When hundreds of people protested against the construction of accommodation for asylum seekers in Dresden-Klotzsche on 15 October, it was seen as barely a newsworthy event. Two of the three daily papers in Dresden, the capital of the East German state of Saxony, didn’t report it, and the third, Sächsische Zeitung, published only a few sentences on page ten. According to the newspaper, a 300-strong crowd chanted “Merkel muß weg” (“Merkel has to go”) and a speaker demanded that Germany close its borders.
Klotzsche, once a town in its own right, is one of Dresden’s northern suburbs. Its grand houses recall the days in the second half of the nineteenth century when the city’s wealthy burghers saw it as a desirable place to live. In recent years, it has attracted technology companies and three Fraunhofer research institutes, among them the well-known Center for Nanoelectronic Technologies. Sleepy but pleasant and reasonably affluent, Klotzsche shows comparatively few signs of having once been part of the German Democratic Republic.
Last week’s demonstration was co-organised by the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD, which was established in early 2013 by Bernd Lucke, a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg. Lucke’s aim was to harness the eurosceptic vote and provide an option for voters opposed to Germany’s bailing out of Greece and other eurozone countries. The party narrowly failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold in the 2013 national elections; in 2014 and 2015, it won more than 7 per cent of the vote in the European elections and managed to send elected representatives to five state parliaments, including Saxony’s, where it attracted just under 10 per cent of the vote. In July 2015, Lucke and other prominent members left the AfD because they felt that the party had moved too far to the Islamophobic and xenophobic right.
At the Klotzsche protest, the AfD provided the PA system and supplied the protesters with placards. The men who addressed the crowd in front of the Klotzsche Rathaus, the building that once housed the town’s mayor and its local administration, were both prominent representatives of the party. One was André Wendt, a forty-four-year-old professional soldier and current member of the state parliament of Saxony.
The other organisation behind the protest was Dresden–Klotzsche sagt nein zum Heim (Dresden-Klotzsche Says No to an Asylum Seeker Hostel), a local organisation formed late last year after the state government announced long-term plans to accommodate sixty asylum seekers in a former school in the suburb. Its first public protest was in November last year, and its main vehicle of communication, a Facebook page, has attracted a little over 2700 likes. The focus of the group’s anger shifted in September when the mass arrivals of irregular migrants forced the state government to identify new housing options. Late last month, the government decided to build makeshift housing for 500 new arrivals on a former carpark near the airport. Work on the buildings has already begun and is scheduled to be completed next month.
It’s hard to say how many of Klotzsche’s residents were among the protesters last week. But I’m sure the Sächsische Zeitung was wrong about the overall numbers; rather than 300 people, as the newspaper reported, at least twice as many demonstrators gathered in front of the Rathaus. I suspect that most of them were locals, because few seemed to arrive by car or public transport and many appeared to know each other. Men aged between twenty and seventy dominated, but there were also many couples and some families with small children. Some of the protesters had the flag of Saxony or the German black, red and gold. I didn’t see anybody wearing a neo-Nazi outfit.
André Wendt told the crowd that extremist placards or slogans would not be tolerated. He and other right-wing populists are keenly aware that Germany’s penal code includes a provision against Volksverhetzung – the incitement of hatred against ethnic, religious or national groups, or the violation of a person’s human dignity by abusing them because they belong to such a group – and that these crimes carry a prison sentence of between three months and five years.
Wendt is a demagogue whose speech condoned and incited hatred. But it was the style of his speech, rather than its substance, that was particularly objectionable. For him it was important to stress that what the AfD was doing that evening was perfectly legal. It was Merkel who had broken European and German law, he argued, by inviting irregular migrants to enter Germany in early September. He also portrayed the AfD as defenders of the rule of law and of the German constitution, ignoring the fact that Article 16a, which guarantees the right to asylum, is an integral part of the constitution’s bill of rights.
