One Month in Clausnitz A Visit to Ground Zero of Refugee Anxiety

The village of Clausnitz in Saxony became shorthand for the ugly, xenophobic side of Germany after residents threatened a bus full of refugees. We spent a month in the town in an attempt to find out what happened.

By (text) and Sven Döring (photos)


The bus to Clausnitz drives between rapeseed fields, past trout ponds and over asphalt covered with pollen from the surrounding spruce trees. On the trip from Dresden, the bus reaches a straight, ascending road leading to a hilltop, after which the road descends steeply. Those driving the road could be forgiven for thinking the world ends after this knoll.

Clausnitz lies in the valley below; the fragrant smell of apple blossoms hangs in the air.

On February 18, a bus carrying 20 refugees followed this route to Clausnitz. The passengers were to move into apartments in three different buildings in town.

When the bus rolled in, Michael Funke, the mayor of Clausnitz, was sitting down for an evening meal. Later that evening, he learned that residents of Clausnitz had gathered and unfurled sheets daubed with slogans. One read: "Resistance".

Thomas Hetze, the hostel director, was waiting in his office in one of the three buildings for the refugees to finally arrive. At the time, hardly anyone was interested in the fact that he is a member of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party with an anti-refugee message that has been gaining ground recently in polls and elections. Later, he would hear local residents shout, "We are the people!" a term used in protests against the East German regime in the run-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the village below, Ronny was just opening a bottle of Radeberger beer when a text message arrived on his mobile phone. "It's starting." Oh my god, Ronny thought to himself before driving up the hill to the upper village. Later, he watched as a police officer pulled a refugee out of the bus using a chokehold.

That evening, a woman in a blue compact blocked the bus just a few meters from the accommodations. A few Clausnitz residents unfurled a sheet on a tractor with the words "Our Country, Our Religion, Home, Freedom, Tradition" scrawled across it. The police report stated that 100 Germans stood around the bus and the refugees refused to get off. Someone filmed the ordeal, and the video wound up on the Internet, ensuring notoriety for Clausnitz. The video became symbolic of what some people in Germany think of the refugees and how they treat them.

But memories also remain of the word Reisegenuss, or "pleasant journey" on the digital sign in the windshield of the bus in which these passengers were traveling -- passengers whose fear could be seen on their faces. The bus company was called Reisegenuss -- but the image became emblematic of cynicism.

Memories likewise remain of the moment in which a German police officer grabbed a young refugee by the neck and forced him to leave the bus.

And memories remain of just how loud and aggressive the men were as they shouted, "We are the people!"

A Month in Clausnitz

Was it hatred? Is Clausnitz a Nazi village? Is the situation more complex than that? And if yes, how? What kind of people live in this part of Germany, in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region of the eastern state of Saxony? How do they see things? What drove them to block a bus carrying refugees?

On the search for answers to such questins, I spent a month living in Clausnitz. I rented a guest room on a farm for eight euros a night.

One of the first village residents to speak with me was a refugee. Sitting on a bench in front of his home, he told me his story. He comes from a place full of forests and lakes, he said. Before the war, his father had worked at a paper factory, but he then went to the front and died there.

His mother fled with her son - making parts of the journey on foot and others in a horsecart. His mother carefully preserved a paper cornet as they fled that she had filled with a mixture of oatmeal and chocolate. She gave her son three spoonfuls of it each day.

His mother had no money to give to smugglers to ensure they would be taken to safety, so she gave them her wedding ring.

When the boy grew weak, she said to him: "We have to make it to Clausnitz."

Today, that boy is 76 years old. He hasn't set eyes on his home village of Hammermühle in Pomerania (in today's Poland) since he fled 70 years ago. Hans-Peter Neitzke is a tall, upright man with a fisherman's cap and blue overalls. He rented me my room.

When people learned one year ago that Syrian refugees would be coming to a village next to Clausnitz, his phone rang and a man told him he was collecting signatures against the refugees, Nietzke explains. "But I'm a refugee myself," he told the man.

Clausnitz is home to 844 residents. That means that around 750 of those residents were not standing in front of that bus on Feb. 18. Hans-Peter Neitzke was among those who stayed home. He first learned about the incident on the television and he was ashamed when he saw the images. He says that after World War II, at least half the residents of Clausnitz were refugees, Germans who had been forced to flee regions lost in the war, including Silesia, Pomerania, East Prussia and Sudetenland. There were also people from Dresden whose homes had burned to the ground.

Forty-Five Bratwursts

It's a day in mid-May and Mr. Neitzke is wearing a nicer shirt than normal - light blue and freshly ironed. He wants to take his wife to a tea dance. He's fond of dancing the quick step. Before going dancing, he stops by a local event taking place behind the Clausnitz village history museum. A special party has been organized to give locals a chance to meet and learn more about refugees. The event takes place in the middle of the village on the grounds of the local primary school.

