Matthias Kolb is an editor for Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, and an Arthur F. Burns fellow.
Earlier this week, for two days in a row, far-right protesters roamed the streets of the eastern German city of Chemnitz shouting slogans such as “Foreigners out!” The first march was organized on Sunday, after the fatal stabbing of a German citizen that authorities blame on a Syrian and an Iraqi. Refugees were kicked, beaten and chased through Chemnitz while the local police failed to stop the ugly scene. On Monday, the police barely managed to keep 5,000 neo-Nazis separated from left-wing activists and citizens demonstrating for a tolerant Saxony. Authorities blocked streets with water cannons, stones were thrown and 18 people were injured.
The goal of the far-right has been achieved: They wanted to show who controls the streets of Saxony and who dominates the discourse. And what could be better evidence of this than families marching alongside neo-Nazis with children repeating their slogans? While the pictures from Chemnitz shocked the world, Germans were hardly surprised. Sadly, Saxony has become synonymous with narrow-mindedness and fear of foreigners. Of its four million inhabitants, only 171,000 are non-Germans and nearly all of them live in big cities such as Dresden, Leipzig or Chemnitz.
Back in the summer of 2015, after refugees were attacked in several Saxon cities, then-president Joachim Gauck called Saxony “Dunkeldeutschland,” the dark Germany, and praised citizens who support refugees. This has become controversial in a region where support for the xenophobic Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) party is the highest in the country. In the 2017 federal elections, AfD got more votes in Saxony – 27 per cent – than the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel’s party, which received 26. 9 per cent and had dominated regional politics since the reunification in 1990.
AfD could win the regional elections in 2019. This would be a huge blow for Ms. Merkel, who has governed Germany since 2005 and faces inner-party criticism for her decision in 2015 to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq. To secure power for Saxony’s CDU, Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer has tried to be as anti-migrant and anti-establishment as possible – a strategy that rarely works because angry voters seem to prefer the original.
The question “Why Saxony?” has been discussed for years on German news shows. Almost three decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the regions of the former socialist East are the poorest in the country. Saxony’s GDP per capita stands at 75 per cent of the national average and at about 66 per cent of the level that Bavaria enjoys. The feeling of being second-class citizens is widespread in Eastern Germany, mainly in rural areas. Many talented Saxons, and especially young women, finish their education in the West or look for jobs there and never return. But among the Eastern regions, Saxony is the most successful, so the rise of the far right has to be more than about the economy.
The most important reason for the rise of the far right in Saxony is ignorance and denial. For decades, the CDU government refused to speak out against anti-migrant sentiments and let neo-Nazi groups organize in the state. Researchers and politicians who raised alarm were accused of Saxony-bashing. This attitude can be found among police officers, judges and mayors who were willing to play down horrible events. For example, in 2015, a right-wing terrorist group planted bombs under the car of a pro-refugee politician in the city of Freital.
Over the years, the political climate has shifted to the right, which has clearly emboldened supporters of the AfD. They claim to represent “the people” who are left behind because Berlin seems to care more about refugees. The slogan “Wir sind das Volk” can be heard every Monday in Dresden, where the far-right Pegida protests started in 2014. The symbolism is revealing: “We are the people” was the motto of the peaceful mass demonstrations against the communist regime in 1989 and AfD portrays itself as the successor movement. Covering these demonstrations has become dangerous for journalists, who are insulted as “lying press” (a phrase from the Hitler years) and regularly get attacked physically. Public broadcasting stations send out security staff to accompany their TV teams.
With two regional elections in October, it seems unlikely that the situation will calm down before then. There are a lot of calls for Ms. Merkel to travel to Chemnitz and not to shy away from the “Merkel has to go” protest chants that welcome her everywhere in the region. Such a visit would help to prove that AfD does not represent the majority of Eastern Germans and that liberal democracy is worth defending. Some analysts see a glimmer of hope in Tuesday’s remarks by Mr. Kretschmer, who promised to fight far-right structures in Saxony. Since his predecessors were unwilling to acknowledge their existence, this is an important first step. Many more have to follow in order to limit the threats posed by violent neo-Nazis, to contain AfD’s appeal among angry German voters, and to return to a more rational debate about refugees and migration.