The organisers also took issue with one of the other rights guaranteed by the constitution, freedom of the press. While the crowd was waiting for the event to start, Wendt asked any journalists present to make themselves known to the organisers. They would not tolerate journalists taking close-ups of demonstrators, he said, because such photos would contravene German privacy laws. The demand that journalists report to the organisers conveyed a thinly veiled threat that unauthorised reporting would have negative consequences.
One freelance photographer ignored the warning. When he was observed taking pictures of the demonstration, an altercation ensued, and stewards handed the journalist over to the police. The state police sided with the demonstrators – after all, they told the journalist, he had not obeyed the organisers’ directions. It was only when federal police arrived on the scene that the journalist was told that he had every right to document the protest.
Not all media representatives were unwelcome. The protesters clapped and cheered when Wendt announced that a camera crew from Russia Today, a Russian television network broadcasting in German, was covering the proceedings. This was no surprise. On a poster advertising the rally, Dresden–Klotzsche sagt nein zum Heim had demanded that Germany leave NATO and that the United States end their “wars of aggression.” In East Germany, the government’s right-wing critics side with Russia against Ukraine and admire Vladimir Putin (although since August their undisputed hero has been Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, whom they believe to be defending Europe against invading refugees).
Stewards explained to me that some of the protesters were afraid of repercussions (for example, at their workplace) if photos of them were published; despite their assertions that they were upholding the rule of law, they seemed to be conscious that their protest could easily be seen as entirely inappropriate. But the antipathy towards German media representatives was also reminiscent of the chants “Lügenpresse, Lügenpresse” (“the press are liars”) that have been a feature of the Pegida demonstrations. In fact, the protest in Klotzsche was in many respects a suburban version of the resurgent Pegida rallies in the centre of Dresden.
Early this year, I was one among many observers who were convinced that Pegida – its full name is Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) – was on its last legs. The charismatic founder of this xenophobic populist movement, Lutz Bachmann, had been forced to surrender his leadership when a newspaper revealed he had used the derogatory term Viehzeug (animals) to refer to refugees, had suggested prominent Greens politician Claudia Roth be shot, and had posed as Adolf Hitler and posted the picture on Facebook. And even during Pegida’s heyday in the last northern winter, the counter-demonstrations tended to be larger than the Pegida rallies themselves.
Now Bachmann is back, and Pegida is again attracting large crowds. On the organisation’s first anniversary, 19 October, around 20,000 supporters rallied in Dresden. A crowd of 20,000 protested against Pegida that evening. Given that many organisations and individuals, including Dresden’s mayor, had condemned Pegida and called on Dresden’s citizens to join one of the six counter-rallies, the number of anti-Pegida protesters was smaller than might have been expected. And this time around, there are no large anti-Pegida demonstrations in other German cities. That’s despite the fact that Pegida is increasingly attracting right-wing extremists, and despite the fact that most of those who – like Social Democratic vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel – advocated a dialogue with Pegida earlier this year are now convinced that the movement needs to be isolated. (A demonstration by the islamophobic HoGeSa – which stands for Hooligans against Salafists – in Germany’s fourth-largest city, Cologne, on Sunday attracted only 1000 Hogesa followers, while 10,000 people protested against them; in Dresden the next day, Pegida marshalled at least 10,000 supporters but no more than 1300 people attended a protest organised by its opponents.)
The federal government is increasingly alarmed by Pegida’s radicalism and the support it enjoys, particularly in Saxony. At the rally on 12 October, one demonstrator carried two symbolic gallows, one for Merkel and one for Gabriel. The public prosecutor in Dresden is investigating – and has already been threatened by Pegida supporters. The outcry following the publication of an image of the gallows helps explain why André Wendt was anxious to avoid saying – or providing a platform for – anything that could be interpreted as unlawful.
Pegida’s provocations didn’t stop with the 12 October demonstration. A week later, one of the speakers, the writer Akif Pirinçci, said that concentration camps “are unfortunately currently out of action.” Again, the prosecutor is investigating, and Pirinçci is likely to be charged with Volksverhetzung.
