“For Every Dead German, We’ll Kill a Foreigner": Germany Reckons With the Far Right

Video: Peter Andringa


“For every dead German, we’ll kill a foreigner.”

These chants rang out through the streets of Chemnitz, the largest city in the eastern German state of Saxony, in late August of last year. After a German national was stabbed by two immigrants at a street festival on a Sunday night, thousands of anti-immigrant demonstrators took to the streets to protest what they said was a wave of migrant crime. Protesters flashed Nazi salutes, disparaged immigrants, and chanted calls dating back to celebrations of the end of the communist regime in East Germany.

Throughout the following weeks, individuals of foreign descent residing in Chemnitz and elsewhere in Saxony were verbally attacked and physically assaulted, sometimes even on the sidewalks of their own neighborhoods. Residents joined in a string of vigilante hunts and patrolled the city at all hours of the night attempting to locate the two suspects.

The magnitude of August’s protests may have seemed an outlier to everyday life in Chemnitz, but resident Falk Gruner, a local activist, said it was anything but. Gruner spoke on the rise of xenophobia in the area: “Saxony has [had] a long history since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with fascists, with Nazis, with NPD, the far-right extremist party in the 90s. And the year 2000, 2002, they disappeared, but I think the ideas and the people were still there. Since 2015…they’re the voice again on the street.”

The demonstrations were stoked in part by the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (often stylized AfD). The party, which translates to “Alternative for Germany” in English, claimed 94 seats in the 2017 election, making it the third-largest political party in the country. The AfD’s official Twitter account has over 130,000 followers and tweets dozens of times daily, typically releasing messages about either AfD politicians and campaigns or anti-immigrant rhetoric. Gruner told of AfD members and sympathizers “waiting to pounce” on circumstances involving nationals and immigrants, claiming the events in August created the perfect storm to spark a public outpour of extremism.

Nico Schmolke, a freelance journalist published in The Berliner Zeitung and Zeit Online, said the AfD’s supporters were remarkably organized. According to Schmolke, local factions discuss the topics and events warranting coverage at the start of every morning, then release commentary and plans of action by the day’s end. “I think [the police] underestimated the power of social media to get people in a short time together in this place,” Gruner echoed. “There were warning signs.”

In addition to what many labeled a lack of preparation, Chemnitz police also drew criticism for the absence of enforcement at the protests. Only a handful of demonstrators signaling Nazi salutes were arrested, despite the fact that public Nazi salutes were designated a federal crime in Germany during the Cold War. Gruner said the lack of enforcement might have stemmed from a certain level of sympathy for right-wing extremism among Chemnitz’ public agencies. “Statistically, 30 percent of the people here in Saxony vote for the AfD…the police get their people from the [community], so you can assume that 30 percent of the policemen also vote for AfD.”

Eastern Germany’s own jail cells reveal a disturbing history of police brutality seemingly directed towards migrants in the region. In 2005, Oury Jalloh, a migrant from Sierra Leone, was taken into custody in Dessau for allegedly harassing two women while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The next morning, Jalloh was found burned to death, and prison guards claimed he had torn a hole in his flame-retardant mattress and set it ablaze with a lighter they failed to confiscate during his booking. The official account was fraught with irregularities — forensic evidence found no trace of Jalloh’s DNA on the lighter in question.

German authorities again came under fire six years later for allegedly neglecting to pursue a right-wing terrorist cell responsible for 10 murders between 2000 and 2007. Following the release of a grisly DVD juxtaposing images of executed migrants with clips from “The Pink Panther", a tumultuous four-year trial was launched to investigate the role of the police in enabling the extremist operation. Many suspected the German authorities had intentionally avoided connecting the murders to each other and pursuing the killers.

The victims’ families claimed neither the expansive court proceedings nor the 1,300-page investigation conducted by the Bundestag shed any light on the authorities’ behavior. Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving defendant after her accomplices killed themselves in an apparent suicide pact, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in July. The trial concluded without any of the over 100 police officers said to be involved in the scandal being charged.

Purported right-wing extremist sympathies have even extended to the highest level of the German government. In September of last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel removed her chief of domestic security, Hans Georg Maassen, after the two butted heads over Maassen downplaying the severity of the right-wing violence in Chemnitz. The former head of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution had publicly doubted the authenticity of video footage allegedly showing migrants being chased down by right-wing extremists in the Saxony town.

