As German chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in the eastern Saxon city of Chemnitz on Sunday, Mustafa B., a Turkish medical student who had moved to the city two months ago, was trying to figure out if it was safe to cross the road. The reason for his apprehension lay across the street: A group of men dressed in all black had begun to march up and down the sidewalk. “Thanks Merkel!” they screamed as their leader, a former member of the neo-Nazi Blood and Honor movement, shouted further slogans into his microphone.
Mustafa B. turned to a nearby policemen to ask about the purpose of the protest. The officer snorted: “Do you understand sarcasm?”
Since the far-right riots in late August and September this year triggered after a German man was allegedly murdered by two asylum seekers, downtown Chemnitz has played host to weekly demonstrations against immigrants and the government seen as letting them in. The group that gathers features individuals seemingly further right than the strongly anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD). The AfD politicians who joined the protests in early September “just got into their expensive cars and disappeared” afterwards, said Benjamin Jahn Zschocke, the spokesperson for local lawyer Martin Kohlmann, who speaks weekly at these Friday night gatherings. Kohlmann attends summits where former SS members and Holocaust deniers give speeches about life in Nazi Germany. At his Friday night addresses, he calls for armed “resistance” against the German government over its pro-immigration policy.
To some locals, all these events are being blown out of proportion by German and international media. Yet NGOs have recorded a significant increase in hate crimes in Chemnitz, the state of Saxony and elsewhere in Germany in the past two months coinciding with the uptick in far-right activity. And it’s enough to make those who stand out—whether with an anti-fascist sticker on their backpacks or external appearances that don’t immediately code as “German”—start worrying about their safety.
Standing in the crowd outside the auditorium in which Merkel was speaking on Sunday, a 50-year-old nurse with blonde bangs named Marlene told me she’d been marching with the far-right Pro Chemnitz demonstrators every week since the summer. On the night after Daniel Hinnig, the man whose death triggered the riots, was stabbed, she was on the streets with the other far right protesters. She didn’t see neo-Nazis chasing migrants or performing illegal Hitler salutes, she told me—video footage and eyewitness accounts of the banned salutes eventually led to prosecutions—and is convinced the government lied about them. Since then, however, the core group of hooligans and skinheads at the Pro Chemnitz rallies has been impossible to overlook.
In 2016, the recorded number of racist and xenophobic attacks in Germany spiked dramatically. But last year, despite the xenophobic Alternative for Germany being elected into parliament for the first time as the leading opposition party, that number decreased. So for Andre Löscher, who is a counsellor for victims of far-right violence in Chemnitz, it was scary to note that since the riots in August, forty-seven racist hate crimes have been reported, which is already twice the total number of hate crimes recorded for the small city last year. Four restaurants have been attacked. On September 14, a group of men walked into a park and threw a glass bottle at a 26-year-old Iranian’s head after demanding to see his and his friends’ identification; it later turned out that some of the men in the group of attackers were making a plan via Whatsapp to buy guns and “overthrow the media dictatorship and its slaves” on the anniversary day of German reunification, on October 3. On the 80-year anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom against Germany’s Jews, a dozen “stumbling stones”—bronze plaques that commemorate residents who died in the Holocaust—were smeared with oily tar, while the Pro Chemnitz lawyer made a call to arms against “the Merkel regime.”
A similar pattern of violence has played out in Wurzen, another Saxon city that was previously terrorized by neo-Nazis in the post-reunification chaos of the 90s. Recently, there have been a series of arson attacks and physical assaults on the street. In the evenings, youths who call themselves “the people’s militia” get drunk and march through the city chanting “Out, foreigners!” They’re the sorts of street protest associated with the groups like PEGIDA (an acronym that stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West). In Saxony, Löscher has observed that when Pegida and other far right demonstrations started to wane a few years ago, hate crimes decreased in the areas where protests stopped. Now, both the demonstrations and the hate crimes seem to be back. “When so many people are moving around in the streets and notice that they are many,” he says, “It really motivates them.”
Yet there are signs of pushback. A few weeks ago, the Chemnitz city council installed shiny new cameras in the city center to restore a sense of security. In Berlin, 242,000 people took to the streets last month to protest against the far right. 75,000 people showed up in September to an anti-racism rock concert in Chemnitz. Next week will be the first time since August that Pro Chemnitz will not hold their Friday night rally. And barely two weeks after the far-right’s nemesis, Angela Merkel, announced that she would not seek re-election as German chancellor—cause for celebration among the anti-immigrant crowd—demonstrations during her Sunday visit were relatively restrained.
Like the far-right street movements before them, and also somewhat like President Donald Trump in the United States, speakers at the Pro Chemnitz rallies do their best to assure people that the media lies about their crowd size. (“I see at least 5000 people!”, one guy blustered at Friday night’s rally. The police estimated 2,500.) But however intimidating they may understandably be to their targets, it’s also clear the groups lack real momentum. “We are too few,” one man says. He has been active in far-right politics since he broke up with his long-term girlfriend one year ago. But now that daylight is limited and winter is coming, “I can also think of other things to do on a Friday night instead of freezing my ass off here.” Even Marlene, who spent most of the evening reciting the latest conspiracy theories the far-right has concocted based on the UN migration pact, and who is convinced that “doom is coming,” agrees.
But whether the demonstrators begin to dwindle or not, something has shifted in Chemnitz, and in a way earlier generations might find disturbing: Increasingly, a past once seen as unforgivable is starting to be normalized. Some of the first-time demonstrators—people who don’t pledge allegiance to any right-wing extremist group, but who have in past weeks joined the crowd that chants “Out, foreigners!”—have begun to angrily describe themselves as “Nazis” on social media, in response to what they perceive to be the political and cultural establishment’s unfair stereotyping. “For some, these skinheads are their friends and neighbors,” Phillip T., a young Chemnitz photographer, said. “They think: well if he’s a Nazi for not wanting immigrants here, then I guess I am too.”
This suits the radical right just fine: A neo-Nazi label in Thuringia has already started printing T-shirts that read “N.A.Z.I: Nicht an Zuwanderung interessiert,” which translates to: “Not interested in immigration.” As 2018 draws to a close, some of Germany’s most painful history is getting rebranded.
Given the volatile situation in Chemnitz in recent months, we have identified several private individuals in this article by first name only.