BERLIN—Martina Angermann was a popular mayor in Arnsdorf, a picturesque little town of about 5,000 people east of Dresden. She’d been in office since 2001. But when a conservative carpenter named Detlef Oelsner, whom she’d bested in past elections, and a businessman who blamed her for sabotaging his real estate development plans launched a hate-filled campaign to take her down, no one in her town stood up to defend her.
It’s a pattern that’s being repeated in other parts of Germany, but mostly in the east, as neo-Nazis, their sympathizers among the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, and cynical fellow travelers have built their bases of support and political influence.
No longer are they content with their not-so-quiet campaigns of fear and intimidation along racial and other discriminatory lines. (Since 1990, the murders of 208 people have been attributed to right-wing extremist or racist motives. Last month, a man shot and killed nine people of foreign heritage at two shisha bars near Frankfurt.) Now they are targeting local politicians like Angermann (pictured above), a woman who spent 18 years building roads and renovating spaces for an indebted community, but who dared to speak out against the right-wing extremists.
Last year the federal government recorded 1,240 politically motivated attacks on public officials, most of which are attributed to the far right. Several mayors have resigned and some towns are struggling to find new candidates. By gaining influence in these smaller communities, the extremists are able to project their ideas and influence on the wider national scene. And what happened in Arnsdorf, some say, is just “the worst case scenario.”
For Angermann, a lot of the trouble started when a Facebook page called “Arnsdorf 01477 Bürgerforum,” or citizens forum, was set up in 2015, shortly before she was re-elected. The page made false accusations against Angermann—accusing her of signing an illegal lease—and posted pictures of fighting dogs baring their teeth.
The operator of the page is Arvid Samtleben, an entrepreneur and former representative for the far right AfD. When his wife spotted a 21-year-old Iraqi refugee, Schabas Al-Aziz, asking for help with a prepaid mobile phone card at the supermarket in 2016, a post promptly appeared on Arnsdorf 01477 Bürgerforum warning: “We will set up a vigilante patrol to defend ourselves.”
Al-Aziz had bought the phone card earlier that day. But it wasn’t working. When he came back to ask the cashier for help, in German, English and Kurdish, he couldn’t make himself understood. According to the German paper Taz, he later told his family that the cashier was speaking “Belgian”—perhaps it was her Saxon accent that caused confusion and frustration. There was no hint of violence.
The “vigilante patrol” announcement was classic extreme right propaganda. The aim is to make it appear that a “foreign threat” is making streets unsafe, and that the German state has lost control, in order to mobilize support for violent extremists who justify their crimes as “self-defense”—or in this case, “defense” of the supermarket’s female cashier.
Later that day, when Al-Aziz returned to ask for help again, an anonymous woman was filming. Al-Aziz had picked up a bottle of wine and didn’t respond when the cashier told him to put it back into the shelf. Just then Oelsner and three of his thugs marched into the supermarket and grabbed Al-Aziz. They punched him, bound him to a tree outside with plastic zip ties, and called the police.
In 2017 these members of the Bürgerwehr were acquitted of charges of assault. Hours later two of the men marched into Arnsdorf’s city council meeting and demanded that Angermann—one of the few people in town who publicly condemned the attack—first apologize to them and then resign. They were backed up by some men from the nearby motorcycle club, whose members had been known around town since the 1990s for the racist slurs they’d chant in front of immigrant-owned shops when they’d had a few beers.
Today, Oelsner is running for mayor again, since Angermann did finally resign last year, disheartened and burned out. Her doctor had diagnosed her with exhaustion.
The candidate who will represent Angermann’s centrist political faction in the upcoming election comes from a neighboring community. He says in his manifesto that he is all about drawing a line through the past and moving forward. If he wins, one person who wishes to remain anonymous says, "He will need strong nerves.“
On Samtleben’s Facebook page Arnsdorf 01477 Bürgerforum, some of the latest posts label members of Angermann’s old faction as “siths“ (via Star Wars) and warn that any conservative candidate who doesn’t associate with AfD candidates would spell “inevitable division in the village.”
“I read it carefully,“ one councillor told us about Arnsdorf 01477 Bürgerforum. “But in our job we are closest to the citizens. When you talk to people face to face, you see what is really bothering them.”
In Saxony, there are around 120 local organizations that aim to confront right-wing extremism and racism. Most are assisted by the Kulturbüro Sachsen, a program that was founded in the early aughts. Since the terror attack against a synagogue in Halle last year, Family Minister Franziska Giffey is pushing for a law that will secure more long-term funding for these kinds of projects.
In their Dresden office, the Kulturbüro team occasionally get individual calls; one or two people who don’t like the bullying tactics of an extreme-right group that’s hosting social events like any other regular neighborhood committee. In this case they visit to help that person find allies. Sometimes there are no allies, though. And the team goes back to the city.
Part of the far right’s strategy for taking over is to try to weaken civil society. One AfD politician warned that "when we are in power“ it will be “over" for political opponents, whom he collectively refers to as "left wing extremists“—a rhetorical trick to lure voters into believing their choice is between left and right, when it is in fact between democratic institutions and the people who want to overthrow them.
In one town in the Ore Mountains, there is a marketplace where there are only three events a year—one is organized by an extreme-right group watched by the intelligence services, and they provide sausages and drinks. They’ve been there for ages. “We cannot decrease the number of neo-Nazis,“ says Michael Nattke from the Kulturbüro. “But we try to support the democrats to become active with their own topics.“
In 2015/16, for example, many of the anti-far-right initiatives set up “welcome alliances” and sponsorships to help their local authorities make plans to receive asylum seekers. In some towns, initiatives start their own projects to renovate a village site, so that residents can meet to chat and exchange ideas. But it is an uphill battle.
When the “Bürgerwehr” men burst into the council meeting in 2017 to threaten Angermann, there were two councillors—twin brothers—who laughed out loud at the thugs. “We know where you are,” they were told. The brothers were used to far-right scare tactics. But a year later, they left Arnsdorf. “I don’t feel like dying a martyr’s death for some pocket money,” one brother told the newspaper BILD.
It is often the case, Nattke says, that “the person who names the problem becomes the problem.”
Angermann’s deputy released a statement last year, denying reports of far right activities in Arnsdorf, but adding “we very much regret the psychological strain that Mayor Martina Angermann is under.”
New proposals to combat right-wing extremism also include measures to protect local politicians. At RAA Saxony, which offers counseling to victims of hate crimes, Andrea Hübler says they are still trying to get the law from 2015 requiring German courts to consider racist, xenophobic or other discriminatory motives for a crime “to be enforced properly.”
Sometimes Angermann gets phone calls from people in Arnsdorf. They tell her that they are wary of going to social events now and don’t feel comfortable.
As for Schabas Al-Aziz, he had been in Arnsdorf on the day he was attacked to visit a psychiatric clinic. He had come to Germany from Iraq earlier to seek help for severe epilepsy, but his condition had gotten worse—social services often rejected his applications for medication.
While far right channels spread the “vigilante patrol” video, Al-Aziz was taken to another asylum home. He continued struggling to access medication. Reportedly, he was very alone. In early 2017, he went missing, potentially trying to visit friends in Bavaria. He was found frozen to death in a forest.