In late August, a German citizen was stabbed to death in the East German town of Chemnitz. As the police launched an investigation into the murder, it announced that it had arrested two suspects, identifying them by their nationalities – a Syrian and an Iraqi.
Although subsequently, investigators reported that the true identities of the two could not be immediately verified and one of them was released for lack of evidence, the damage had already been done. The public opinion blamed the murder on refugees.
Far-right groups were quick to exploit public anger and organised large anti-immigration protests. Some 7,000 joined the demonstrations, which were marked by hate speech and violence against non-Germans. Meanwhile, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the ruling party in the East German state of Saxony, where Chemnitz is located, did little to calm down the public and confront hate-mongering by the far right.
Neither the Chemnitz protests, nor the timid reaction of the political elite are surprising. In Germany’s recent history, right-wing violence has been often officially condemned, but rarely taken seriously enough. This has allowed right-wing groups to grow and flourish, particularly in East Germany.
The rise of the far right in East Germany
Although political parties and groups were banned in East Germany during the communist era, after reunification in 1990, the far right found fertile ground in the less developed east.
Over the 1990s, the eastern states struggled with losing a significant chunk of their workforce to internal migration to the west and with adjusting to the new political and economic system.
At the same time, the immigration that had supported West Germany’s manufacturing industry started trickling into East Germany as well. Within the context of a difficult political and economic transition, public dissatisfaction started expressing itself in resentment towards these newcomers.
Whereas many urban parts of West Germany became more diverse in the 1970s and 1980s, the East was rather homogenous and remains largely so until today.
In the early 1990s, Germany witnessed a wave of far-right violence, with major incidents happening in the eastern states.
In September 1991, the East German town of Hoyerswerda, witnessed a week of racist riots in which neo-Nazis targeted asylum seekers and Vietnamese and Mozambican temporary workers, who had been brought years earlier by the communist government to work in the nearby coal mine.
A violent mob besieged and attacked the hostel where the workers were staying, as local residents looked on and cheered. As the attacks persisted, the local authorities were forced to evacuate the foreigners. The neo-Nazis then focused their efforts on a dormitory housing asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. They besieged the building and threw Molotov cocktails at it until the local authorities decided to also bus out its more than 200 inhabitants.
Although over 80 people were arrested in the riots, just 4 were convicted. The “success” of the neo-Nazi pogrom in Hoyerswerda then inspired similar attacks on foreign workers and asylum seekers across the country.
In the following years, cities across East Germany gradually became neo-Nazi strongholds. Thus, it was in the East German city of Jena that the notorious neo-Nazi terror cell “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) first appeared. And it was another East German city – Chemnitz – that its three principal members fled to and went underground, when the German authorities first picked up their trail in 1998.
The city’s flourishing neo-Nazi scene allowed the well-connected trio to live safely and move freely for a while. Meanwhile, the group killed people of Turkish, Kurdish, and Greek origin and committed terrorist attacks throughout the country.
The NSU cooperated with leading members of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), which has been the country’s leading right-wing extremist party since the end of the Third Reich. Founded in West Germany in 1964, the NPD never passed the 5 percent threshold in federal elections. It did, nevertheless, enjoy regional successes, especially in Saxony, where it was elected to state parliament in 2004 and 2009.
More recently, the far-right was strengthened by the rise of xenophobic groups which combine traditional German ethnocentrism with racist sentiment against the more than 1 million newly arrived Arab and African refugees.
The Islamophobic movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident), was founded in Saxony’s capital Dresden in 2014 and it regularly organises racist manifestations in East Germany.
The political party AfD (Alternative for Germany), founded in 2013, has also been quite popular among East German voters. In Saxony, it even emerged as the strongest party in the 2017 federal elections, outperforming the CDU. NSU-style groups have also appeared; earlier this year eight people were sentenced to prison for organising a “defence group” which targeted refugees in the Saxony town of Freital.
As a result of the continuing and strong neo-Nazi presence and the emergence of these new xenophobic groups, violence against foreigners and asylum seekers is quite common in East Germany. Saxon towns like Leipzig, Dresden, and Bautzen, have witnessed neo-Nazi marches, attacks on refugee housings and individual hate crimes. While hate attacks have gradually decreased in western states, in the east, their number remains significantly high.
In 2017, the East German states of Branderburg had the highest number of attacks per capita – 85 per million residents – followed by Saxony – 61 and Saxony-Anhalt – 51. By comparison, the western states of Hamburg, North Rhine- Westphalia and Bremen had respectively 7, 5 and 3 per million inhabitants.
How appeasement is helping the far right
Instead of taking serious measures to counter the dangerous rise of the far right in East Germany, the ruling party, CDU, has been in a state of denial of years.
Saxony’s Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer’s reaction to what happened in Chemnitz is a good illustration of that. Although Kretschmer admitted that right-wing extremism is the greatest threat to German democracy and that it was, so far, not effectively countered in Saxony, he said there were no mobs and no pogroms in Chemnitz. Instead, he criticised the media for depicting Saxony unfavourably.
Indeed, the CDU, which has ruled over Saxony since reunification, has traditionally downplayed the presence of neo-Nazi communities.”Saxons are immune to right-wing extremism,” Kurt Biedenkopf, who served as Saxony’s prime minister between 1990 and 2003, once said.
In 2015, he brushed off far-right attacks against refugees, claiming they had no political importance and seemed to show understanding for Pegida’s protests.
This public denial by the ruling party that the far-right presence and strength in Saxony and beyond is real and that its actions are indeed serious is what has enabled it to grow.
There has also been hardly any serious action taken to counter and prosecute hate speech by organisations like the AfD. Few have condemned their toxic rhetoric about the need for “self-defence” against what they call “knife migration” (a term suggesting all migrants are potential criminals).
In Saxony, the CDU has shown a rather accommodating attitude towards far-right groups and has even taken to adopting their rhetoric.
Stanislaw Tillich, a leading CDU politician and Saxony’s prime minister until 2017, responded to AfD’s success in the 2017 elections by syaing: “The people want Germany to remain Germany. They do not want refugees to engage in religious and political disputes here.”
In a 2015 interview, he also said that “Islam does not belong to Saxony.”
Such populism from the ruling party has prevented civil and political engagement with the threat of the far right and has allowed the public discourse to continue obsessing about immigrants and Muslims.
As German expert on right-wing extremism Robert Claus told me, in dealing with the AfD, “the CDU is trying to adopt some of the AfD’s demands in order to attract some of the AfD’s voters.” This means that the CDU “is constantly reiterating the position of the AfD and strengthening it.”
In this way, centrist political forces have allowed AfD and other far-right groups to join Germany’s mainstream politics. As a result, their racist populism has become part and parcel of the political discourse in Germany and has started to dominate public debate well beyond Saxony and East Germany.
Historically, this type of appeasement of far-right groups has had disastrous consequences. It is time for Germany’s centrist political forces to recognise that and to take urgent action.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.