After rioting in the eastern-German city of Chemnitz on August 26 and 27 by neo-Nazis and other forces of the extreme right, many observers are questioning whether far-right sympathies among the security forces allowed things to get out of hand.
The riots broke out in the wake of a fatal stabbing in the city (with a population of about 250,000, it’s the third-largest in Saxony, after Leipzig and Dresden) in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 26, during a brawl at the tail end of a street festival. Two men, an Iraqi and a Syrian, were arrested, and a news website, Tag24, reported that the victim, a German-Cuban man, had been killed while trying to protect a woman from sexual assault. More reputable German media have said that the Tag24 report was false. The details of the incident remain unclear, but the fact of the stabbing and the arrest of two foreigners provided a pretext for the right-wing violence that followed.
The way these riots developed illustrates how right-wing groups and parties in Germany interact, and how they are creating, all together, a sharp rightward shift in the country’s political climate. The first group on the scene was organized by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is today the largest opposition party in the German parliament. At 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, the AfD gathered about a hundred people peacefully in the city center, but they left after an hour because, according to one of their officials, they did not want to mix with the more violent group that was coming on the scene next.
This next group included Kaotic Chemnitz, a band of soccer hooligans. They came out to riot, not to demonstrate. The hooligans were able to mobilize about 800 people, who showed up around 4:30; video emerged online that appeared to show rioters chasing down people perceived to be immigrants. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the “hounding” of people in the streets of Chemnitz, while the police seemed unable to control the situation.
The following day, August 27, a much larger right-wing rally occurred—this time with about 6,000 participants and about 1,000 left-wing counter-demonstrators—organized by a small local political party called Pro Chemnitz, which has three seats on the city council. Participating openly in this rally were neo-Nazi groups such as Third Way, the National Socialists of Chemnitz, and the NPD, a racist political party. The police appeared even more outmanned than they had been on Sunday, with the right-wing forces able at times to actually attack and break through police lines. Eighteen rioters and two police officers were reported injured.
Demonstrations surrounding the stabbing and the response to it continued to roil Chemnitz through the following weekend, with an anti-Nazi leftist rock concert attracting 65,000 people on September 3, dwarfing the right-wing crowds. Two days before, on September 1, an AfD rally had attracted only 4,500 people, who faced 4,000 counter-demonstrators. But even from a position of numerical weakness, the far right seems to be setting the agenda.
The groups that fuel the violence range from the soccer hooligans to a variety of banned or legally questionable neo-Nazi parties and movements. Some of these groups try to distance themselves from the others for tactical reasons, although they all work toward the same disorderly result. Some of the hooligans are just out for violence, and there was some speculation that Kaotic Chemnitz might have rallied because the victim of the stabbing seems to have been an active soccer fan. Some of the demonstrators might not be participants in Nazi or other right-wing parties, and could very well be voters of mainstream parties. But they buy into the idea that the “Volk” has to protect itself from perceived rising crime linked to immigration.
If the groups in the street are responsible for staging violence and chaos, political parties like the AfD, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), and even some parts of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are responsible for helping to encourage, excuse, condone, or accommodate their activities.
So even as we saw the AfD withdraw from the public square in Chemnitz in order to avoid association with the soccer hooligans of Kaotic Chemnitz, one of the AfD’s leaders, Alice Weidel, posted on Facebook on Monday that the stabbing had proved that “the slaughter [by immigrants] continues.” Then there was the tweet by Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD politician who is a member of the German parliament. Frohnmaier’s tweet, issued as a mob was chasing down random nonwhite passersby in the streets of a major German city, said: “When the state can no longer protect its citizens, people will go into the streets and protect themselves. Very simple! Today it is the obligation of the citizen to stop the death-bringing ‘knife migration.’ It could have been your father, son, or brother!”
This tweet went too far, according to another AfD parliamentarian, Jens Maier from Dresden, which was a bit rich since Maier himself has been in trouble for saying that Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed more than 70 people, was just acting out of “desperation” over high levels of immigration. In any event, the AfD’s co-chairman, Alexander Gauland, praised Frohnmaier’s tweet, saying that “self-defense is not vigilante justice.” The AfD leadership then issued a statement arguing that the problem was the media’s focus on justifiable rioting and not on the stabbing that unleashed it.
Meanwhile, federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU said nothing about the riots until Tuesday, when they were already over. He then expressed, in a statement, his “understanding” of the “dismay of the population”—as though the riots had been a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy for the stabbing victim when they were obviously a well-organized, well-choreographed display of far-right mob violence, driven by a set of actors known to Seehofer’s own ministry for their anti-constitutional, violent, and fascistic agendas. In this context, Seehofer’s pro forma condemnation of “calls to violence or violent rioting” seemed worse than unconvincing.
The ugly truth is that there seems to be in Germany a spirit of mutual accommodation among the neo-Nazis, parts of the mainstream right-wing political parties, the AfD, and even the police. A number of incidents from the past several months point in this direction.
