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Cologne, Germany – Famous for its fun-loving carnival and vibrant artistic scene, Cologne has long been considered a left-wing city. But the events of New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of women reported being robbed and assaulted, may be challenging that tradition and allowing the right to gain more of a foothold here
Police had registered 516 complaints, and, according to officials, many of those accused were of North African origin, which has led some to demand that the government re-evaluate its asylum policy.
More than 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in Germany in 2015, but experts suggest that Germany‘s once-welcoming culture is shifting and falling more in line with the position promoted by anti-immigration parties.
Now, the city’s leftist identity is seemingly being challenged. On January 9, more than 1,700 protesters attended a demonstration led by a coalition of right-wing groups in Cologne.
So, if attitudes are changing here, who stands to gain?
Putting ‘fingers in wounds’
In the October 2015 municipal elections, Henriette Reker, who represents a coalition between the leftist Greens and centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was elected mayor. That came a day after she survived an assassination attempt by an assailant who expressed anti-refugee sentiments. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) won only 4.01 percent of the vote.
Founded in 2013 as a response to the euro crisis, the AfD is seen as likely to inherit disenchanted conservative CDU voters who disagree with some of the policies of CDU president and the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel.
“We ask the tough questions and put our ‘finger in the wound’ wherever possible,” Hendrik Rottmann, the AfD chairman in Cologne, told Al Jazeera via email.
Carlo Clemens is the president and cofounder of the Cologne chapter of Young Alternative, the AfD’s youth faction, which has 70 members.
Born in Bavaria to a Filipina mother and German father, the 26-year-old history student describes the political group as Germany’s “most rebellious youth organisation”.
“We are standing for a politics that is more patriotic so that [Germans] have a normal way of thinking about [their] own identity,” he says, standing beside the imposing Cologne Cathedral.
For Michael Gautsch, the vice president of Young Alternative in Cologne, the AfD is the political party most closely aligned with his beliefs. The 26-year-old, who has one German parent and one Russian parent, says that he thinks it is important to question government policy – even on sensitive issues such as immigration and further European integration.
“The [AfD’s] biggest challenge is to sensitise people to the fact that it’s not bad when you’re critical,” he says.
Despite their multicultural origins, both men say that they have been made to feel welcome in the Young Alternative and the AfD, which runs on an anti-immigration platform. According to the government, one in every five Germans has a parent or grandparent from another country.
The Young Alternative says that it supports accepting those refugees it considers to be fleeing for their lives, but Clemens and Gautsch say that only three percent of asylum seekers in Germany qualify for such protection according to the Dublin Regulations, a European Union law that aims to determine the EU member state responsible for processing an asylum claim (often the point of entry into the EU), and ‘safe country of origin’ cases, which are claims of people from “safe” countries in instances where it’s proven that a threat of persecution exists if they were to return.
The group also calls for swift deportation measures for failed asylum requests and refugees who commit crimes.
The local right
As far as far-right political parties are concerned, Pro Koln is as local as it gets. The populist movement was founded in Cologne in 1996 as an anti-immigration and anti-“Islamisation” party.
It would be hard to imagine a more quintessential Cologner than Michael Gabel, Pro Koln’s chairman. The 55-year-old is openly gay and has enjoyed a long career as a theatre actor in the city’s vibrant arts scene. But, he says, he has lost some professional opportunities as a result of his political affiliation.
Gabel says that he decided to join the party after a physical confrontation with a group of Turkish men in 2008.
“I had it up to here. I had never experienced such an attack in Germany,” he explains from his office.
He has since become an active protester against mosques in Cologne, organising demonstrations whenever plans for a new one are announced.
Pro Koln wants to place limits on the number of asylum seekers Germany takes in and believes that any asylum seeker who has arrived in Germany via a safe third country, such as Turkey, Italy or Greece, should be swiftly returned.
“We are just asking that laws [such as the Dublin Regulation] be applied,” explains Gabel.
At Pro Koln’s weekly citizens’ meetings, about 30 dedicated supporters cram into a small room to discuss their concerns. The mostly greying members express their fear of young, male, Muslim refugees and say that they are worried about the safety of women in the city.
An attendee suggests that women should demand the right to carry weapons to protect themselves. Another shouts that all refugees – regardless of their country of origin – should be sent back to their homelands. Another attendee expresses her support for non-Muslim refugees who face religious persecution.
Just a ‘patriotic girl’
Melanie Dittmer is a key player in Cologne’s far-right scene. Since arriving from nearby Essen three years ago, she has cofounded three branches of Pegida, the German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West” in the area, including Kogida – the Cologne version of the movement that started in Dresden – before launching her own initiative, Identity Action, in 2014.
But the 37-year-old rejects the two adjectives commonly used to define her: right-wing and Nazi.
“I am a patriotic girl and identitarian because I fight for a Central and Northern European identity,” she says from her home in Bornheim, a village near Cologne.
Dittmer was 15 when she joined the Young National Democrats, the youth wing of the National Democratic Party (NPD), which is often described as a neo-Nazi organisation.
Of the assaults on New Year’s Eve, she says: “Women cannot feel safe because some [Muslims] think differently about women than people [in Germany] do.”
If she had her way, Germany would halt all asylum applications while reinforcing its borders with fences and extra security personnel.
“I would buy buses and planes to take [asylum seekers] out of Europe in a humane and nonviolent way,” she explains.
Dittmer says members of the left-wing Antifa movement have physically attacked her, including one altercation that left her needing hospital treatment, and that she now always takes her dog, some pepper spray and a Kubotan key chain weapon with her when she walks around Cologne.
She says that she intends to run for office in the next municipal elections in 2020, but has not yet decided which party she would like to stand for.
The persistent comparison
“It is mea culpa from morning to the evening,” says Dittmer.
The relationship between the right-wing parties and the German press is also fraught with distrust. Many on the right dislike the way sections of the press refer to any party right of the CDU as neo-Nazis, while they refer to most media outlets as the “lying press”.
Clemens says labelling political parties as ‘Nazi’ is a strategy to push their ideas out of the acceptable range for political debate.
“If you push [the AfD] outside of the legitimate range of public discussion, then people have social pressure to stay away from us,” he adds.
Werner Patzelt, a professor of Comparative Government and Political Communication at the Dresden University of Technology and a commentator on the right in Germany, argues that a “gap of representation” has emerged as a result.
Cologne’s shifting public opinion
Over recent years, the perceived failings of German immigration policies have become the rallying point for far-right groups. But public opinion has not been on their side.
However, the tide may just be beginning to turn. A poll recently published by public broadcaster ARD revealed that 51 percent of those questioned were sceptical of Angela Merkel’s plan for refugees. It is the first time more than half of all respondents have disagreed with their chancellor.
“After the New Year’s Eve attacks, people in Cologne are very frustrated. They have been very welcoming and this is the thanks they get,” says Michael Gautsch.
Right-wing leaders say that interest in their political parties has rocketed. They have all reported an increase in social media “likes” and followers, supportive emails and increased turnout at events.
Patzelt expects the Eurosceptic AfD to gain the most public support of all right-wing parties in future elections.
“The Cologne events have significantly increased support for the AfD as a new party between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the far right,” he told Al Jazeera via email.
But the left does not necessarily agree. Guldane Tokyurek, a member of Cologne’s city council from the left-wing Die Linke, said: “The far right tries to exploit the fears many people have after the sexual attacks on New Year’s Eve. But the community of Cologne stood up against those attempts in the past and will continue to do so in order to defend the city’s liberal and tolerant character.”
“We have to make sure that women in Cologne are safe and feel safe,” Tokyurek continued. “For this purpose, we are developing an action programme against sexism. The far right does not have any solutions. They are causing even more trouble and distrust because they thrive on it.”
With the next municipal elections due in 2020, it is yet to be seen how far politics in the city will swing to the right and if Cologne’s liberal identity will recover. Refugees and those who work with them in the city worry that if it does not, they are the ones who will pay the greatest price.
“After New Year’s Eve, we have noticed an increase in racially motivated hostility and crime,” said Marianne Jurgens, a spokeswoman for Caritas, a Catholic charity working with refugees in Cologne.
“There is a changing mood in an otherwise very tolerant city. It gives the impression that an entire group is blamed for the events. So we have concerns that our visitors and residents are the new victims.”