Dresden, Germany – For three days in early October, Jaber al-Bakr was prisoner number one in Germany. The 22-year-old Syrian had been plotting a major suicide bomb attack on a Berlin airport, according to German investigators. He had entered the country as a refugee in February 2015 and travelled to Syria later in the autumn. He was living in the eastern state of Saxony when he was caught.
Although police bungled their initial attempt to arrest Bakr, they managed to secure the nearly two tonnes of explosives found in his apartment and defuse the threat. When the authorities took Bakr in, they were hoping they would gain information on his network, his accomplices, even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL, also known as ISIS) plans for Germany.
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They never got the chance. Bakr was found hanging in his cell in a Leipzig jail on October 12. Officials at the jail had deemed it sufficient to check in on the inmate every 30 minutes, after concluding there was no serious threat of suicide. Thirty minutes was all the time Bakr needed to take his own life .
Reactions came swift and furious. Politicians and the media criticised Saxony’s minister-president, Stanislaw Tillich, and the justice minister, Sebastian Gemkow, blaming them for lapses in law and order . National newspapers debated whether Saxony could be classified as a failed state. The Saechsische Zeitung, the state’s leading daily, lamented a ” history of failure ” in an article titled “Saxony. It’s always Saxony”.
Saxony is indeed treated as a pariah in Germany. It is considered by other states to be an intolerant bastion of xenophobic and neo-Nazi sentiment.
It was the birthplace of the anti-Islam Pegida movement (the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) that spurred tens of thousands of Germans onto the streets at the end of 2014 and early 2015 across the country. Two years later, large counter-demonstrations and in-fighting among Pegida’s leadership have weakened the group significantly, and the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has usurped some of its followers.
But in Saxony’s largest city, Dresden, up to 3,000 Pegida supporters still march every Monday. They staged a large rally on the movement’s two-year anniversary last month. As for the AfD, a recent poll conducted by the survey institute, Infratest dimap, shows that one in every four voters in Saxony would cast their ballots for the populist party.
The state government carried out its own survey on democracy and the far right, polling more than a thousand Saxons between August and September. According to the results, nearly 40 percent said they would stop Muslims from immigrating to Germany and more than half believe Germany is being overrun by foreigners to a dangerous degree.
Despite the numbers, Saxony is not a glaring exception. It has provided fertile ground for far-right and anti-establishment movements, but it also has a strong civil society that has pushed back.
The toxic political discourse that characterised the US elections has taken root across Germany, not just in Saxony. With the spectre of the AfD making big gains in federal elections after success in two key regional elections this year, the state will be a crucial battleground that could determine the fate of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
“Saxony has always been an important state, and it’s suffering from that,” said Frank Richter, a theologian and long-time director of the Agency for Civic Education in Saxony. “People like to focus in on it. And when you zoom in, you don’t just see light, you see the shadows, too.”
For many Germans, the Bakr case was the nadir in a series of embarrassing breakdowns. When Dresden hosted Chancellor Angela Merkel and other high-ranking dignitaries on October 3 to mark the 26th anniversary of German reunification, hundreds of right-wing protesters – many from Pegida – disrupted celebrations and chanted “Merkel must go” and “Traitor” at the chancellor.
One week earlier, on September 26, a bomb attack struck a mosque in central Dresden. No one was hurt but, according to German weekly, Die Zeit, police failed to properly secure the scene and bystanders were able to walk through the blast site, possibly compromising evidence.
In smaller Saxon towns and communities, tensions between asylum seekers and locals have boiled over into violence.
In Bautzen, a group of 20 refugees clashed with some 80 right-wingers in an alcohol-fuelled brawl in September. Early this year, an angry group of residents blocked a bus transporting refugees to a home in Clausnitz. And more than a year ago, neo-Nazi’s rioted against the arrival of asylum seekers in Heidenau, near Dresden, injuring dozens of police in clashes.
Across Germany, there has been an upswing in violence against refugee facilities and refugees themselves; according to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), the spike in attacks in 2015 was highest in Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia.
“I’m ashamed of my Saxony,” said Simone Heilmann, director of the Dr Christoph Hufeland School in the city of Plauen. The UNESCO-associated school serves both German students from the region and newly arrived children tasked with learning the language. Heilmann has witnessed not just a surge of young refugees in her school, but also a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment in the community. It is a trend she neither tolerates nor understands.
“This right-wing path just seems all too familiar,” she said. “I have to wonder, did they study history at all in school?”
Lessons from history
History never lies far beneath the surface in Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the rapid reunification of former communist East Germany with West Germany brought with it the heady promise of a new, stronger Germany, with boundless potential.
But in reality, one country absorbed another, with its institutions and infrastructure, and its people. It was jarring for many East Germans, who were expected to adopt a new way of life and culture overnight. By the mid-1990s, the young were moving westward, towns and villages were emptying out, and privatisation and deindustrialisation were crippling the former-East German economic heartlands. East and West were miles apart.
Now, more than half-a-century later, Germany has undeniably made impressive strides; its economic successes over the last decade, in particular, have helped.
Saxony is the top performer among states in the former East, with the highest gross domestic product per capita, according to the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research. Research and development have flourished in a number of universities and higher education institutes, in cities like Leipzig, Chemnitz and Dresden.
Yet a significant cleft remains. In 2014, the German labour agency reported that unemployment in the former West was 5.8 percent, while in the East it hovered above nine percent. According to a study by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, Germans living in the former East have around 80 percent of the disposable income of Germans in the West.
“Reunification was an incredible effort, [East Germans] really had to work to change. And at the end of it all, they still feel like second-class citizens,” said Frank Richter, the theologian.