For example, a prison guard in Dresden leaked to right-wing agitators the arrest warrant of one of the suspects in the August 26 stabbing, with enough gory details about the violent crime to fuel a lynch-mob mentality. The warrant appeared on the social-media sites of various provocateurs, including that of Lutz Bachmann, a founder of Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), which has been holding anti-migrant marches in Dresden since October 2014. This leak, which was illegal, appears to have helped fuel public anger about the incident.
There was already an ongoing scandal involving the Saxon security services, because on August 16 the police in Dresden illegally detained a television crew from one of Germany’s public broadcasters at the behest of a far-right protester who claimed, erroneously, that the TV crew had no right to film him at a demonstration. This scandal deepened when it turned out that the protester was himself an employee of the police force with access to sensitive information.
The premier of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, of Merkel’s CDU, then tweeted, à la Trump, that as far as he could see, “The only upstanding people in this video [of the incident] are the cops.” Although Kretschmer has strongly condemned the rioting in Chemnitz, he had seemed much more ambivalent about this other incident just a couple of weeks earlier. It is certainly possible that while composing his pro-police tweet, he had, somewhere in the back of his mind, thoughts of next year’s state elections in Saxony, especially with recent polling showing the AfD hard on his heels.
Another example: Earlier in the summer, a tell-all book by a young former AfD member alleged that Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, an internal security service designed to monitor and stop dangerous political extremists, had met with then-AfD leader Frauke Petry (who is no longer in the party) to advise her on how the party could avoid monitoring. Maassen has denied offering such advice, but there have been calls for a parliamentary investigation.
In July, the trial of a neo-Nazi terror group, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), came to what victims’ advocates and many analysts found to be a very unsatisfying conclusion. The NSU committed 10 murders, two bomb attacks, and several bank robberies between 2000 and 2011. But only one person was charged with (and convicted of) the murders, along with just four others convicted of lesser offenses, leaving serious questions as to who else knew about the crimes—and protected the perpetrators. And in April, in response to a parliamentary inquiry, the German army reported that it was investigating 431 cases of illegal extreme-right activity within its ranks.
The inadequate police response to the rioting in Chemnitz also makes one wonder whether state and local officials are really willing to stand up to right-wing violence. These questions were made even more urgent when it became known, shortly after the riots, that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had sent warnings to the Chemnitz police that thousands of rightists were going to descend on the city that evening. But the police still let themselves be outmanned by about 10 to one.
The politics of “law and order” play an interesting role in all of this. One of the AfD’s main talking points is that the Merkel government’s immigration policy is “illegal,” that it represents the destruction of the rule of law. The CSU’s Seehofer, though a member of Merkel’s cabinet, has made the same point, most famously in his attack on Merkel for creating “the rule of un-law” (Herrschaft des Unrechts) by allowing unknown migrants into the country.
The idea that the state is somehow not in control in Germany has thus spread far beyond the confines of the extreme-right fringe. In a nationally televised talk show in early July, Giovanni di Lorenzo, the editor in chief of the prestigious left-leaning weekly Die Zeit, summed up and endorsed this view: “There’s an impression of indifference [among the authorities], and from this indifference has developed an impression that the political center is somehow weak.”
Right-wing riots like those in Chemnitz reinforce this impression and are also fueled by it. The rioters are seen as not really at fault for the violence and disorder they create; instead, they are seen as a symptom of the decay of law and order, where the only solution is to give the rioters what they want. This dynamic was on display in the early 1990s, when a series of pogroms against foreigners and asylum seekers helped push the center-left to accept changes that weakened Germany’s asylum law.
The clearest example of how the right-wing framing of the problem can take hold far beyond the political fringes was the comment by Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy chairman of the Free Democratic Party. Kubicki said, “The roots of the riots lie in the ‘we can handle it’ of Chancellor Angela Merkel,” referring to Merkel’s famous assertion that Germany would be able to welcome the wave of refugees that arrived in 2015 and 2016. Now, the FDP is a classically liberal party that prides itself as being pro-business and pro–civil liberties, and Kubicki’s comment was criticized by the chairman of the party, Christian Lindner, and by the leader of the party’s youth wing, Ria Schröder. But if we are debating whether the violence of a Nazi mob was or was not caused by the presence of “too many” foreigners, or whether it is or is not acceptable to riot in “self-defense” when a nonwhite person commits a violent crime, then the extreme right has already won.
And of course we must not ask too many questions about the roots of neo-Nazi violence in eastern states like Saxony. As Christian Hirte, the CDU politician who is the German government’s top official for eastern affairs, reminded everyone in the wake of the Chemnitz riots, Saxony and the good Saxons “deserve our support and not a lecture.” Hirte is undoubtedly correct that there are many good people in Saxony, just like there are everywhere else. Now it’s time for them to show up.