The government, civil society organisations, the mainstream media and many ordinary Germans are increasingly alarmed by the fact that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants has provided oxygen to xenophobes and right-wing extremists. Two developments are of particular concern. Increasingly, particularly in East Germany, it is difficult to distinguish protesters with irrational and diffuse fears of foreigners from neo-Nazis. Several protests have turned violent, with the kind of people who protested in Klotzsche last week providing cover for hooligans and far-right extremists intent on attacking asylum seeker accommodation. So far, these protests have been largely confined to East Germany.
Several public protests have also taken place in smaller centres in West Germany. In the small town of Bad Marienberg in Rhineland-Palatinate, for example, 300 people demonstrated last week against plans to build accommodation for 3000 refugees. But on that occasion, 2000 others, including the state premier, joined a simultaneous rally under the catchcry “bunt statt braun” (“colourful instead of brown”), to demonstrate that most Bad Marienbergers were welcoming refugees.
The other issue concerns the numerous arson attacks on buildings designated to house asylum seekers, and the credible threats of violence against refugees, their supporters and political leaders who are held responsible for the welcome extended to refugees. In the first nine months of this year, according to the Bundeskriminalamt, Germany’s federal criminal investigation agency, there were 461 attacks on buildings designed to accommodate asylum seekers. According to the agency, most of these attacks were perpetrated by locals, most of them young men.
The threats against individuals have so far largely remained just that: threats. But a local politician, Henriette Reker, was stabbed and critically injured by a man who claimed that he acted because he was opposed to the arrival of refugees. Reker had been in charge of the accommodation of refugees in Cologne, and stood as an independent for the office of mayor of Cologne in elections held on 18 October. The attack happened on the day before the elections, and she was in an induced coma in intensive care when Cologne’s voters went to the polling booths. She was supported by the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats and the Greens, and won the elections resoundingly ahead of her opponent, a Social Democrat. But the outcome of the vote tells only part of the story: about 60 per cent of the electorate didn’t bother to cast a vote – even though it was obvious that a high participation rate would have sent a strong signal.
The protests against the arrival of asylum seekers are supported by the AfD, which polls suggest would comfortably exceed the 5 per cent threshold for representation in federal parliament if elections were held now. More importantly, the protesters are egged on by numerous bloggers and on countless Facebook pages. That’s what distinguishes these anti–asylum seeker protests from those in the early 1990s, when Germany accommodated hundreds of thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Then, social media played no part in mobilising xenophobic sentiments.
In the early 1990s, unlike now, politicians who belonged to the mainstream political parties joined the chorus of those who claimed that most refugees were bogus asylum seekers, and that Germany was being swamped by a flood of foreigners. Those sentiments were also shared by commentators in the mainstream media, including the mass circulation tabloid Bild, which at the time had a daily print run of approximately 4.5 million.
The current angst in Saxony, however, resembles the hysteria of the early 1990s. Arguably, Saxony is a hotbed of right-wing populism and anti–asylum seeker rhetoric in 2015 partly because the established parties here – and particularly the Christian Democrats – have not been prepared to distance themselves from the likes of Pegida’s Lutz Bachmann. Earlier this year, interior minister Markus Ulbig met with Pegida’s then spokesperson, Kathrin Oertel. And Saxony’s premier, the Christian Democrat Stanislaw Tillich, defended Pegida against its critics by saying that “Islam does not belong to Saxony.” At the same time Tillich criticised Angela Merkel, who in January had told the Turkish prime minister, “The former president Christian Wulff once said, ‘Islam belongs to Germany.’ That’s right. I share that view.” Significantly, while Rhineland-Palatinate’s premier and members of her cabinet joined the “bunt statt braun” rally in Bad Marienberg on 22 October, Tillich and Oertel did not take part in the anti-Pegida demonstration three days earlier.