Richter, born and raised in Saxony, says a significant majority of the state’s elite, in the arts, media and education, are transplants from former West Germany. That, he believes, only exacerbated a deep-seated sense of inferiority.
“No one will really say that out loud,” he said. “But now, with the refugees, [East Germans] feel there’s a new ‘foreign infiltration’, they fear that they are being forgotten – that their lives have no meaning any more.”
Those sentiments have resonated particularly deeply in a region that was isolated for decades. Hundreds of thousands of guest workers from Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain had poured into West Germany to support the country’s booming economy, and many put down roots.
In the East, the socialist government invited contract workers and students, primarily from Vietnam, but they were strictly discouraged from integrating or even making contact with Germans.
These days, only about two percent of Germany’s more than four million Muslims live in the East, a small fraction of them in Saxony, yet fear of Islam is widespread, says Richter.
Werner Patzelt, a professor of political science and comparative politics at Dresden’s Technical University, believes the current upheaval is a backlash against the liberal, left-leaning politics that have dominated German politics since the late 1960s.
“For a long time, multiculturalism was the embodiment of modernity, and if you were against, it was you who was backwards – but now it’s different,” said Patzelt.
Not the whole picture
At its climax in early 2015, the Pegida movement swept up to 20,000 protesters onto the streets across the country, mobilising a broad cross-section of supporters. Massive counter-demonstrations ensued.
Werner Patzelt came under intense criticism for attending a series of Pegida demonstrations and writing a weekly column explaining the phenomenon. He was accused of getting too close, and giving Pegida a platform on which to express their views. The professor argues he was merely doing his job as a political scientist and neutral observer.
“Just like the Protestants versus the Catholics, today people see this as a crucial question of faith – is Pegida and AfD the beginning of the end of a free Germany, or is it giving a voice to members of the community who haven’t been able to speak until now?”
Pegida’s numbers have waned significantly to a few thousand, but the movement has now found a new platform in the AfD. The party has scored well in two recent regional elections, with next year’s federal elections squarely in their sights. Saxony, and Dresden in particular, the only large German city that is staunchly conservative, is a stronghold of support.
Christian Hartmann, a member of Saxony’s Christian Democrats (CDU), says the state does need to take action against right-wing extremist and populist groups. But, he also believes the bad press is exaggerated and unwarranted.
“The blanket criticism and the focus on just Saxony is wrong, and it isn’t fair to the people of this state,” he told Al Jazeera. “When you cast general suspicion, you neglect all the people here who are active and engaged.”
Like the thousands of helpers who assisted refugees arriving in Dresden and Chemnitz and beyond in 2015. Volunteers translated, handed out food and water and helped migrants navigate the complex asylum system.
Stefan Mertenskoetter remembers that time well. The 65-year-old retiree witnessed asylum seekers being set up in a sprawling tent camp in the summer of 2015, right across from a former graveyard his company owned. They opened the leafy plot to allow some shade and respite, particularly for children living in the camp.
When the weather turned cold, they turned to Dresden’s Albertinum modern art museum, where they set up language exchanges in the hall next to the museum café. Mertenskoetter, who has lived in Dresden since 1991, said there was strong support from volunteers and locals. The needs and focus of the asylum seekers have shifted, but the effort is still going strong.
“I think the state has been overwhelmed,” he said. “But the civil society is strong. It has taken on a lot – a lot more than I ever thought was possible.”
The state, too, has been working to stem the negative headlines and create a culture of tolerance. Victor Vincze serves as the personal aide to Saxony’s Commissioner for Foreign Nationals. The office was created in 1992, after a week of anti-foreigner riots rocked the city of Hoyerswerda.
Vincze says the state has an active, engaged public that has worked hard to help asylum seekers feel at home. But that work is often overshadowed.
“There are a few idiots here who seem to guarantee that Saxony is always in the headlines,” he said. “When Angela Merkel comes here and is harassed, every newspaper picks it up. When someone starts a new refugee initiative or offers a language course, though, that doesn’t show up in the media.”
His office works to ensure that there are sufficient legislation and resources to help immigrants arriving in Saxony and provides individual consultations for newcomers. Still, Vincze acknowledges that Saxony’s right-wing elements exist and need to be addressed, particularly with the rise of populism.
Tim Lochner, 46, has been a member of the city council in Pirna outside of Dresden since 2010, but he broke away from the CDU in 2014 to form an independent parliamentary group. When Lochner said in an interview that he would vote for the AfD, the CDU turned against him – and he left the party out of protest.
Lochner is a master carpenter with a successful business and deep ties within the Pirna community. He says it was the chancellor’s refugee policy that turned him sour, and much of the community agrees.
“The current migration policy, as it’s being handled, won’t work because the infrastructure simply isn’t built for it. In Pirna we’re having massive problems with guaranteeing enough capacity in schools,” he said. “Where are we supposed to find enough teachers?”
What’s more, Lochner believes leading members of the government are lying to the public when they claim to have the refugee crisis under control.
“When the head of the refugee agency says in front of the camera that the list of asylum seekers has been compared with terrorist lists, it’s a bald-faced lie,” he said. “That is why, if the situation remains as it is, I would vote for AfD next year.”
When prodded about the party’s far-right elements, Lochner brushed them aside as part of a young party’s growing pains.
He reflects a growing trend among disillusioned voters, particularly those who have traditionally backed the chancellor’s party.
Saxon politicians have recognised there is much work to do before next year’s elections. Hartmann, of the CDU, believes his party must truly reach out to the angry and the frustrated, who feel ignored and lied to, and they must actually listen to what they have to say.
“You can’t prescribe democracy with a pill. You have to convince people to come along,” he said. “The responsibility is ours in politics, but also the people to talk to each other, to discuss what the rules of our society are. It can only work with dialogue and discussion.”