After a Violent Year, Eastern Germany Is Set for an Important Election

Right-wing violence and protests, centred in the city of Chemnitz, have left migrant families fearful.

Once a camera man for Iranian TV channels, Masoud Hashemi fled to Germany in 2012 to seek political asylum. He choses to stay in the city of Chemnitz because of its friendly environment.

Unable to find the kind of job he used to do, he started a Persian restaurant called Safran in 2018. When you walk in, the smell of tea, Persian music and a beautifully decorated interior greets you. There are pictures from different historical sites in Iran and Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat (quatrains) on one side and scriptures in Persian and Arabic on the other. ‘Ya Lateefo’, one says in Arabic, which means ‘the most gentle’.

But the night of October 7, 2018 was not gentle for Hashemi.

His last customers, a family with children, had left. Around 10:30 pm, as he cleaned up and prepared to close the restaurant, three men appeared at the door. One of them stayed outside.

“I thought they want to use the toilet, so I welcomed them in,” Hashemi told The Wire. But they had something else in mind.

“Two of them entered the restaurant and shouted ‘Heil Hitler’, before throwing a samovar at me. It narrowly escaped my head,” he recalled.

The men, in motorcycle helmets and black masks, smashed whatever they found. When Hashemi tried to stop them, they beat him up.

“They were throwing things at me and suddenly, one of them kneed my stomach and pushed me to the wall. I have still not recovered and have pain in my back.”

Hashemi in his kitchen.

The attack lasted for about three minutes, but Hashemi had to spend eight days in the hospital. There is a police station just a stone’s throw away from his restaurant, but the patrolling party arrived 15 minutes after the attack. The perpetrators had disappeared in the dark.

“The doctors wanted me to stay longer in the hospital, but I told them I have to open the restaurant. If it stays close for even one more minute, it’ll be a win for Nazis,” Hashemi said.

This was the first time he was physically attacked, but his restaurant has been targeted at least three times before. Previously, swastikas were painted on the walls and windows were smashed in.

Hashemi isn’t the only one

Since the end of August last year, there have been several xenophobic attacks on non-German restaurants registered in Chemnitz. On August 27, a Jewish restaurant, Shalom, was attacked and the owner injured. On the night of September 22, Persian restaurant Schmetterling (Butterfly) was attacked with stones. On October 18, a Turkish restaurant Mangal, situated in the basement of a tower block, was destroyed in an arson attack. The owner left the city.

Months later, the police have no idea who the perpetrators were.

Chemnitz is one of the three largest cities in the eastern German state of Saxony, along with Dresden and Leipzig. Nazi Germany was administered from Saxony, and the legacy of far-right extremism continues till date. The notorious neo-Nazi cell National Socialist Underground (NSU) has killed at least ten people, most from migrant backgrounds, in a period of eight years. But the group has managed to remain undetected.

A residential area in Chemnitz.

“We have been facing these problems for the last 11 years, and what we have found is that the number of the victims is rising in Chemnitz and Saxony,” said André Löscher from RAA Support, an organisation which works with victims of right-wing extremism.

“In Chemnitz, there is very strong right-wing mobilisation. We have lots of stores selling right-wing music and clothes. Music labels like PC (Politically Correct) records produce a lot of right-wing music,” he added.

Several German political parties fear that far-right extremism is concentrated in Saxony. It also homes the far-right group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA). This movement sees Islam at war with the West, a struggle of cultures and clash of civilisations. This theory was expressed by American political scientist Samuel Huntington more than two decades ago, and which now garners a considerable number of followers in the German far-right.

Also read: German Muslims Demand Better Protection Amidst Bomb Threats on Mosques

The movement started in 2014 in Dresden, when businessman Lutz Bachmann and a group of locals marched to protest what they claimed was as an invasion of German identity. Bachmann, the son of a butcher, has called immigrants ‘cattle’, ‘scumbags’ and ‘trash’ in the past. He resigned from his post in PEGIDA in 2015 after a picture of him masquerading as Hitler went viral.

The underlying anger against migrants in Chemnitz grew more intense last August, when Daniel H., a carpenter of German-Cuban origin, was stabbed to death during a festival to mark the city’s 875th anniversary after an argument with two asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries. His killing inspired an ironic display of outrage from the Right – because of his skin colour, for years Daniel H. himself was targeted by right-wing groups, his friend said. They called him “Negi”.

The same right-wing groups then used his death to spread even more racism. A series of xenophobic rallies to protest against immigration were held, during which neo-Nazis gave Hitler salutes, which is not legal in Germany.

Footage of violent right-wing protestors appeared in the media chasing non-white people in the city. Chemnitz was being portrayed in the headlines as a neo-Nazi land.

Johannes Grunert, a freelance journalist, was covering and witnessing the violence in Chemnitz. According to him, the police underestimated the strength of right-wing protestors. “The police presence was negligible and they also reacted very late,” he said.

“For us it was no surprise that last year so many right-wing people were rioting on the streets of Chemnitz. It shows how well-connected these groups of hooligans are,” said Löscher.

Not only were migrants attacked, so were journalists. They were called ‘Lügenpresse’ or ‘lying press’, a Nazi slur used to discredit the free press.

“I was filming the neo-Nazi attacks on a group of counter-demonstrators. A masked man stepped out of the bush behind me and hit me, causing my phone to fall and get damaged,” said Johannes, who has been reporting on the far-right in the area for the last nine years.

Political party banners in Chemnitz.

The violence in Chemnitz brought about large-scale responses from the civil society. Just days after the far-right protests, counter-demonstrations were organised. Around 65,000 people attended a free concert in the city against racism. Wir Sind Mehr or We Are More occupied the streets of Chemnitz. “Refugees welcome” replaced the far-right chants of “foreigners out” that had earlier echoed on the streets.

