CHEMNITZ, Germany—The murder of a man in this eastern German city triggered violent protests on Sunday and Monday last week as hooligans and neo-Nazis with apocalyptic fantasies chased dark-skinned bystanders down the street, while police were outnumbered and too afraid to intervene. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson condemned the riots, declaring they have “no place in our country.” But Germany’s largest opposition party, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, invited people to come back here on Saturday to mourn the supposed victims of migrants or, as the AfD put it, the “dead of forced multiculturalism.”
The AfD had warned everyone that this march would be held in silence, but as delays set in people began to light up their cigarettes and get out their mobile phones. One big guy had the digits “88“ (code for “Heil Hitler”) tattooed on the back of his neck. Another, whose breath reeked of booze, wore a T-shirt that read “Deutsches Reich” and struggled to keep up with his mates. He swung his arms back and forth and began to sing: “Eine U Bahn, eine U Bahn.” (In full, the well-known soccer hooligan chant goes: “We are building a U-Bahn [German for subway] to Auschwitz.”)
One hundred meters further on, the road was blocked by a counter-protest of more or less 3,500 people—about 1,000 fewer than the AfD crowd. Many of them had come from out of town. Three elderly women from Leipzig were poring over Google Maps on their phones just as a group of antifascist teenagers in black hoods stampeded past them—followed by a friend shouting: “Come back, it was only four cops!“
“How silly,“ sneered a young woman who had come in from Dresden with her mother. More helmeted police officers arrived. This time around, the cops were determined not to be overwhelmed. The teenagers turned and chanted: “Where, where, where were you last week?”
Saturday’s “mourning march” was not the AfD’s first attempt to rally its supporters in the wake of a high-profile murder committed by a refugee. Ironically, and completely counter to the AfD narrative, crime in Germany is at a 26-year low. But much of the German media has devoted a disproportionate amount of coverage to crimes by foreigners, overcompensating after sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 received coverage that was far too little and too late.
Today, the AfD systematically exaggerates the number of these cases and accuses the government of covering them up, usually with some kind of hashtag like “terror” or “knife migration.”
Americans should be familiar with fear-mongering by anecdote when no data support what’s alleged to be a dangerous trend. It’s a favorite tactic of Donald Trump and his supporters, most recently in the case of Mollie Tibbetts, a young woman murdered in Iowa, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant. Her father, in an eloquent and angry op-ed on Saturday condemned those who have “chosen to callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed.” He warned them to "not appropriate Mollie’s soul” to advance views “she believed were profoundly racist.”
There’s been a lot of appropriation just like that here in Germany.
Daniel H., the 35-year-old man who was stabbed to death a week ago Sunday at 3:00 a.m. had been active in the younger alternative left-wing scene in the city. He was popular, liked hip-hop music, and after having some beers with his friends outside the convenience store late at night, “he was not a guy to take any nonsense,“ one acquaintance told us.
That same morning, Yousif A. from Iraq and Alaa S. from Syria were named as the murder suspects. A few days after the murder, it was revealed that Yousif A. had used fake papers in his asylum application and had been slated for deportation to Bulgaria, his first point of entry to the European Union, back in 2016.
It was only a few hours after the murder when around 800 people took to the streets. Rumors had circulated that Daniel H. had been killed trying to protect a woman from sexual assault. The rumor was published by the tabloid Bild, and this was the sort of thing that the AfD has a ready-made campaign for under the rubric “social justice.”
The next day, an AfD research assistant who has organized “women’s marches“ against “the sneaking introduction of Sharia law” in various German cities, travelled down to Chemnitz. In a mob of now 6,000 people—partly mobilized overnight via Saxony’s vibrant network of AfD supporters and right-wing extremists—she was seen with her signature pink banner (“We are not fair game”) as she led a group of neo-Nazis in chants of “Whoever doesn’t love Germany should leave Germany.” Or, as Americans would say, “Germany, love it or leave it.”
By then the police had already denied the sexual assault rumors, but no matter.
Other far right protesters would be caught on camera the next day as they shouted at a woman who was holding a sign that read “Against Hate in Chemnitz,” warning her she would be raped if she went "down there" to neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants.
Werner Patzelt, a political scientist from Dresden in former East Germany, often is criticized for over-sympathizing with the fears that drive far-right support. He warns that “the AfD can do what they want, they can have completely incompetent leaders,“ so long as the party’s base doesn’t trust the other established parties or believe what they read in the papers.
Back in 2016, the AfD called for a demonstration against the government’s refugee policies after a 19-year-old medical student was raped and killed by an Afghan asylum-seeker in Freiburg, in the western part of Germany not far from the French and Swiss borders. Only about a dozen people showed up. But in the former East German state of Saxony, the situation is much more volatile, and the political ground more fertile for extremism. The AfD was the strongest party in last year’s parliamentary elections. For people who feel treated as second-class citizens in post-reunification Germany, a refugee policy that they didn’t sign off on is just one more thing to be angry about.
Here in Chemnitz on Saturday, two young men who were standing at the sidelines of the counter-protest against the AfD described themselves as torn between the people chanting “refugees are welcome here,” and the far right protests. Their problem with “the political system“ is about their wages: Jens, a male nurse, says he makes significantly less than his western German counterparts. He can’t help speculating about what would happen, “if these kind of out-of-control protests would happen in several east German cities at the same time“—it would be, Jens says with some gusto, “a total failure for the German state.“
Both men, who planned to attend the rock concert against racism in Chemnitz on Monday (along with 70,000 other people), spoke casually about the “Lügenpresse“ (lying press), a word that had been used by the East German government, in the ’68 student movement, and before that by the Nazis in a prelude to the current right-wing mantras denouncing “fake news.”
When the xenophobic street movement Pegida, for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,” began to hold rallies in Saxony in 2014, not all protesters would have known that the term “Lügenpresse” also had those Hitlerian connotations, but some of the more prominent far right speakers certainly did, and made sure to pause at the right moments to get people to chant “Lügenpresse” again and again in front of rolling cameras.
The AfD now have among their enthusiastic followers the tall bald guy with “88“ tattooed on the back of his neck. But they also want to keep attracting the blunt-speaking German everyman who believes he knows what he knows, even when the “lying mainstream media“ is calling him a racist. And so, while the party marched shoulder to shoulder with the openly extremist Pegida yesterday, an AfD parliamentarian in Berlin felt he could get away with tweeting that “no collaboration with Pegida is taking place."
On Monday, the AfD Berlin twitter account retweeted a post that had been uploaded by a far right troll account. The post showed a girl thanking her friend at the counter protest “for supplying more alcohol.” And earlier this week, after footage was shown on Vice Germany of a guy who shouted that his battle cry is “kill“ before giving a Hitler salute to the camera, pictures spread by anonymous twitter accounts showed the same man with an RAF (for Red Army Faction) tattoo photoshopped on his right hand, trying to potray him as a left-wing agent provocateur.
When the protest was over, a group broke past the police barrier to stand by Daniel H.’s memorial and sing the German national anthem. Later in the evening, a man from Afghanistan was beaten up by a group of masked men outside the local gas station. Meanwhile, some of the older men from the AfD demonstration began to walk home alone. They moved in shaky lines, eyes narrowed. One man stopped to mutter something about “the regime... everything,” then stumbled on.