Contrary to the brazenness of anti-immigrant protesters in Chemnitz and elsewhere, others claimed that in general, the German people are particularly wary of publicly discussing the Holocaust and its historical persecution of Jews and other minorities. Tina Lee, a Berlin-area researcher and co-founder of Migration Voter, an online platform providing “reliable, fully sourced information on the migration topics that dominate election coverage,” said that criticizing Israel and endorsing conspiracy theories related to the Holocaust were “big taboos” in Germany.

Still, she also noted that the reluctance of many Germans to even discuss Nazi history seemed to hint at a refusal to reckon with the country’s past. Lee recalled that monuments dedicated to those who died in the Holocaust, predominantly individuals of the Jewish faith, have been criticized for not being explicit enough about their purpose.

More intentional efforts of remembrance are just one of several strategies activists and researchers are employing to mitigate incidents of right-wing violence.

German states like Berlin, as well as the federal government, allocate funding to research and advocacy establishments dedicated to combating right-wing extremism. One such group is the Berlin Register, an organization that documents incidents of right-wing violence and a host of other hate crimes. The Berlin Register’s website states that it is funded by the federal state of Berlin’s Program Against Right-Wing Extremism, Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism. Register Coordinator Kati Becker said that police records of related events generally fell short of the numbers she gathered from speaking to other organizations tracking these types of incidents, partly because they sometimes go unreported. “A lot of people of color or refugees are frightened to go to the police,” she claimed.

Mathias Wörsching, a researcher at the Mobile Counsel Against Right-Wing Extremism (MBR) located in Berlin, said the organization had taken on a larger role in recent years. Though Wörsching noted that his team had seen early indicators of a resurgence in the far right as early as 2013, he said the “breaking point” was 2015, when Germany accepted 1.1 million incoming refugees. “There are more and more people who are telling us that racist and far-right attitudes are getting into their own personal surroundings, like families, like neighborhoods, like workplaces,” he said. Wörsching stated that the MBR, like the Berlin Register, also receives both state and federal funding to support its research efforts.

Ann Esswein, a journalist in Berlin, discussed space occupation as a means of preventing neo-Nazis and similar right-wing extremist groups from staging public demonstrations. According to Esswein, community groups and local governments often plan concerts or festivals in heavily populated areas to ensure that right-wing protesters cannot congregate in these places. Wörsching described helping organize one of these events in 2001: “It is a lot about a, so to say, ‘counterculture’ to these right-wing subcultures that are still quite strong in some parts of Berlin and [that] have grown stronger in recent years.” He pointed out, “One of the main key points is that the local authorities and opinion leaders…take a position against these right-wing tendencies and that they are supporting those people who want to work against it.

The German government has even dedicated a multi-party working group in the Bundestag to combating extremism and xenophobia. Susann Rüthrich has chaired the group, Strategies to Counter Right-Wing Extremism, since 2014. Rüthrich is a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party and represents the federal constituency of Meissen, a city in the Saxony region an hour north of Chemnitz. As a member of the German parliament, Rüthrich is familiar with the Alternative für Deutschland’s leaders. She said the conduct of her AfD counterparts in the Bundestag was sometimes hostile: “People who formerly would have walked on the streets of Dresden on any given Monday, threatening me and wishing death upon me, now have a place in the Bundestag as visiting groups and as colleagues.”

Rüthrich said she was more worried by the apparent normalcy of the neo-Nazi outlook than by the right-wing extremists themselves. “I’m more concerned that so many “normal” people — the father with a child on his shoulders, the retiree — are comfortable standing alongside Nazis,” the MP remarked. Gruner suggested the same: “People are saying things they wouldn’t have said before,” the Chemnitz resident claimed.

The trial of the Syrian man suspected to have been involved in the August stabbing began in March. The individual’s defense lawyers requested that the trial be held outside of Saxony state for safety concerns, but it was instead moved to Dresden. That same day in Chemnitz, less than an hour’s drive away, hundreds of individuals gathered to attend the funeral of a local neo-Nazi figure and mourn his passing.