Amid the festive celebrations this month marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this city in eastern Germany has delivered a jolting reminder of a much darker period in the country’s past.
Days before commemoration of the country’s 1989 reunification began, municipal council declared a “Nazi emergency” in Dresden, a city that in recent years has become synonymous with the resurgence of Germany’s far-right. City councillor Max Aschenbach said he introduced the motion – which passed by a 39 to 29 vote – hoping it would draw attention to the scope of Dresden’s problem with extremists, and embarrass Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government into taking action.
Dresden is the birthplace of Pegida, an Islamophobic movement that has spawned branches in several Western countries, including Canada. The group holds biweekly marches through the centre of this otherwise quiet city on the Elbe River, with thousands of people chanting against the presence of refugees from the Middle East and what Pegida says is the rising influence of Islam in both Germany and Europe.
In September elections, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD, surged to become the second-largest party in the regional parliament of Saxony, the state of which Dresden is the capital. Political analysts say the AfD, which captured 27.5 per cent of the popular vote in the Saxony election (versus 12.5 per cent in the 2017 federal election), is an outgrowth of Pegida, one that uses slightly less extreme rhetoric to attract a broader base of supporters.
The result in Saxony was stunning given the AfD came into existence just six years ago.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve seen the right gaining power, not only in the local parliament, but in society as a whole. [The AfD] is a fascist and racist party. There must be something going wrong for so many people to step away from democracy,” Mr. Aschenbach said in an interview.
“The whole political discourse is shifting to the right, and what you are allowed to say and not allowed to say is different than before.”
Pegida’s arguments are based on disinformation and alarmism. Dresden’s aging population of 550,000 remains more than 90 per cent ethnically German, and the city’s character has hardly been changed by the presence of about 2,000 registered Syrian refugees living in centres on the outskirts of the city. It’s rare to see non-white faces, or hear a language other than German, while walking about the cobblestoned city centre.
But the refugees are convenient targets for a sense of resentment that has been percolating in Dresden since the end of the Second World War. The city’s historic centre was obliterated during four days of Allied bombing in February, 1945, an air assault that killed more than 20,000 people and served no apparent military purpose.
The ruins – including the city’s iconic Frauenkirche cathedral, which was destroyed in the raid – were left unrepaired by the Soviet and East German administrations. While most of Germany was busy trying to atone for the country’s Second World War aggression, Dresdeners were being told by their Communist leaders that they were victims of the West.
That embitterment has only deepened since reunification, with many in Dresden and surrounding Saxony believing that the West of Germany has enriched itself since 1989 at the expense of the East. The arrival in Germany of more than one million refugees from the Middle East and beyond in 2015 and 2016 – and the resources the state has deployed trying to integrate them – has created a new focus for that old anger.
“The new right only talks about victimhood. They’re telling society, ‘You’ve been victims your whole life.’ … They’re telling people that, ‘We, the new right, will avenge you,’” said Frank Richter, an expert on far-right movements.
“The new right is aiming at the deepest, most sensitive feelings of the people living here, and that’s why they’ve been so successful. They tell people, ‘You are German, and this is one thing nobody can take away from you,’” said Mr. Richter, who was elected to the Saxony parliament in September as a member of the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party.
The right-wing anger has occasionally bubbled over into violence in Dresden and Saxony. In October, a right-wing extremist wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest shot and killed two people after failing to break into a synagogue in the nearby city of Halle. Last year, a former Pegida member was convicted of planting a small bomb outside a Dresden mosque in 2016.
The city council resolution calls for government and civil society organizations to focus on “fighting the causes of far-right attitudes and their consequences, such as anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia.”
In response to an interview request, a representative of the AfD said that no one from the party could meet with The Globe and Mail while a reporter was in Dresden last week.
In a statement on its website, the AfD poured divisive scorn on the city council’s declaration, saying that if the situation were bad enough to be called a “Nazi emergency,” the city was no longer safe for refugees. “Asylum seekers and migrants must be brought to safety before it is too late!” the statement reads, before going on to suggest that migrants be relocated to the western German city of Bremen.
Others in Dresden, including the local leadership of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, worried the city council’s declaration could damage the city’s reputation and its tourist industry. Herbert Wagner, a well-respected former mayor, said that while Dresden and Saxony had a far-right problem, calling it a “Nazi emergency” exaggerated the scale of it.
In an interview, Mr. Wagner said it was difficult to take Mr. Aschenbach or his efforts seriously since he is a member of Die Party, a satirical movement known for outrageous stunts rather than useful policy initiatives.
But Mr. Aschenbach insisted that, on this occasion, he wasn’t joking.
“In Saxony, we’re all a bit frustrated that we have to deal with [the AfD and Pegida] on a daily basis because there are so many of them here,” he said. “If something doesn’t change soon, the AfD will only get stronger, and one day we’ll have a fascist regime here in Germany.”
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