Street Clashes Pending? Far-Right Gears Up to Mourn Dresden Bombing
The German far right traditionally stages a march on Feb. 13 of each year to commemorate the bombing of Dresden. This year, however, authorities have moved to prevent counterdemonstrations by the left.
In the night between Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, 796 Lancaster bombers of the Royal Air Force dropped more than 2,600 tons of bombs on Dresden, a city overflowing with thousands of refugees from the East. The next day, 311 American B-17 bombers dropped another 700 tons of bombs on the city's Baroque center. Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elbe, was virtually wiped off the map, and about 25,000 people were killed.
Commemorating such an incident is an important element in a civilized society. But it is important who is doing the commemorating, and how. There is, after all, a danger that memory becomes exploited for political propaganda. But what, then, should be the response? Should a city sacrifice democratic freedoms of assembly to deny dangerous populists a platform?
This year, the residents of Dresden spent weeks discussing such questions. But the debate yielded nothing more than a collective feeling of helplessness and legal dead ends. Dresden, as a result, will see a large concentration of neo-Nazi protestors on Saturday, the 65th anniversary of the bombing, as well as massive deployment of police -- and potentially bloody riots.
Since the 1990s, right-wing extremists have marched through Dresden every year on Feb. 13 to protest what they call the "bombing Holocaust." Holger Apfel, the leader of the right-extremist National Democratic Party of Germany in Saxony, voiced their sentiments in 2009 when he railed against the "falsification of history and denial of crimes against the German people." Members of the Spanish group Alianza Nacional also sent a delegation to Saxony to declare their solidarity with their right-wing German counterparts.
A colorful group of anti-right-wing activists, determined not to allow the march to take place this year, has formed an alliance called "Nazi-free! Dresden Puts It Foot Down." The group includes celebrities like Bela B. of the rock band Die Ärzte, leftist politician Sahra Wagenknecht, singer Konstantin Wecker and the anti-globalization activists of the group Attac Deutschland.
They want to put an end to the neo-Nazi protest event, organized by the Youth National Association of East Germany (JLO), which sees the commemorative march as "an idealistic act of community." The younger generation, as the JLO states in its appeal to join the Dresden march, will "demonstrate a thousand times over that our community awareness resisted destruction." To make sure that the JLO's demonstration is a failure this year, the "Nazi-free!" alliance plans to draw on the repertoire of peaceful resistance tools, including mass blockades and civil disobedience.
It isn't a new strategy. In 2008, tens of thousands blocked access to downtown Cologne, preventing right-wing extremists from reaching an anti-Islam conference. In 2002, 15,000 people stood in the way of 110 right-wing extremists in the southwestern city of Freiburg. In both cases politicians, who were forced to reluctantly provide permits for the right-wing protests, put their faith in the power of the counter-protestors. In Dresden, however, the anti-right-wing activists suddenly found themselves facing opposition from the authorities.
A Poisonous Mood
The local public prosecutor's office launched an investigation and obtained search warrants against the group. Signs, documents, computers and hard drives were confiscated. The investigators defined the group's appeal to stage a blockade as a "public incitement to demolish an assembly," which, they said, is illegal. The mood has been poisoned ever since, with activists accusing the courts and politicians of engaging in the "rhetoric of civil war."
In Berlin, Green Party members of parliament, the Bundestag, faced sharp criticism for having held up the incriminating signs in front of the parliament building, and they are now being investigated by the State Office of Criminal Investigation for suspected violations of a law that regulates public assembly and no-protest zones.
In the eastern state of Thuringia, the Left Party chairman in the state parliament, Bodo Ramelow, faces charges of causing a public nuisance for having attached the "Nazi-free!" appeals to a streetlight in front of the state parliament building in Erfurt. Ramelow calls the charges "pure unadulterated German bureaucracy" and a "deliberate attempt to fuel hysteria" and "to criminalize activism in a civil society."
State of Emergency?
For the 65th anniversary of the Dresden bombing, the state of Saxony prefers to seek refuge in prohibitions. To that end, it first enacted a new law governing the right of assembly, which limits the right to demonstrate in the old section of Dresden and in other parts of the city on Feb. 13 and 14. The city of Dresden then banned the JLO's commemorative march, despite the fact that even constitutional experts had already voiced concerns about the state law.
In stating its reasons for the ban, the city administration cited a police state of emergency and noted: "in light of the very high degree of mobilization in the extremist right-wing and left-wing camp, violent riots are to be expected." The rest is simple math: 5,000 rioters are expected, and the city normally deploys three police officers for each protestor when that protestor is prepared to use violence. Based on this calculation, 15,000 police officers would be needed to keep the two groups apart. But the audacious theory didn't hold up for long. The Dresden Administrative Court overturned the ban on Friday, saying that it did not see the situation as a state of emergency.
Although the city will appeal the decision through a higher administrative court, prospects of a ban are hardly any better with the first court. Meanwhile, all sides are preparing for a turbulent weekend. The justice minister of the State of Saxony has already assigned judges and prosecutors to be on call, and cells have been cleared in the Dresden prison -- making at least enough room for 80 arrests.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan