Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on September 8, 2018, at 10:21 a.m. ET
CHEMNITZ, Germany — “That is what they’re actually saying: They want you all dead!” the speaker declared, waving his hand in the air for emphasis. “That’s what it’s about!”
He didn’t use the word, but he was implying that a kind of genocide was coming for the German people, engineered by left-wing parties that support Muslim immigration. The speaker’s name was Marc Bernhard, a 46-year-old member of parliament from the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) who had been invited by the city’s local AfD branch for a discussion on the question, “Losing control — can Germany be saved?” He spoke at a breathless pace, as if his mouth could barely keep up with the urgency of his words.
“Their declared goal is to get rid of Germany and the Germans — that’s what their leading politicians are more or less saying,” he said, again aiming his harshest words at the country’s left-wing parties.
Bernhard spoke before an audience of around 150 people, a majority of them men and nearly all over 50, gathered inside a run-down meeting space on the outskirts of Chemnitz. After outrage over the killing of a local man turned into violent protests, the city has unexpectedly found itself at the center of Germany’s immigration debate and an international outcry about a rising far right.
Many Chemnitz residents saw the killing, for which two immigrants were arrested, as evidence that the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have moved to Germany in recent years were a time bomb waiting to explode. And a new analysis of crime data in the local press does suggest a spike in crime in the city’s center, with young immigrants overrepresented among the perpetrators. The more that politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the press, focused on the neo-Nazis who joined the protest, the more immigration opponents nationwide argued that crying “Nazi” was simply an excuse for elites to continue ignoring them.
And so for many across Germany, Chemnitz has become a national symbol for people worried that Germany was falling apart — but Bernhard and his party saw a chance to build a movement to make Germany great again.
The events in Chemnitz may be rewriting the rules of German politics, allowing more radical voices into the mainstream and sapping Nazi allegations of their power. The AfD, which has long battled the perception that it is racist and authoritarian, has the most to gain from the crisis. And it knows it.
When Merkel announced this week that she would visit Chemnitz, the leader of the AfD parliamentary bloc, Alice Weidel, posted a video on Facebook demanding that the chancellor fire a spokesperson who first criticized the protests on behalf of Merkel's government. “Stop smearing your own people with dirt, get rid of the spokesperson, and say sorry to the citizens of Chemnitz and Saxony.”
Otherwise, “you don't even have to show up in Chemnitz at all,” Weidel said in the video.
The outcry started with concerns about security, but the AfD wants its supporters to understand that much more is at stake. “We’re also losing control of our culture, our traditions, our heritage!” Bernhard said that night in Chemnitz. “It can’t keep going on like this! We have to stay in control of our country.”
The danger is clear, he said. Judges were removing crosses from courtrooms, the festival of St. Martin was being rebranded as a “festival of lights,” and kindergartens were replacing pork with halal meat, he said. Soon, he said, “we won’t be the majority anymore!”
“The only thing you want is ... us — the AfD!”
The AfD only won seats in the Bundestag — Germany’s national legislature — for the first time last year, but the 13% of the vote it captured with its campaign against immigration was enough to make it the largest party in opposition to Merkel’s government.
Next year’s elections for Saxony’s state government will give the party its first real chance to enter government. It is now polling at 25% in the state, nearly tied with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and it has a real chance to become the largest party in the state parliament.
The AfD’s rise in Saxony is driven by voters like Bettina Rehnert, one of the most enthusiastic people in attendance for Bernhard’s speech.
Rehnert leapt to her feet to shout down the lone audience member who dared to tell the panelists “there’s too much hatred in your speeches.” She was effusive when she got her own turn at the mic, telling Bernhard, “I’ve followed your speech and I have to agree with you. … We’ve only been taking pointless hits for 3 years. ... I know so many people that now want to see action!”
Rehnert, a 57-year-old with blonde bangs falling into her large glasses, told BuzzFeed News that she knew what it was like to be a refugee. Her parents came to East Germany at the end of World War II after being forced to leave modern-day Poland. She took part in the protests that toppled communism in 1989 and began voting for the center-right CDU. She earned a comfortable living in the new capitalist system, running her own architecture business and helping with her husband’s construction firm.
But, she said, she saw that those years were not good for everyone in Chemnitz. The old communist factories were closing, and the city lost much of its population. One of the city’s most striking features today are the stretches of decaying buildings from several long-forgotten boom periods of Chemnitz’s past — socialist apartment blocks, art deco mansions, and 19th-century train stations.
Rehnert became convinced something was wrong as unemployment climbed in the early 2000s, and she thought the refugees who began to arrive in Chemnitz in 2014 — not the economic crisis — were a sign those hard times were coming back.
Official crime statistics don’t show that the city became radically more dangerous in those years — assaults increased some while petty street crime declined — but downtown suddenly began to feel unsafe to Rehnert. She said she remembered a group of immigrant men shouted at her, “Hey, madame ... you want to fuck?”
If that’s what they want in Berlin or West Germany, Rehnert said, let them have it. “West Germans feel that the refugees are not so bad as we do because they always had a lot of families of foreigners over there.” They’d had foreigners in Chemnitz under communism, guest workers from Cuba, Vietnam, and Russia, but they mostly kept to themselves and left after a short while.
But she worried the people now coming through Saxony from the Middle East would drain money for schools, and other social services would be diverted to support the new arrivals. And she didn’t understand why they seemed to be mostly men. When her family was forced to leave Poland, they all came together.
“No father would leave his family behind,” she said. “I have to have doubts how desperate [they are] to come here.”
She no longer trusts the news, and said that the television is so filled with propaganda it sounds just as bad as it did when it was controlled by East Germany’s communist government. So she gets most of her information from Facebook.
This brought her deep into a world of conspiracy theories, though she said she is confident she can “self-evaluate” and “draw her own picture.” AfD lawmakers visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and didn’t show any pictures of war, she said, so she questioned “how big the war over there is.”
Rehnert was at the protest on Aug. 27 that stunned the rest of Germany and the world, with far-right protesters overwhelming the police. She was also at a demonstration that the AfD led the following Saturday, which had been called as a silent march.
But it nearly spun out of control after authorities halted the march to stop clashes with a blockade by left-wing protesters a few blocks away. But even more militant groups gathered on the margins of the march, and participants in the AfD march joined them as tensions mounted. Before the authorities forced the group to disperse, dozens of protesters rushed police and attacked journalists, shouting slogans like “Free, Social, and National,” the motto of a neo-Nazi party called the Third Way.
Renhert said that she had heard that chant before and saw nothing wrong with each of those words on their own. But when reminded that it was an allusion to the Nazi Party — which was officially called the National Socialist Party — she dismissed the comparison.
“I don’t think like that,” she said. “It’s over the top.”
Like a growing number of Germans on the right, she was tired of being reminded of the country’s Nazi past. She’d even read a book — widely dismissed by historians — that claimed Germany wasn’t really to blame for World War II at all. East Germany, unlike the West, never had a youth movement that demanded answers from their elders about what they did in the war.
As far as Rehnert knew, she said, she didn’t know any elders who’d been Nazis when she was growing up, and said, “I don't know any bad people.” At the protests, the only person she’d seen doing a Hitler salute “was completely drunk” and “doing it by accident,” she said. She’d heard others were “undercover” leftists.
She didn’t feel she or the AfD should have to answer for it regardless of what really happened, she said. She didn’t know a lot about Nazis, she finally admitted, but she didn’t think she had to.
“It’s not our problem, because we are not Nazis,” she said.
The AfD has pressed its advantage as Merkel and Saxony’s leaders have stumbled over each other to respond to the events of the past two weeks.
The head of Saxony’s state government, Michael Kretschmer, has denounced extremists at the marches, but he also tried to appease locals who feel their concerns about immigrants and crime are being ignored. He made headlines again this week by suggesting that media reports exaggerated the size of violent factions in Chemnitz’s anti-immigrant protests, and disputed reports of widespread violence following right-wing protests.
“One thing is clear,” he said in an address to the state parliament. “There was no mob, there was no hunt, and there was no pogrom in Chemnitz.”
This directly contradicted comments Merkel made last week: “We have video footage of the fact that there [were people hunted down], there were riots, there was hatred on the streets.” The chancellor doubled down on her condemnation of the anti-immigrant protests as she promised to visit Chemnitz soon.
These remarks prompted the video from the AfD’s Bundestag leader Weidel, calling Merkel’s comments “a fully grown government and media scandal.”
The controversy centers on whether the videos posted online from the original round of protests show hetzjagd, a word probably best translated as “hunting people down.” There were several other reports of mobs chasing immigrants and leftists in Chemnitz, and reporters wrote about several others that were not captured on video. Chemnitz police did not release arrest numbers from the first day of protests, but referred to the violence as “rioting” and asked people to submit evidence of specific incidents. Eleven people were charged with assault on the second day and 20 people were injured. Authorities in the state capital, Dresden, say they are investigating 120 complaints filed during the protests, though those range from assault to doing the Hitler salute; it also could include charges against left-wing counterprotesters.
