Return of the Ugly German? The Riots in Chemnitz and Their Aftermath

In Chemnitz, refugees find themselves under threat by neo-Nazis and hooligans. Politicians have pledged to take a hard line against right-wing extremist violence, but they look helpless nonetheless. Meanwhile, the right wing seems to have the upper hand in Saxony. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Michael Trammer / imago

Three cities in Germany. Three crimes. On Oct. 16, 2016, in Freiburg, the Afghan asylum-seeker Hussein K. raped a 19-year-old university student, leaving her unconscious on the banks of a river in which she then drowned. For weeks afterward, there was a palpable sense of anxiety in the city. A demonstration against the federal government's refugee policies was registered, but only very few turned up to march. Six months after the crime, the perpetrator was sentenced to life in prison, after which the anxiety dissipated. The message: Freiburg wants to remain a liberal city, despite this horrific crime.

On Aug. 16, 2018, in Offenburg, a city in southwestern Germany near the French border, a 26-year-old man from Somalia stabbed a general practitioner to death in his practice in front of his assistant. A state parliamentarian from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ascribed "direct complicity in the death of the doctor" to both the Baden-Württemberg state government as well as the federal government in Berlin "due to their misguided migration policies."

The party called for a rally, which was attended by a couple hundred people, but the counter-demonstration was just as large. Later, some 400 people -- including asylum-seekers -- held a march to commemorate the beloved doctor. A relative of the murder victim published an open letter addressed to the AfD politician. The doctor, he wrote, "had contributed to integration instead of preaching hate and revulsion like you." The message: Offenburg refuses to allow the crime to be exploited for political purposes.

Then, at 3 a.m. on Aug. 26, 2018, in Chemnitz, Yousif A. from Iraq and Alaa S. from Syria are suspected of having stabbed a 35-year-old Cuban-German man to death. Just hours after the crime, some 800 demonstrators marched through the city, some of them shoving police to the ground while others threatened people who looked like they might be refugees. The next evening, some 6,000 right-wingers and right-wing sympathizers gathered. "We'll get you all," they chanted as some of them stretched out their right arms in the Hitler salute. The message: In Chemnitz, neo-Nazis and hooligans are leading the city's response to the crime.

Three crimes, three different reactions. There are similarities: anger, disgust, grief, anti-foreigner prejudice and the question as to whether these felonies might be connected to the refugee policies that have stirred up and divided this country for the last three years. But in Freiburg and Offenburg, the sober-minded have the upper hand, those who see the crimes for what they are: isolated cases. Sad, to be sure, but not the direct result of misguided policy.

In Chemnitz, by contrast, a strike force was quickly assembled, made up of neo-Nazis, hooligans, AfD supporters and so-called "concerned citizens." They cast blame on migrants as a group and declared open season on them. The images they created are evocative of an era that Germany had thought it had left behind; they are reminiscent of the racist 1992 attacks in the Lichtenhagen neighborhood of Rostock, which saw a mob set fire to an occupied hostel for Vietnamese workers as neighbors stood by applauding. The mob is back, is the message sent by the images from Chemnitz, just like 26 years ago. We have regressed.

The revulsion over this fact can be heard in many voices, from the chancellor to the German president, from German business leaders to foreign commentators. The ugly German -- racist, xenophobic and full of rage -- is back. And his stage, once again, is in Saxony. Why is it always Saxony?

Bautzen, Freital, Heidenau, Clausnitz and now Chemnitz. These places have become shorthand for scenes of enraged crowds, their faces contorted in anger as they chant vulgarities against refugees or the chancellor. They chase down and attack migrants, they set fire to asylum-seeker hostels, they have apparently abandoned human decency itself, along with civilized debate and the political system of representational democracy. They apparently dream of a different model: nationalist, monoethnic, authoritarian and anti-liberal. A bit like Trump, a bit like Orbán.

