After Chemnitz: Germany’s Extreme Right Exploits Government Passivity and Public Resentment to Enter the Mainstream

While the AfD party emerges as a leading voice of political opposition, the government downplays its danger and even co-opts its xenophobic messaging.

By Denijal Jegić

German police rounded up a right-wing terror network this October 1, arresting its members ahead of an attack allegedly aimed at subverting the country. Called “Revolution Chemnitz,” the group “intended to launch violent and armed attacks against foreigners and people who have different political views,” a federal prosecutor told local media. The arrests drew attention once again to the district of Saxony, a base of the far-right Alternative for German (AfD) party where extremists staged a series of anti-migrant riots last month in the city of Chemnitz.

“We are the Nazis, you are the pigs!” a protester screamed during the extreme right demonstration in Chemnitz. Another proudly threw up a sieg heil salute during a live news broadcast. Thousands of far-right Germans and neo-Nazis mingled in riots in Chemnitz, in the East German state of Saxony. The gatherings were initially justified by the organizers, among them the AfD, as a supposedly commemorative response to the killing of a Cuban-German.

Daniel H. had been stabbed to death on August 26, 2018, allegedly by refugees of Arab ancestry. His killing inspired an especially ironic display of outrage: Having been confronted with racism as a person of color in Chemnitz, which is known to be a center of far-right activity, the very people who had called Daniel the n-word eventually seized on his death to engage in even more racism.

Far-right manifestations have become routine in Germany, and its influence has penetrated the mainstream political discourse, particularly since the AfD made it into the federal parliament following its historic success in the 2017 elections. The German government’s admission of refugees from the Middle East since 2015 has generally magnified racist tendencies among some of the country’s population. The former German Democratic Republic in the country’s east has been especially affected by an increase in xenophobic incidents.

More often than not, the political establishment has brushed off the far-right as a marginal phenomenon. The recent arrests of the “Revolution Chemnitz” terror cell illustrate that the riots in the city were not an isolated incident, but an example of the growing power and unpredictability of right-wing extremism. The displays of unchecked fanaticism have also shown the extent to which the government and authorities have struggled to properly articulate a plan to confront the new reality.

Any crime involving people of color has recently been exploited by the far-right as an opportunity to incite against non-Germans, with Muslims, Arabs, and Blacks being the prime targets of racist populism. Chemnitz has seen considerable manifestations of militant racism. In the course of the riots, dozens were injured, minorities were hunted throughout the city, a Jewish restaurant owner was attacked and his business was vandalized by a neo-Nazi group that screamed at the owner: “Get out of Germany, Jewish pig!”

Far-right protesters demonstrated their social media prowess throughout the riots. Facebook has been a particularly popular platform for incitement against refugees. One of the arguments that sparked the riot against non-Germans in Chemnitz was the claim that 60 women were raped by migrants this year in that city. As Chemnitz police told German broadcaster ARD, however, there were 14 documented rape cases. Three suspects were migrants. The wrong information still went viral and was propagated, for example, by Maximilian Krah, vice chair of Saxony’s AfD. Saxony police rebutted Krah via twitter.

The events in Chemnitz triggered energetic grassroots responses. There were significant counter-protests and a concert against racism was organized under the slogan “we are more.” While such gestures were important, their political effect was hard to gauge. The counter-protesters celebrated, pointing to the numbers they mobilized as proof that they had marginalized the neo-Nazis. At the end of the day, however minorities were still faced with the same racism, particularly because Chemnitz was far from an isolated incident.

After reunification, a far-right emerges from the shadows

A New York Times article from October 1, 1991 distilled the xenophobic atmosphere that swept over parts of Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The report was published immediately after the pogrom in Hoyerswerda (Saxony), in which hundreds of violent neo-Nazis and thousands of cheering bystanders successfully pressured state authorities into evacuating Asian and African migrant workers from the small town.

“A wave of attacks on immigrants and refugees has shocked many Germans as the country nears its first anniversary of unification,” the article explained. “The violence reached a peak last weekend, when youths in 20 German towns attacked buildings where foreigners live.” The piece further documents how politicians reacted with plans to curb immigration.

Written twenty-seven years ago, this piece could be read as a reflection of the current climate in Germany. Perhaps the major difference is that today, the far-right is no longer a fringe phenomenon; it has been accepted as an integral part of the mainstream and is expected to gain momentum in months and years to come.

