This past week is hardly the first time I’ve seen far-right groups marching on eastern German streets using forbidden Nazi imagery or slogans.
Long before Chancellor Angela Merkel decided in 2015 that Germany would unequivocally welcome the largest refugee wave in her country’s modern history, neo-Nazis and other right-wing nationalists used World War II anniversaries to spread fear and clash with counter-demonstrators.
The difference back then was that few of those protestors were from the communities they demonstrated in.
That wasn’t the case in Chemnitz on Saturday, where many — if not most — of the far-right marchers were from the city itself or the state of Saxony where it’s located. What I observed backed right-wing extremists’ claims that their popular support in Germany is growing.
It isn’t a surprise, given the far-right party, Alternative for Germany, (AfD) elected to the German Bundestag, or parliament, for the first time last fall, got its largest percentage of votes in Saxony. It’s now the main opposition bloc in the Bundestag.
Merkel, her government and state and local officials’ response has been to largely dismiss such electoral results as flukes that can be overcome by shifting their policies a bit to the right. They’ve also refused to work with the far-right politicians, much as they’ve rejected working with the main successor to the former Communists, called Die Linke or “The Left” party.
But if opinion polls are to be believed, their approach isn’t winning voters back, certainly not in Chemnitz. The anti-fascist, counter-rally in Chemnitz on Saturday, which was organized and endorsed by German local, state and federal officials, drew only a third of the crowd that the far-right marches did. Officials later revised those figures to suggest a more equitable distribution between the competing demonstrations, although the earlier numbers seemed more in line with what I and other journalists in Chemnitz saw.
But most surprising to me was what I witnessed beyond the police cordons: Chemnitz and Saxony residents openly harassing their neighbors who don’t “look” German. For example, Naji el-Ali.
The 52-year-old Palestinian immigrant who said he’s lived in the eastern city since 1991, was accosted near the makeshift memorial for the victim of the crime that sparked the recent violence. Daniel Hillig, a 35-year-old Cuban-German carpenter was fatally stabbed on Aug. 26, allegedly by a 23-year-old Syrian and 22-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker.
As Ali and his two young sons approached the shrine of flowers and candles in Chemnitz on Saturday, a small group of white German men in leather jackets standing nearby pointed at the immigrant and declared in German: “There’s a Muslim.” They quickly surrounded the Palestinian family and began badgering the father about Islamic scripture.
Here’s a translation of some of their exchange in German, which I recorded:
German man No. 1: Islam encourages killing.
Ali: No –
German man No. 2: Of course it does.
German man No. 1: Are you familiar with the Quran?
Ali: Yes –
German man No. 1: It’s filled with orders to kill.
Ali: The Bible is filled with the same thing –
German man No. 2: No, those are only stories.
Ali: We need to get to the truth of what happened —
German man No. 1: [The Prophet] Muhammad led wars, he beheaded Jews and ordered the killing of unbelievers, read your Quran!
Ali and his interrogators were soon shouting. Hillig’s alleged killers “are your people!” one of the German men charged.
“No, they are not!” Ali shot back. “I reject what happened to him.” He also explained that while his wife wears a head scarf, they are both religiously moderate.
The second German man later tried comforting Ali and said: “It’s OK, you don’t really look Muslim.”
Ali told me he no longer feels safe in Chemnitz, “not just because of me, but because of my two kids. They are German, but people look at us suspiciously … I can defend myself, but they can’t.”
A 46-year-old German woman in the crowd that gathered as the verbal sparring unfolded went up and hugged Ali, kissing him on the cheek. She told me her name was Elke and said she’s known Ali since she was 18 and that they were once neighbors.
“All Chemnitz residents know each other,” she said. “We never had problems if someone was a foreigner or where they stand politically.”
She added: “But in the past three years, Germans are scared to go on the streets or leave our houses early in the morning because you have it in the back of your mind that something is going to happen.”
The reason, Elke told me, is that crime has risen dramatically in the city over the past three years since Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan migrants have moved there. “I’ve known Ali since he was, I was 18. I can’t say he’s a criminal. He’s not. I have a lot of foreign friends like him around Chemnitz. But I’ve never experienced refugees like these.”
That narrative is one the AfD and other far-right factions have convinced many eastern Germans is true, even though German police say crime across Saxony is actually down, nor disproportionately committed by foreigners.
Nor is Chemnitz being overrun by migrants, as they account for less than 8 percent of the city’s 247,000 residents, a percentage that is significantly lower than many other cities like Frankfurt and Munich, where more than a quarter of the residents are foreign born.
But such official statistics mean little to many eastern German citizens. They don’t trust the federal government, which is still struggling to bring the standard of living in the formerly communist region up to par with those in western Germany. Chemnitz, which was called Karl-Marx-Stadt before the Berlin Wall fell, is among many eastern cities that saw their industries collapse after German reunification in 1990.
At the same time, far-right groups are capitalizing on the dwindling trust by spinning facts – if not making up stories altogether. One faction stirring the pot in Chemnitz is a citizens initiative called Pro Chemnitz, which holds three city council seats.
The group claimed on Facebook the stabbing victim, Hillig, was “a courageous helper who lost his life as he tried to protect a woman.” The Aug. 26 post is still online, long after police dismissed the claim as false.
Authorities have been tight-lipped about what their investigation shows and the suspects so far have given no public explanation.
Also lacking is a definitive plan on how to win back Germans who are moving ever further right.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the tabloid giant Bild in an interview published on Sunday that his fellow citizens need to “show their true colors” against Neo-Nazis and stop taking freedom for granted.
But to Pro Chemnitz leader Martin Kohlmann, freedom is Germans speaking out against the danger he and others claim is posed by Muslim immigrants. He told protestors this past Saturday: “What happened here was terrible and we will not be silenced.”