Fertile Soil

The hoodlums are, of course, far from being in the majority in Saxony. But they are currently much louder than the majority. And the effect they are having becomes apparent when you read the back pages of the newspaper. The advertising agency Wurzelschläger & Friends, for example, has announced that it has withdrawn its bid for the image campaign being launched to attract companies to Leipzig. "Our feeling is that Saxony's image cannot be translated into a global selling point," the agency said in a statement. It is a disaster for Saxony, a state that, on the one hand, has been remarkably successful. Its economy is doing well, its schoolchildren score well on the international PISA test comparing educational attainment, its tourism industry is flourishing and it has the second-lowest unemployment rate among the five eastern German states. On the other hand, though, it is widely seen as having a neo-Nazi problem.

Saxony is the fertile soil out of which Pegida (which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) sprouted, the xenophobic group that has been staging weekly marches against Muslims since autumn 2014. And the group is still going strong in Saxony, with hundreds of sympathizers still taking to the streets each week. In Saxony, demonstrators confront reporters, as happened most recently in Dresden, when a (now former) employee of the State Criminal Police Office accosted a television team from public broadcaster ZDF. The man's German-flag hat quickly became a symbol of right-wing simpletons who join such marches. But since then, he has been supplanted by the Hitler salutes seen in Chemnitz.

The police in Saxony likewise hit the headlines with predictable regularity when they, for example, prevent journalists from doing their jobs or fail to mobilize enough officers, thus forcing them to stand by passively as right-wing extremists rampage through the streets.

Right-wing extremism is a nationwide phenomenon, not a specifically Saxon one. That has been the mantra of Saxony's political leadership for years, whenever the criticism has mounted. It is half true, and half false. Saxony has become a breeding ground of right-wing activists, with right-wing structures having become solidified shortly after German reunification. In no other German state is the AfD so successful: According to the most recent surveys, the party stands to win 26 of the 60 direct mandates in the state in next year's election. Every fourth voter plans to cast their ballot for the right-wing populists, putting the party in second place behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

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It is, of course, inaccurate to say that AfD supporters are synonymous with right-wing hooligans. But they do have quite a bit in common: They all believe that they are part of a rebellion against the West, against its established political parties and against the "lying press." Indeed, against the liberal, universal values of an enlightened, cosmopolitan society. The scenes from Chemnitz are merely the ugly symptoms of a gradual process of separation.

The violence in Chemnitz "is the intentionally provoked apex of a development that has been coming for almost 30 years," Christian Wolff, the former pastor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, writes on his website. "The systematic implementation of ethnonationalist, right-wing nationalist ideas in too many heads and hearts, rejection of liberal democracy, militant xenophobia, suspension of fundamental rights -- and all of it with the acquiescence or even support of the Saxony CDU, consummated by Pegida/AfD and violence-prone neo-Nazis."

Colorful Lights

Even if you might not agree completely with all aspects of Wolff's analysis, it makes one wonder: What has happened in eastern Germany, in Saxony, in the 29 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall? The question isn't exactly new, but it must be asked once again following the escalation seen last weekend.

It was a weekend in which the people of Chemnitz actually wanted to celebrate. The city was observing its 875th birthday and organizers were expecting more than 250,000 visitors. Six stages had been set up along with a Ferris wheel and more than 200 booths. The rapper Namika performed and City Hall was lit up by colorful lights.

Daniel H., 35, was also at the festival along with his friends. The son of a Cuban father and a German mother, Daniel H. grew up in Chemnitz and had been working for the last two years at the commercial cleaning company Hausgeister. His co-workers liked him and his friends say he was always in a good mood, always ready with a smile.

At 3 a.m. that night, the group wandered over to the central boulevard of Brückestrasse, apparently to get money from an ATM machine. That's where they ran into Yousif A. and Alaa S. An argument ensued, perhaps over money, perhaps over cigarettes -- many details remain hazy, though alcohol was likely a factor. Yousif A., allegedly the main perpetrator, apparently began stabbing Daniel H. suddenly. He succumbed to his injuries in the hospital a short time later.

Yousif A. was registered in Annaberg-Buchholz, a village of half-timbered houses where cows graze in the fields. He lived with three other refugees -- one from Syria, one from Iraq and one from Iran -- in a shared apartment located in multifamily dwelling. Yousif A. had a room to himself even though he only ever slept there twice a month. The rest of the time, he lived in Chemnitz, apparently at a friend's place.

Even if they didn't know him well, his apartment-mates describe him as a nice guy who liked to drink, sometimes to excess. Yousif A. came to Germany in late October 2015 by way of the Balkan Route, as did so many others from Iraq and Syria during the peak of the refugee crisis.

Initially, according to his files, officials wanted to send him back to Bulgaria because they believed that he had submitted an asylum application there. And Bulgaria had already approved the application. Indeed, it is unclear why he was never deported back to Bulgaria. Following the passage of a deadline in fall 2016, Germany assumed responsibility for him. On two occasions, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) interviewed him, most recently just a few weeks before the murder of Daniel H. -- almost three years after he had entered the country.

Falling Afoul of the Law

Yousif A. told the officials why he had to flee the northern Iraqi province of Ninive, and it had nothing to do with the political situation there. He said he had fallen in love with a girl, but her father and uncle were not happy with the situation. They threatened and beat him, he said, and even injured him with a knife. It was "a question of honor," he told the BAMF officials.

The officials didn't believe the story was particularly credible. And there was another thing that fueled their doubts about its veracity: Two personal documents that he presented were, according to a BAMF examination, "complete falsifications." On Aug. 29, 2018, the agency rejected the 22-year-old's asylum application -- three days after he is suspected of having stabbed Daniel H. in Chemnitz.

Yousif A. already had a police record for criminal assault, among other things. He first fell afoul of the law just a few months after his arrival in Germany. And repeatedly thereafter.

On one occasion, he sprayed pepper spray into the faces of two refugees in the Annaberg-Buchholz asylum-seekers' hostel. Another time, in February 2016, he ran drunk in front of a snowplow and other vehicles at around 3:30 a.m. and was charged with traffic interference and given a fine. Public prosecutors believe he had intended to commit suicide.

Alaa S., his alleged accomplice, was likewise approachable, at least according to Mohamed Yousif, the boss of the Zana barber shop in Chemnitz who taught S. how to cut hair. They knew each other because they both come from the same city in Syria. "I tried to take care of him a bit," says Yousif. When asked about the knife assault on Daniel H., Yousif says: "It simply doesn't fit."

Two weeks ago, Alaa S. returned to Germany from northern Iraq, where he was apparently visiting his parents. His father is involved in a pro-Kurdish political party. "I asked him: 'Why did you come back?'" says Yousif. He answered: "'I have a future in Germany.'" Alaa S. has been in pre-trial detention since Tuesday and has apparently cooperated with the police.

Triggering the Fury

Not even five hours after the bloody crime, the tabloid website tag24.de published a report under the headline: "35-Year-Old Dies after Stabbing in the City." Rumors relating to the news item spread quickly: Daniel H., it was said, had been trying to protect a woman from sexual assault. Though the police have said that there is no evidence for that version of events, the story has persisted. After all, it fits perfectly into the right-wing cliché of the instinct-driven refugee. It triggers the fury that drives people out onto the streets.

Even before the first official police announcement, the hooligan group "New Society 2004" issued a call for a protest march on Facebook, a post that was widely shared on the internet, along with slogans like "our city, our rules!" and "let's show who has the last word in the city!" The meeting point was set for 4:30 p.m. in front of the "Nischel," as the people of Chemnitz call the Karl Marx monument in the center of the city. Out of fear that festival goers might be attacked, organizers called off the party on Sunday afternoon.

Around 800 people collected not far from the site of the stabbing. Without registering with the police, the group set off, with some participants chanting "We Are the People!" Bottles were thrown. The police didn't have enough officers available and were overwhelmed by the situation. They requested backup from Leipzig and Dresden, but videos of the rampaging mob spread quickly on the internet. Neo-Nazis began threatening people they took to be immigrants.

The right-wing group "Pro Chemnitz" then called for a protest to be held the next evening and mobilized 6,000 people. The organization "Chemnitz Nazifrei" (Keep Chemitz Free of Nazis) quickly arranged a counter-demonstration to which 1,500 people showed up. The two groups were separated only by a meager chain of 591 police officers. In some spots, there were no law enforcement officers at all between the two blocks.

Firecrackers and smoke bombs flew through the air, as did paving stones. Some participants covered their faces to avoid being identified while others raised their right arms in the Hitler salute. Again the police were overwhelmed and again, they were unable to disperse the demonstrations. They allowed the march to proceed hundreds of meters through the city center and advised immigrants to stay at home.

A Hardline Approach

Federal prosecutors have since gotten involved in the incident. DER SPIEGEL has learned that the chief federal prosecutor has launched a formal investigation with agency sources saying they were "concerned" about the events in Chemnitz. The sources say that prosecutors are particularly interested in the speed with which the right-wing extremists mobilized for the protests in Chemnitz and are eager to find out if hidden structures may have played a role. Part of the mandate of federal prosecutors in Germany is the prosecution of terrorist groups.

Shortly after assuming his current position in 2015, Public Prosecutor General Peter Frank told DER SPIEGEL that he would take a hardline approach when it came to right-wing extremists. Should "pogrom-like situations" against refugees develop in which people were killed or injured, he said, then the government would have to "send a counter-signal."

The right-wing demonstrators used the victim of the knife attack as an excuse to stage their demonstration of power. Yet Daniel H. doesn't really fit the role of martyr for the right-wing cause. Cheerful, good-natured, more to the left of the political spectrum: That is how his friends describe him. On Facebook, he liked Bob Marley and Left Party floor leader Sahra Wagenknecht in addition to following groups like "No Need for Nazis." "These right-wingers that are now taking advantage of this incident, we used to have to fight them because they didn't think we were German enough," wrote one of Daniel H.'s friends on Facebook.

This friend, who is also named Daniel, had known him for almost 20 years. They met at a party when they were teenagers and discovered that both of their fathers had been allowed to attend university in East Germany because they were foreigners from socialist countries. The father of this friend is from Tanzania while Daniel H.'s father is from Cuba. "Daniel was the kind of person who would have done anything for his family and friends," says the friend. "He never would have wanted the protests." He has no explanation for why acquaintances of his friend nevertheless called for revenge. "There are idiots everywhere," he says. But he also notes he has seen an increasing number of people drifting to the right, even within his own circle of friends.

Chemnitz and its surroundings have been a right-wing stronghold ever since reunification, even if Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, currently counts only 150 to 200 extremists in the city. The organization "Blood & Honor," which was banned in 2000, had a foothold in Chemnitz and distributed right-wing music from the city to extremists across the country. It was also the place to which Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt -- the three members of the right-wing terror group National Socialist Underground (NSU), which murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2006 -- fled when they went underground in 1998. Even today, the right-wing scene has its own shops in the city and PC Records is also based here, one of the most important right-wing extremist music labels in Germany. "One could see from the participants in the marches that the old structures can still be used for mobilization," says Ulli Jentsch of the Anti-Fascist Press Archive in Berlin.

The archive has been monitoring the right-wing scene across Germany for almost three decades, including the one in Chemnitz. The spectrum of those active in the region is extensive, he says. "From functionaries with the New Right to ethnonationalists, Reichsbürger to the neo-Nazi party Third Path, they have everything," Jentsch says. Initiatives that seek to put a stop to the right-wing groups repeatedly have the windows in their offices broken. In November 2016, an explosive device blew up in the shop window of the culture center Lokomov, after it staged a play about the NSU. In the Chemnitz neighborhood of Sonnenberg, where Lokomov is located, right-wing extremists wanted to establish a "national liberated zone" a few years ago, an area that would adhere exclusively to radical right-wing ideology. Over the course of several months, there were attacks on alternative cafés and clubs while a Left Party lawmaker was forced to find a new office. After 20 attacks, her landlord cancelled her lease.

In Chemnitzer FC, the local football club, there are a lot of neo-Nazis among the fans. "There are tight links between hooligans and Kameradschaften," says hooligan expert Robert Claus, the latter a reference to loose alliances of neo-Nazis.

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