After World War II, right-wing extremism remained a latent force within German life. Since reunification, it has been ubiquitous.  East Germany has witnessed the worst spasms of violence against minorities. The pogrom in the city of Rostock in 1992 marked the most gruesome racist attack in Germany since the war, when an apartment block inhabited by Vietnamese workers was set on fire by a far-right mob. Up to 3,000 spectators rooted for the xenophobic crowd of hundreds of neo-Nazis and prevented the police from intervening. Shockingly, the police retreated, completely abandoning the immigrants to the racist mobs.

In recent years, the far-right has focused largely on Middle Eastern refugees and non-European immigrants. The combination of already present xenophobic sentiment and socio-economic dissatisfaction – particularly in the structurally disadvantaged Eastern states of Germany – has led to the rise of the so-called “angry” or “concerned citizen” (‘Wutbürger’ and ‘besorgter Bürger’ in German). These are usually white, ethnic Germans who do not necessarily or openly identify as far-right, but who would blame their general anger on immigration. These people have particularly been vulnerable to the establishment of far-right movements in this decade. The AfD and the Islamophobic movement Pegida have been among the most successful vehicles for exploiting their resentment.

In the worldview of the anti-migrant forces, refugees represent the Oriental enemy’s arrival on Europe’s doorstep. Since at least the summer of 2015, when the number of arriving refugees was at its peak, right-wing violence has become an everyday occurence in Germany.

One of the most recent anti-refugee attacks took place in Freital, a small town located next to Saxony’s capital Dresden, which has become known for its Islamophobic mass protests. Residents – including AfD and NPD representatives – objected to the accommodation of a small number of refugees in the city.

When a crowd of over a hundred xenophobes gathered in front of a refugee housing, which they attacked with explosives, police reacted late and reluctantly.  An activist who was present described the situation as a dangerous “pogrom mood” which could be compared to Hoyerswerda and Rostock. In 2018, eight Germans from Freital were sentenced to jail for establishing a far-right terrorist organization, the “Freital Group.” They had attacked refugee homes and leftist politicians.

Official statistics recorded more than 2,200 attacks against refugees in 2017 and over 3,500 in 2016. 950 attacks on Muslims and Islamic institutions where documented last year, while the actual number is probably higher.  

Events like these put the events in Chemnitz in a much more disturbing context, forcing observers to view them as part of a broader development that is not going away any time soon.

Right-wing extremism as an image problem

The reactions to Chemnitz were emblematic of the political elite’s passive stance towards far-right extremism. Federal chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, unequivocally condemned the riots and the persecution of innocent people. Saxony’s prime minister Michael Kretschmer (CDU) agreed, but insisted that putting Chemnitz and Saxony under general suspicion was “fallacious” and “careless.” He said his government would decidedly combat right-wing extremism. However, he did not present any strategy. Instead, he downplayed the events in Chemnitz, claiming that there was no mob, no hunt, and no pogroms – a word he struggled to pronounce correctly.

The concern over Saxony’s image was accompanied by a public discourse on how to properly label the events in Chemnitz.

The president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maaßen, publicly questioned the authenticity of one of the videos that showed white Germans chasing visible minorities, stating he was skeptical about the media coverage about the “hunt” on people (“Hetzjagd” in German, i.e. a compound of the nouns for ‘incitement’ and ‘chase’) in Chemnitz, for which there was no sufficient evidence according to him.

Maaßen even claimed he had good reason to suspect that videos of the mob violence were produced as part of a calculated attempt to distract the public from the “murder” in Chemnitz. Maaßen’s problematic statements were contested by members of the government who urged him to present evidence for his claims. Previously, Maaßen had criticized chancellor Merkel’s liberal refugee policy. He had also met with representatives of the AfD on several occasions and received widespread criticism for that.

The chief public prosecutor of Dresden, Saxony’s capital, announced before finalizing the evaluation of the video material that there was no reason to believe that such instances of “Hetzjagd” took place. The government spokesperson countered that it was nevertheless obvious from the videos that people of non-German ancestry were intimidated and threatened.

The video in question has been extensively analyzed and its authenticity was confirmed by experts.

This meticulous insistence on the wording of a particular action, despite the indisputable presence of thousands of far-right protesters, who were either violent or ready to engage in violence, illustrates that the concern for Chemnitz’s and Saxony’s already tainted image overshadowed the concern for the safety of minorities and for democracy itself. The visibility of far-right violence was countered not with any actual strategy, but with a campaign of whitewashing at the highest levels of government.

In Saxony, where the far-right has been particularly strong, the political leadership has been passive as well. While former prime minister Stanislaw Tillich recognized the failure to confront the reality of far-right mobilization last year, nothing substantial has been done since. Like his peers in government, Tillich’s primary concern was that the spread of xenophobia might be bad for Saxony’s image.

The fanatical ideology of the AfD

While centrist members of the German government fret about public relations, the AfD has embarked on aggressive marketing campaign to promote its own brand to an anxious public. While AfD party members portray themselves as mainstream conservatives, the party has pursued extremist objectives, using militaristic metaphors to highlight its agenda and, at times, spewing Nazi-esque language.

The far-right, including the AfD, presents itself as a protector of the “homeland.” It does not necessarily position Germanness as superior, but rather as vulnerable and threatened by those who look and think differently. Arabs, Muslims, Germans who are not politically on the right, human rights, progress, equality, and historiography are the major threats in the far-right’s cramped insistence on ethnic purity.

In its general party platform, the AfD presents mostly ultra-conservative, socially regressive, and Islamophobic concepts. Ideas of “Volk” (people/nation) and “Heimat” (homeland) add an ethno-political dimension to the AfD’s primitive societal concepts. Anything that derives from this vision tends to be denounced as “Verrat” (treason).

The platform fetishizes patriotism and openly calls for restrictions of individual freedoms. It demands the reestablishing of physical borders around Germany and reintroducing full military conscription. The party adheres to what it refers to as traditional concepts of family — code for an anti-feminist and anti-LGBT+ approach that strengthens the dominance of the white, heterosexual, patriarchal, ethnically German man who represents the AfD’s base. Thus, reproduction is considered a societal task, any form of abortion should be banned, and Germany should see “more children instead of mass immigration.” Same-sex marriage would also be abolished under the party’s rule. The AfD even insists on removing gender studies as an academic discipline. Finally, the party “decidedly rejects” a “one sided accentuation of homosexuality and transsexuality.”

The party adheres to the German “Leitkultur” (‘main or leading culture’), renouncing the “ideology of multiculturalism” as a “serious threat to the social peace and the survival of the nation as a cultural unit.” Accordingly, it argues that traditional German cultural identity must be defended. Towards this end, the AfD advocates against observing the collective memory of the Holocaust in favor of an “extended view on history” that would focus on “positive aspects of German history.”

Muslims are conceptualized as the arch enemy. The AfD clearly opposes “an Islamic religious practice” which is directed against the democratic order, laws, and the so-called “Judeo-Christian and humanistic foundations of our culture.” Unaware of the country’s demographic facts, the platform further proclaims that Germany is “not a classical immigration country.” Such a fantasy of an alternative reality is characteristic of the AfD’s rhetoric.

The rhetoric the AfD puts in its official statements can hardly match up to the fanatical ideas that AfD members, politicians, and elected officials have openly advocated on a regular basis. Much of its representatives’ rhetoric is based on two principle claims: the ethnic concept of Germanness is disappearing and the state has been invaded and corrupted by non-Germans.

Individual actions and comments made by party members illustrate the extremist ideology more blatantly. Elected officials have portrayed the current political order as a conspiracy and as a totalitarianism that needs to be replaced. Media is generally labeled as “Lügenpresse,” a term used by the Nazis during the Third Reich, oftentimes for anti-Jewish purposes, and recently adapted by American white nationalists like Richard Spencer. The party’s parliamentary co-leader Alice Weidel once said angrily that “political correctness belongs in the trash heap of history.”

Weidel’s Twitter account is replete with racist statements. The politician regularly uploads pictures, where her face is photoshopped between a blurry background and Islamophobic demands formulated in simplistic language. Recent examples include: “Immediate deportation of criminal immigrants,” and “In reality asylum seekers are not victims – we are.” Another tweet proclaimed, “Syrians and Afghans are killing because of their culture – this stone-age-culture does not belong to Germany,” with a photoshopped image of a bleeding hand holding a knife embedded in the background.

