Saturday's demonstration by around 6,000 neo-Nazis in Dresden to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the city by Allied warplanes in February 1945 was a "dramatic sign" of the growing strength of the far right in Germany, a leading member of the country's Jewish community said.
There were almost twice as many far-right demonstrators as last year and police said they were surprised the far right had managed to mobilize so many supporters this time to mark the 64th anniversary of the air raids that devastated the city on Feb. 13 and 14, 1945. It was one of the biggest far-right demonstrations in Germany since the war. Still, they were outnumbered by around 10,000 counter-demonstrators who converged on Dresden to protest against the far right.
An estimated 25,000 people died in the bombing which caused a firestorm and left one of Europe's most beautiful baroque cities in ruins.
Holger Apfel, the deputy leader of the far-right National Democratic Party, earned cheers and applause from the crowd when he described the bombing as a "unique Holocaust perpetrated on the Germans."
The demonstrators, flanked by thousands of police officers to keep them apart from anti-Nazi activists bent on disrupting their march, walked through the city in a long column. Most of them were clad in black and they kept silent as they marched. Some carried banners that said: "Grandfather, We Thank You" and "Honor to Whom Honor is Due."
Germany's far-right regularly seizes on the bombing of Dresden to portray Germans as victims of the war they started.
"The demonstration is a dramatic sign and shows that we aren't sowing unnecessary hysteria and panic when we warn about the growing danger of the far right," Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Berliner Zeitung in an interview published on Monday.
About 6,500 people held a counter-demonstration on Dresden's Theater Square to protest against the neo-Nazis' attempt to seize on the bombing to promote their distorted view of history. Several thousand militant anti-Nazi fascists gathered at other locations in the city.
Merkel's Conservatives Stayed Away
The leader of the center-left Social Democrats, Franz Müntefering, and politicians from the Left Party and the Greens attended the Theater Square demonstration.
Politicians from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and from the opposition liberal Free Democrats stayed away, apparently because they didn't want to be seen alongside members of the former communist Left Party in this election year.
"I find it very regrettable that no senior conservative or liberal politicians turned up," said Kramer.
Hundreds of militant anti-Nazi activists clashed with police during Saturday afternoon and police said they detained 86 people and that 30 officers were slightly inured. Two unoccupied police vehicles were overturned.
Later on Saturday, five anti-Nazi demonstrators were injured during a chance encounter with neo-Nazis at a motorway service station. They had been in separate coaches that had both stopped at the service station on the way back from the Dresden demonstrations.
Police said the 40 neo-Nazis had hurled abuse at the group of 40 trade unionists and Left Party members before assaulting them. Two of the victims had to be treated at a hospital.
"I'm alarmed at the increasingly frequent and brutal acts of violence by neo-Nazis," Ulrich Wilken, the head of the Left Party in the state of Hesse, said in a statement. "People who look on at the increasing far-right violence without doing anything are indirectly making themselves responsible for what is happening."
While far-right attacks on immigrants, anti-Nazi activists and Jewish sites are commonplace -- especially in the economically depressed east -- the near-fatal stabbing of the police chief in the Bavarian town of Passau by a suspected neo-Nazi last December fuelled public concern about the far right.
The government of Bavaria last month announced a package of measures to tackle neo-Nazis including reviewing a fresh attempt to ban the National Democratic Party and requiring schools to take children on visits of concentration camps.