It was a horrible evening for Karl Marx. Resting on his pedestal in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, he had to witness one of the biggest crowds shouting fascist chants in post-war Germany. The square where the sculpted giant head of the philosopher rests in what was Karl-Marx-Stadt from 1953 until 1990 had suddenly become the setting for an angry riot full of Nazi-symbolism whose images spread around the world. What has been going on in this old city with its rich industrial heritage?
Crime and resentment
The immediate spark for the riots was a tragic homicide. During the night of August 26, a 35-year-old German was stabbed to death. Two young asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq have been arrested as strong suspects. Despite the authorities’ instantly successful investigations, a network of radical right groups and football hooligans called for a demonstration to show – in their words – “who has the say in this city”. Online footage shows them chasing foreigners through the streets while the police were caught surprised and outnumbered.
The next day local anti-refugee networks and other right-wing groups staged a huge rally with the support of the far right AfD. Some 6000 people attended (many more than the police had expected), among them many so-called ordinary citizens who expressed their anger about the killing and Germany’s asylum policy. Parts of the demonstration went out of control, illegal Hitler salutes went unpunished, journalists were attacked. At another demonstration on September 1 organized by the AfD and other local right-wing groups prominent AfD politicians marched shoulder to shoulder with neo-Nazi activists, highlighting that the demarcation line between the “old right” and the “new right” has now blurred to the point of disappearing.
Why Eastern Germany, why Saxony?
While right-wing propaganda and violence are not an eastern German problem alone, it is concentrated in the new federal states owing to multiple political, economic and cultural factors.
Eastern Germany’s transition to a market economy has been by and large successful. Today, its median income per capita is only slightly below the EU27-average, with Saxony the most prosperous of the (five) new federal states. Unemployment has hit record lows. However, despite almost 30 years of unification, the income differentials between east and west Germany prevail and have solidified, working hours are longer in the east and many people have to leave their family and friends to find jobs in the west – all of which many consider to be humiliating.
It is often overlooked that the two parts of Germany, united for three decades, can still look back on 40 prior years of division, resulting in a very different political culture. Some analysts claim Saxony – and other parts of eastern Germany – belong historically to East rather than West Europe and therefore have a political culture more similar to Poland or Hungary than to western Germany.
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In eastern Germany, multiple transitional experiences have contributed to a very low degree of confidence in the state and its representatives, while at the same time a (retained) top-down concept of political decision-making and an authoritarian notion of an omnipotent state have prevailed. Political engagement is lower than the German average, civil society and political parties are weaker and less anchored.
Saxony is a special case. Radical right-wing activist structures were able to develop to the extent they even supported the so-called NSU (National Socialist Underground) terrorist group in its undetected killing spree against foreigners. The racist PEGIDA demonstrations in Dresden have remained a local phenomenon despite attempts to spread the movement further afield. And most of the alarming anti-refugee protests Germany has seen in recent years took place in Saxon cities like Freital, Heidenau, Clausnitz or Bautzen.
Heading the state government for almost 30 years, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Saxony now faces the results of its continued under-playing of right-wing extremism and appears unable to react properly and effectively. Additionally, years of austerity have exhausted Saxony’s public services, including the forces of law and order. When there aren’t enough police on the streets there might simply not be enough available anyway.
Chemnitz – a watershed?
It remains to be seen whether the riots in Chemnitz will become a defining moment in German political history. They were big, but not unique – anti-refugee protests have been staged on a regular basis in recent years throughout the country. On the other hand, the Chemnitz riots were special since an event visibly organised by blatant neo-Nazis has rarely experienced so much support from non-organised (“ordinary”) citizens before. People apparently don’t mind joining a group of Nazi-saluting thugs if they appear to be fighting for a ‘just cause’. The divisive public atmosphere established during the ongoing harsh debate about the legitimacy and success of Germany’s recent asylum policy has unfortunately contributed to lowering the moral threshold for such fraternisations.
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On the other hand, the events have caused a public outcry and brought appeals from leading politicians to defend the values of liberal democracy and rule of law more fiercely. In media discourse the events were taken as an alarm signal that the very essence of the democratic state might be at stake.
However, the riots and the reactions are likely to make the radical right-wing AfD party stronger. Transforming every conflict into a cultural cleavage or clash of civilisations is a core part of its agenda. Moreover, cross-party calls for democratic unity blur the differences between the other competing parties and thus support the far-right narrative as being the only real alternative. With its strong polling numbers, its expanding resources as a parliamentary party and its strong agenda-setting power the AfD is a political force to stay. In terms of party systems, German exceptionalism is over. Germany’s historically-grounded, post-war immunity to the establishment of political parties on the radical right is definitively a thing of the past.
Nevertheless, resistance is vivid. On September 3 Karl Marx probably felt compensated for what he had to witness a week earlier: as many as 65,000 took part in an anti-racist concert called “Wir sind mehr”; so many that the gig had to be moved from the square. The show might become a beacon shedding light on the vibrant cultural and creative scene of Chemnitz. But defending democracy will ultimately require more than music, of course.