The party actively engages enthusiastically in incitement against Muslims, who are generally dehumanized and depicted as a foreign army of refugees that is invading Europe and intending to destroy its culture. The Bavaria branch of the AfD opened up their election campaign for the state elections in fall 2018 with posters that portraying white school children and advocating that schools be “islamfrei” (free of Islam), a clear invocation of the Nazi era usage of the word “judenfrei” (free of Jews).

In line with the party’s wish to marginalize the Holocaust in the German collective memory, there have been various documented instances of Holocaust denial or trivialization.

Alexander Gauland, who co-chairs the party with Weidel, recently relativized the Nazi era as irrelevant “bird shit” and compared it to “over 1,000 years of glorious German history.” While he was criticized, his statement represents a mindset that is not too uncommon in Germany. Although the Holocaust is generally acknowledged as a crime against humanity, it nevertheless tends to be comprehended as a historically exceptional moment that allegedly contradicted German values. Such a view whitewashes centuries of anti-Semitism, which has been deeply entrenched in German cultures.

Another example came from Björn Höcke, one of the party’s leading extremists, who called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame.” Wilhelm von Gottberg, a federal MP, evoked that the Holocaust is a myth and spoke of “Jewish conspiracy theories.” Wolfgang Gedeon, an MP in the Stuttgart’s state parliament, denied the Holocaust. A group of AfD voters from  Weidel’s electoral district used an educational visit to the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen to publicly belittle the extent of Nazi crimes and to put into question the existence of gas chambers.

Peter Boehringer, who is now leading the German parliament’s budget committee, has used the Nazi term “Umvolkung” (i.e. the act of altering and transforming one ethnic group into another) to present migration as an ethnic/racial danger to Germanness. He also wrote that the state had capitulated in front of “criminal,” “Quran-submissive,” “misogynous macho-mobs of sons of suras” in an email which was leaked. (He used ‘Surensöhne,’ which rhymes with ‘Hurensöhne,’ i.e. ‘sons of whores.’) Boehringer referred to chancellor Merkel as “Merkelhooker” (‘Merkelhure’), who “lets everyone in.” In the same email, he wrote what was happening to the German people was a “genocide, which will be successfully completed in less than ten years, if we do not stop the criminals.” Boehringer’s statement points to another widespread phenomenon in the far-right: the promotion of sexist policies and sexist language combined with a simultaneous presentation of sexism as an Islamic feature.

Another AfD member who has political authority in the parliament is Sebastian Münzenmeier. Münzenmeier is a convicted hooligan sentenced to a six month suspended sentence after he assisted in criminal assault in a football stadium. Today, he presides over the federal parliament’s tourism committee.

The mainstream co-opts the AfD’s messaging

Since its founding in 2013, the AfD’s political gains have steadily increased. It surged more than any other party iin the 2017 federal elections, coming in third place. Today, it is now the leader of the opposition in Germany. In September 2018, the AfD became the most popular party in East Germany. According to polls, the AfD would reach 27% there if elections took place now. The CDU stands at a historically low 23% in the East. In West Germany, the AfD would get 14%.

In Saxony, the CDU has ruled since 1991, at times with an absolute majority. In the 1994 state elections, for example, the CDU achieved 58.1%. In the 2017, parliamentary elections, the CDU fell to 26,9% in Saxony, slightly behind the AfD, which won the elections there. Current Saxon prime minister Kretschmer himself lost his direct mandate to an AfD candidate.

Established parties have struggled to find adequate ways to cope with this new reality. Although the AfD has oftentimes been identified as a threat to democracy, it is also understood as a rival in the fight for votes. Streams within the CDU and its Bavarian partner, the CSU, have therefore tried to attract voters from the far-right by mimicking the AfD’s xenophobic appeals. And indeed, parts of the AfD’s conservative ideology overlap with those of the more right streams within these parties. This ideological proximity of the CDU/CSU to the AfD might explain why the borders between these parties are not always clearly delineated.

Islamophobia, meanwhile, is present across the political spectrum. Tillich has shown concern over Islam and “the culture it conveys,” and warned of criminal Muslims. When Merkel stated that Islam had a place in Germany, he was quick to state that Islam did not belong to Saxony. He then asked Muslim representatives to collectively condemn terrorism, claiming that Muslim organizations could take people’s fear away if only they just distanced themselves from violent extremist groups. Curiously, there had been no incidents described as terrorist attacks committed by Muslims in Saxony, and the Muslim population in Saxony was negligible.