But the attacks against people from migrant families has increased since then, according to RAA Support’s data.

“August last year has changed the climate for refugees in Chemnitz. They are more afraid now,” said Löscher.

According to RAA data, the number of attacks on refugees in Chemnitz went up nearly 400% last year than the year before.

“In 2017, we saw 20 right-wing attacks, in 2018 it was 79. Most of these attacks are racially motivated, where refugees were hit with beer bottles.”

During counselling sessions, affected people also complained about verbal attacks. “Not only physical attacks, the verbal attacks are also rising. And that’s why people have to think about whether they should go outside or not, or if they should let their kids to go school or not,” Löscher added.

Increasing polarisation

Last August’s violent protests cannot be seen in isolation, as political parties and the German administration have ignored the danger of the right-wing for a long time.

After the violence blew up on the streets of Chemnitz, the German police arrested and detained seven men from a far-right terrorist organisation: Revolution Chemnitz. The organisation had allegedly tried to create a civil war-like situation in Berlin on October 2, 2018, attacking ‘foreigners’ and people who have different political views. It was reported that one of the accused has admitted that the violence was being planned with the intention of breaking laws and blaming the left-wing for all that went wrong.

Also read: ‘Promise me You’ll Shoot Yourself’: Nazi Germany’s Suicide Wave

Since Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed millions of asylum seekers and migrants  to make Germany their home at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, Germany has become increasingly polarised. The anti-immigration and populist political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag in 2017. Elections were last held in 2014 in Saxony, when Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won and made a coalition government with the centre-Left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But since then, Saxony has come out as a fortress of the AfD, which secured the highest percentage of the state’s votes both in the 2017 federal elections and in the 2019 European Union election.

Opinion polls suggest that AfD hopes to make big gains in Saxony and Brandenburg, where elections fall on September 1. There is also speculation in Berlin that if the AfD wins in Saxony and Brandenburg, and in October in Thuringia, it could demoralise Merkel’s national coalition and it may fall apart.

Saxony and Brandenburg, two relatively poor eastern states which share a large mining area, are now threatened by the government’s plan to phase out coal. Currently, around 20,000 people in Germany are directly dependent on the coal industry, primarily in the areas of Brandenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. The AfD is campaigning to oppose the coal phase out plan with a simple populist message: “Money for pensioners, not for illegal migrants.” After the Euro and refugee crisis, climate change denial is the third major theme plank of the party.

The popularity of Merkel’s CDU has declined gradually and her coalition partner, SPD, is facing a serious existential crisis. But at the same time, the Green Party is emerging as a challenging force against the AfD. It has a clear and honest image, and its poll numbers and public support are rising.

But in the rough terrain of the East, the Green Party is facing resistance from local right-wing groups and political parties.

On the broad sidewalk of Chemnitz’s Brückenstrasse, a plaque for Daniel H. can be seen marking the spot where he died. The small silver metal plate has a peace symbol, and some flowers, candles and a Bible are laid around. About 100 metres from there, on a windy August afternoon, close to 300 people gathered around Karl Marx’s bust to listen to Green Party chief Robert Habeck, who was on a three-week-long election campaign in the East. From a distance, on the other side of the road, two policemen were video recording the event, and police vans were also positioned at a discreet distance near the gathering.

Habeck speaking in front of Marx’s bust.

Marx’s monument is Chemnitz’s famous landmark and the focal point for any demonstration, including last year’s violent protests. The head is over seven metres high, and weighs 40 tonnes, making it one of the largest busts in the world. On the bronze wall behind the massive head the phrase “Workers of the world, unite” is inscribed in German, English, French and Russian.

An old man dressed as Karl Marx emerged on the stage and addressed to the audience. Then the anchor introduced Habeck to the public. But the moment he started his speech, a group of 30 people, standing few metres away and carrying flags and placards of the Pro Chemnitz political party, raised slogans like “Hau ab, hau ab (go away, go away)” or “Lüge, lüge (lie, lie)”. Some were whistling and making unpleasant noises. Young muscular men with dark glasses, shaved heads and Pro Chemnitz T-shirts were shouting aggressively at Habeck.

Some of the Green Party’s volunteers tried to talk to some of these people so they don’t create a ruckus, but the strategy didn’t work. It did not seem like they had gathered to listen or have any constructive dialogues.

At the end of the programme, Habeck said that the people of Chemnitz are not going to give space to anti-democrats. “The story of the evening is that the square was held by democratic means, and there was no physical violence.”

A Green party volunteer talking to protestors.

Less than a kilometre away from the politically charged avenue, Hashemi is serving joojeh, a traditional Iranian non-vegetarian dish, to one his German customers. Beside him on the wall is a picture of Hashemi with Merkel. The chancellor met him in Chemnitz after last year’s attack.

Now, Hashemi is worried about the upcoming election results. “If Ms Merkel will not be the chancellor of Germany anymore and AfD comes to power, then I have to leave.”

“The rise of Nazis is not only dangerous for this city, but also for the whole world,” Hashemi said.

The man accused of the killing Daniel H. was found guilty of manslaughter at a court in Dresden on August 22 and sentenced to 9.5 years in prison. It’s too early to say whether this will change anything for the people of Chemnitz. Right-wing protestors were on the streets again just days before the elections. Their actions here could demonstrate what the rest of Germany may look like soon, if the elections go a certain way.

All images by Aaquib Khan.

Aaquib Khan is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He is currently in Germany as a Robert Bosch Stiftung Media Ambassador. He tweets @kaqibb.