well as introducing liberal immigration policies, embodies the frustrations of eastern men, as she is a powerful eastern woman who is seen as favouring western Germany.
It has also been argued that the emphasis on thinking in black and white categories within the GDR, and the lack of tolerance of diversity within the GDR, both contributed to the contemporary support of far-right parties in eastern German states. Whereas many urban parts of West Germany became more diverse in the 1970s and 1980s, the East was rather homogenous and remains largely so until today.
It is therefore incredibly apparent that local and regional issues are also hugely important in the process of empowering right-wing movements. However, upon my visit to Chemnitz, what I found most remarkable was how “normal” the city seemed. I am not quite sure what I expected to experience, but I had a lovely (and rather relaxed) day in a relatively quiet setting. This is perhaps a symptom of how the strengthening of the far-right is an international trend, with right-wing nationalist figures making gains almost universally. European nationalist parties campaigning in the European Parliament elections during May 2019 have announced plans for an alliance, to challenge the power of centrist parties. This parliamentary group would feature the AfD, as well as Italy’s right-wing League Party, the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party. Even as far away as in New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant, who is accused of shooting dead 50 people in Christchurch last month, said in an online manifesto that he had acted in part to avenge Ebba Akerlund, a young girl killed in a jihadist attack in Sweden in 2017.
However, at the same time there have also been significant movements against right-wing groups. A recent survey found that 79 per cent of Germans believe right-wing extremism is a danger to democracy, with a large majority wanting Germany to offer a “place to war refugees”. One week after the protests, a free "Concert against the Right" was held, with the motto "we are more" (#wirsindmehr), which attracted an audience of 65,000. Then, in September 2018, 10 bronze figures of wolves performing Hitler salutes also went on display in Chemnitz, which the organisers described as a protest against “growing hatred” of right-wing groups who were “exploiting our fears”. Recent polling also indicates that the AfD is losing ground within Germany, but they remain a major force within certain regions, and it is clear that many of the deep-rooted social and economic issues that have allowed the group to gain power remain unresolved. Young people across Europe (and elsewhere) continue to be faced by the question about what the Europe of the future should look like, considering the realities of living in an increasingly globalised world. However, as the situation stands, politics remain hugely polarised and divided.