The village itself looks like so many other typical German hamlets. The hedges are precisely trimmed, the sidewalks are clean, the streets are lined with half-timbered buildings and the tulips are in bloom. The village used to be home to a copper mine and the street names recall that past. Clausnitz is still home to a butcher and a bakery. Women push around strollers at the meet-and-greet and there's one man missing a leg. The organizers are also there.

Three sausages are burning on the barbeque and a woman gives a speech in front of a large tent. There are a few children playing in a nearby playground but no one is sitting inside and listening except for me.

A little while later, a few more adults arrive; in the end, 45 bratwursts are sold. But the turnout was small. That doesn't necessarily mean that the villagers are xenophobic. But one could say that the foreigners aren't very important to them. Or that they really weren't interested in celebrating their encounters with the refugees in the form of a party. Or that they had something better to do. Neitzke himself only stays a short time at the party -- he wants to continue on as fast as possible to his quick step.

On the playground, a man is standing next to his son, looking at a seven dwarves puzzle. The blacksmith has an eyetooth of gold and a back built like an ox. His name is Thomas Hetze and he asks if we can find somewhere quieter to talk.

Hetze, 48, was one of the most sought-after man in the country for a few days this spring. That's when news emerged that he was the head of a hostel for asylum seekers, and also a member of AfD.

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jaleintz 09/29/2016
1. Typical Propaganda
Evil German people who want to preserver a high trust low crime community, what a terrible old fashion way of thinking. Der Spiegel will see to it that they are done away with. Who is the enemy of the German people?
Harold Rogers 09/29/2016
2. A month in Clausnitz
So Mr Wurger took it upon himself to leave the big city and spend a month among the real people of Germany. How condescending of him to mix with the people who are feeling the most affects of Ms Merkels ludicrous policies. What a very clear social divide she is building and Mr Wurger writes with such "on the ground" knowledge that perhaps he might like to spend a full year in Clausnitz and run a business there or try to find a job and raise a family of maybe three or four children. Oops, NO he's a reporter and lower himself to mix with ordinary Germans for a few weeks and can then write 5 pages on life in the country! It really is pathetic this method of reporting as was his 4 days with Sven Lau . Why spend a lifetime with the implications of open borders for polar opposite beliefs . Go to the Middle East not under the protection of "western journalists" papers and live in families where Islam is impaled into the very fabric of society and then report back in 2 years and then tell the local German community why they should invite these beliefs into their hard working community. Thirty one years of life teaches you NOTHING of how the world works . Raise a family, live with daily responsibilities of growing children and make it to 60 and then come and preach your ethos.. maybe then you have an audience ready to debate.
Inglenda2 09/29/2016
3. The destruction of German cultural society ?
What we are seeing, is possibly what psychologists would call projection. Germans are no different to any other ethnic group, when it comes to racism. The Black Power movement is a form of dark-skinned prejudice towards white-skinned people. The amount of slavery, of persons from other countries, still to be observed in Asian, or Arab, nations is atrocious, but seldom gets a mention. The USA, the so-called symbol of freedom for the world, has a cultural class system which overshadows anything the British aristocracy ever produced in the past. All this is very disturbing, but what is currently occurring in Germany is quite a different matter. The Nazis would have called it an (Umbevölkerung)! A word which itself has a taint of discrimination, but factually describes what is happening. Due to the influx of foreigners, now approximately a quarter of the population, plus the failure of the Christian churches, to offer their religion in a convincing manner to the public, Germany is sinking into a social chaos. The hatred which is so caused, is largely due to the policies of the German government. They are out of reach and so it is the immigrants who now face the wrath of many native citizens.
turnipseed 09/29/2016
4. The Weimar era and the Merkel era
I am sure many liberals and democrats, in Germany and elsewhere, think that the dangers to Democracy in Germany today are perhaps too much like those in the Weimar era. But the problem with Weimar was not only that the democratic parties were weak in the face of popular resentments and nationalist furies; the problem was also that the democratic regimes from 1918 to 1933 made no effort to satisfy the legitimate grievances of many Germans with regard to the economy and the culture. Merkel has meant well but she is making all Germans who have a right to their own culture and national life contemplate moving to the extreme Right. Hitler came to power for many reasons, not least of which was that he was in many ways a true representative of the Germany malady: resentment and inferiority complexes vis-a-vis the West; hatred and fear of the East and its large numbers of Slavs and Jews; resentment at the defeat of Germany in WWI which was caused not by any Jewish stab in the back but by incompetent generals likeLudendorff and Hindenburg. Democratic leaders in Germany need to represent the best in Germany; Merkel represents the best paranoia of liberalism in Germany. She needs to go.
kipa4 09/29/2016
5. Clausnitz
Somehow the needs and wants of the local populace become unimportant when the larger needs and wants of the larger federal government decides what best. The Nazis had the same philosophy and had more local governments stood up and objected, maybe Germany would have taken a different path. The authors snidely interject the question "is Clausnitz a nazi village?" and then move on, but the message they want to project is clear. Smear the issue with foul past memories and then "walk their way back", but the implication is clear. There's difference between welcoming new residents and having them forced upon you.
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