Those concerned about the growing resentment towards refugees find it difficult to counter the propaganda on the internet. Newspapers and radio and television programs try to dispel some of the myths being peddled online – that the crime rate is higher among asylum seekers, for instance, or that school students aren’t able to do sports because refugees are being accommodated in gymnasiums. Sometimes those opposed to the government’s refugee policy draw on isolated incidents to make claims about the behaviour of all asylum seekers. A few months ago, for example, an asylum seeker in the small Rhineland town of Lindlar was accused of having stolen and then slaughtered a goat. This has led to rumours that asylum seekers are routinely stealing animals, including pets, to butcher them.
Today, Bild is supporting Merkel and actively campaigning against racists and xenophobes. Last week the tabloid published the names and photos of dozens of people who had written hateful comments about refugees on Facebook. Are such attempts at outing racists legitimate? Shouldn’t those who are trying to counter racist propaganda play by the rules? But what exactly are these rules? Do they oblige the public broadcaster to provide an opportunity for the AfD to air its concerns on talk shows? Or would it be more appropriate – and would it be entirely legitimate – to ostracise the AfD and exclude it from discussions about how to tackle the refugee crisis?
The protesters in Klotzsche and the Pegida demonstrators are aggrieved because they believe that “the media” are not telling their side of the story. They feel isolated and misunderstood. “Lügenpresse, Lügenpresse,” they chant, and “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”). The latter was the battle cry of the East German civil rights movement in October 1989, which was soon drowned out by a different assertion, “Wir sind ein Volk” (“We are one people”).
This time, “Wir sind das Volk” conveys two messages, namely that Merkel and the German government are neither representing the people nor acting in Germany’s interest, and that the Syrians, Eritreans, Afghans and Albanians who are entering the country in large numbers are not – and must not become – part of the German people.
Germans who support the populist far right and who join the weekly Pegida protests in Dresden say they are opposed to welcoming refugees because they fear that Germany as they know it will change beyond recognition. They invoke “unsere Heimat” (our home, or homeland) and say that it is under threat from people who speak other languages, were socialised in foreign cultures and have non-Christian religious beliefs. The problem of the Klotzsche protesters is that while their Germany still exists in much of Saxony it has been superseded in most other parts of Germany, perhaps even including Leipzig, the largest city in Saxony.
Pegida demonstrators and members of the Dresden–Klotzsche sagt nein zum Heim group fear that their idea of Germany is under threat. Their fear is real – not because of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, but because of the multicultural fabric of most of German society. According to the Federal Statistics Office, at the end of last year just over 10 per cent of German residents were non-citizens. In Saxony, the proportion was 3.1 per cent, and in rural eastern Saxony, where the support for Pegida is particularly strong, the figure is less than 2 per cent. The Federal Statistics Office counts only those people as Ausländer (non-Germans) who aren’t German citizens. For many people in monocultural Saxony, however, Ausländer include naturalised Germans; if they were included in the statistics, the difference between the southeast of Germany and the rest of the country would be even more pronounced.
But the xenophobes in Dresden and its hinterland aren’t just afraid of the kind of people they have hardly ever met. They are also resentful of Germans in Hamburg and Munich, Berlin and Cologne who don’t seem to mind foreigners, including those who come to Germany as refugees.
Right-wing extremists who torch asylum seeker hostels are probably as common elsewhere in Germany as they are in Saxony. Everywhere in Germany a sizeable proportion of the population disagrees when Merkel says that the constitution’s Article 16a doesn’t allow an upper limit to be put on the number of asylum applications Germany accepts. And everywhere, many Germans are afraid of foreigners, and fearful of the changes that might result from the arrival of a large number of refugees. Thus far, however, xenophobes in Hamburg or Cologne are far less likely to go public with their views. In West Germany, at least, there is still a consensus that a welcoming, cosmopolitan and tolerant Germany is desirable and that xenophobia, parochialism and jingoism would signal a return to the Nazi past. •