Some elected officials of the CDU have even suggested cooperating with the AfD, violating the CDU’s official line.

Klaus-Peter Willich, a CDU member of the federal parliament, reacted to the AfD’s first successes in 2014 by elaborating on possible strategic partnerships and government coalitions, as he saw great intersections between his party and the AfD. In 2016, Hermann Winkler of Saxony’s CDU, suggested the party open itself up for possible coalitions with the AfD. Bettina Kudla, who represented Saxony’s largest city Leipzig in the federal parliament in Berlin, made headlines in 2016, when she used the Third Reich term “Umvolkung” in a racist tweet.

Veronika Bellmann, a CDU member of parliament from Saxony, told the right-wing paper “Junge Freiheit” that Muslims had no place in Germany’s governing party. She feared that they might become religious. Bellmann refused to apologize after she was criticized by other CDU officials. In 2016, Bellmann had urged the CDU not to exclude a possible cooperation with the AfD.

If these assorted examples of extremism illustrate anything, it is that the far-right has gained a shocking degree of access to the mainstream. It should be alarming that the potential emanating from the far-right is oftentimes identified as a threat to voting results and political dominance rather than a fundamental danger to the future of Germany as a democratic state. Indeed, while the AfD and its friends are acting, the rest of Germany’s political class seems confused about how to react.

The events in Chemnitz provided yet another unsettling example for established parties reaching out to voters of the AfD by downplaying the extremist threat. Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU and currently Federal Interior Minister, voiced understanding for the protesters, echoing the far-right logic that the presence of foreigners was to blame. “Migration is the mother of all problems,” Seehofer claimed. Leading members of the federal party FDP also reacted to Chemnitz by blaming Merkel’s pro-refugee policy.

But no party has exploited the situation better than the AfD. Gauland, for example, referred to the violent demonstrations as acts of “self-defense.” And an AfD member of the federal parliament named Hansjörg Müller characterized the protests as resistance to the “genocide” which was allegedly taking place against Germans.

Beyond the AfD, a rising right

To be sure, the AfD is only part of the problem. Contemporary right-wing extremism was alive and kicking before the AfD’s foundation half a decade ago. But the party has managed to consolidate extremist mobilization by giving them access to the mainstream. While Nazi language has been used outside AfD circles , the party’s reiteration of terms like “völkisch,” “Lügenpresse,” and “Volksverräter” while gaining unprecedented support has helped normalize the use of Third Reich rhetoric.

Then there is Pegida, the supposedly non-partisan movement that takes to the streets in cities throughout East Germany to proclaim resistance against the alleged threat of “jihadists” and “sharia law.” There is also the “Reich Citizens Movement,” a looser community of approximately 18,000 Germans who do not recognize the Federal Republic of Germany and its constitution and instead fantasize about a continuity of the German Reich. Many “reich citizens” are armed, with some trying to build an army. In 2017, anti-terror police stormed a paramilitary training camp that far-right extremists had established in a forest in the East German state of Thüringen. The raid was a harbinger of the arrests of the “Revolution Chemnitz” terror cell members this month.

The events in Chemnitz amplified the rhetorical attack on immigration and on the very presence of refugees and Muslims. The far-right has demonstrated that it is not only shameless, but fearless. Past inhibitions are gone. Racist incitement is more present than ever.

Worse, right-wing extremists are seen less as fringe groups and more as voters that need to be appeased by the political establishment. Reacting to the AfD’s success in the 2017 federal elections, Alexander Gauland proclaimed proudly: “We will chase Merkel or whoever. And we will reclaim our country and our people.” The prophecy has already been fulfilled. The AfD is chasing Germany’s leadership, physically and discursively.

And all too often, the the state appears as a passive bystander.

On September 11, 2018, Wolfgang Schäuble, the president of the Bundestag, expressed deep worry about the state of the country. Speaking to the parliament, he said Germany had to improve its enforcement of law and justice, or else. “There must be neither indulgence nor sympathetic belittlement for xenophobia, Hitler salutes, Nazi symbols, attacks on Jewish institutions,” he declared.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his speech was that in Berlin’s parliament in 2018, it had to be made at all.