The claim that reports of mob violence were fake news got an unexpected boost late Thursday from Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of the Constitutional Protection Office, a body created by Germany’s postwar constitution to police extremist parties.
“After my cautious evaluation, there are good reasons for the fact that it is targeted misinformation in order to possibly distract the public from the murder in Chemnitz,” Maaßen told German tabloid Bild, citing the fact that one of the most widely shared videos was posted by an anonymous YouTube user. The incident it showed, however, had separately been reported, and a website run by one of Germany’s most important newspapers posted an interview with an Afghan refugee who said he was the victim.
The Interior Ministry quickly announced that Maaßen had received no special information on the incident, and the Saxony state prosecutor said the video was believed to be real and under investigation. Some left-wing politicians called for Maaßen’s resignation, his comments taken as the latest signal that he was inappropriately sympathetic to the right. He is also facing allegations that he coached party AfD leaders on how to avoid an official investigation following revelations that he had been secretly communicating with party officials.
Andreas Nick, a CDU member of the Bundestag who leads Germany’s delegation to Europe’s top human rights body, told BuzzFeed News that it was past time for the Constitutional Protection Office to step in. The delay was especially alarming in Saxony, where a neo-Nazi terrorist group called the National Socialist Underground drew on a support network as it undertook a series of shootings and bombings across Germany from 2000 to 2007.
“Given both the German experience in the 1920s and the [National Socialist Underground] case, turning a blind eye on the far right by law enforcement authorities is unacceptable,” he said. “AfD has been largely taken over by right extremists for a long time; this can be neither ignored nor denied.”
Even before the events in Chemnitz, the AfD had already accomplished something that Germany hasn’t seen since the Nazi Party first began winning elections in the 1920s.
No other nationalist party since World War II had managed to really expand beyond a base of working-class, far-right voters, said Robert Grimm, a political scientist who leads the German office of the polling firm Ipsos. These voters have defected to the AfD in droves, but so have middle-class voters from Merkel’s center-right CDU, the center-left Social Democratic Party, and the modern descendent of the former East German communist party, the Left Party.
The AfD’s support has only grown, even as it’s moved steadily to the right. It was initially known as the “party of professors,” led by conservative economists opposed to the euro and Germany financing a bailout for Greece’s economic crisis. This faction was pushed out in 2015, and the new leaders rode an anti-immigrant backlash to win seats in the Bundestag in 2017, though the party remained concerned about becoming too close to groups that could have branded it as too extreme.
The events in Chemnitz appear to be pushing the party into a new phase, where it’s now seemingly unafraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with groups it once kept at arm’s length. The anger about immigration is outweighing warnings about extremism for many Germans, and the AfD has learned to deflect criticism by crying “fake news” or — as its members loudly chant on the streets — “lying press.”
The first sign of this new boldness was the AfD demonstration on Sept. 1, which was co-organized with the anti-Muslim protest group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident). One of its local leaders once called for migrants to be shot, and the AfD’s former national leader forbade party members from working with the group last year.
The decision to work openly with Pegida was just “legalizing something that was happening anyway,” said the state party’s current vice chair, Siegbert Dröse, in an interview this week with BuzzFeed News.
Dröse added that he’d actually opposed the idea of the party marching in Chemnitz because he thought the situation was volatile. But even though the march ended with near-riots and neo-Nazi slogans, the party emerged stronger.
“It didn’t hurt us at all — we’re growing in popularity,” he said.
Dröse said calls for the Constitutional Protection Office to monitor the party only helped it, making its opponents look hysterical.
“So far, all that has done nothing but helped us,” Dröse said.
Although he believes the party needs to focus on gaining moderate support and already has “everyone that we want on the right,” it is not going to shy away from getting support where it finds it.
“I’m certain, by the way, that we’ll succeed next year in Saxony at grabbing the political power,” he said. “Obviously we’re going to [continue to] look for allies.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 31, 2018, at 10:23 p.m. ET
CHEMNITZ, Germany — It didn’t take long for the rumors to spread.
Just hours after a man was stabbed in a small east German city last weekend, thousands of people began sharing accounts on social media that he had been killed by immigrants involved in a rape attempt. Within no time, it was being said there were two dead. