Chemnitz riots reveal new German migration fault line
Between two camps – neo-Nazis and anti-fascists – stood 700 nervous police
Demonstrators attend a vigil to protest against racism. Photograph: Alexander Becher/EPA
It all played out this week under the doleful gaze of the massive Karl Marx head in Chemnitz.
Saxony’s third-largest city was, in East German times, named after the philosopher and political theorist until reverting to its historic name in 1990.
Last Sunday at 3.15am near the 7m statue, Daniel Hillig, a local 35-year-old carpenter with a German mother and Cuban father, was stabbed and died a short time later of his injuries in hospital.
Two friends were also injured in the scuffle and, as news spread, locals began laying flowers on the scarlet-splattered paving stones where the fatal attack took place.
Within 24 hours, after the arrest of Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seeker suspects, the crime scene had become the latest fault line in Germany’s unresolved refugee debate.
An estimated 5,000 neo-Nazis, violent football hooligans and angry locals, joined a “march of mourning” for the dead man. Many of the crowd – mostly men aged 20-50 – held signs reading “Stop the asylum flood”; others with free hands gave the forbidden Hitler salute and chanted: “Germany for Germans, foreigners out.”
Standing opposite, a crowd of about 1,500 black-clad young people held up signs reading, among other things, “Pogroms are so 1930s”, a gallows-humour reference to attacks on dark-skinned people in Chemnitz, hours after the Sunday stabbing.
Between the two camps – as bottles, fireworks and insults flew – stood 700 nervous, outnumbered police officers in full riot gear.
When Saxony’s state premier, Michael Kretschmer, arrived in the city for a meeting with locals on Thursday, he was booed and jeered.
“Locals feel they are being treated unfairly,” he said afterwards in reference to the billions diverted from welfare budgets to spend on housing and subsistence costs for about 1.3 million people who have arrived in Germany since 2015.
This week has been a rude awakening for Kretschmer and his local Christian Democratic Union, which has ruled Saxony continuously since 1990. For most of that time, despite a thriving football hooligan scene and Dresden’s xenophobic Pegida movement, the CDU insisted that Saxony didn’t have a far-right problem.
After owning up to reality this week, however, the CDU has just a year to tackle extremist, populist groups capitalising on security concerns and anti-immigrant feeling – or face a rout in state elections next year.
The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), just 3 per cent behind the CDU in Saxony, warned this week on social media of “ongoing slaughter” of Germans from knife-wielding migrants.
Party co-leader Alexander Gauland insisted on Friday it was “legitimate to go ballistic” after a crime like last Sunday’s stabbing. “What is of course not legitimate,” he added hastily, “is that people hunt others or give Hitler salute.”
So how can Germany’s political mainstream throttle the growing populist anger?
Kretschmer has warned against “putting those who spread hate into the same pot as those in the middle of our society” with legitimate concerns. But Germany’s centre-left are wary of currying favour with ordinary people willing to march along with Hitler-saluting rowdies.
They want a state crackdown on violent protesters and on the Saxon justice ministry official whose photograph of the main suspects’ charge sheets – including their full identities and addresses, and those of witnesses – found their way on to AfD and Pegida social media accounts.
Police say one of the two suspects, a 22-year-old Iraqi man who arrived in Germany with false documents, was due to be deported and had chalked up a considerable criminal record in Germany: fraud, drug possession, damage to property.
“If I did everything he did I’d be in prison, but he was walking around,” said Roland Ludwig, a 74-year-old local man in Chemnitz.
As a weekend of renewed AfD marches looms, left-wing anti-fascist groups and friends of Daniel Hillig have taken to social media to challenge efforts by extremist groups to co-opt their friend’s death.
On Facebook a woman who appears to have been the dead man’s wife wrote: “He wouldn’t have wanted this.”
Back at the scene of Sunday’s stabbing, among the flowers and candles, a short, sharp warning to Saxony’s politicians: “Take the knives from them or we’ll take your political office.”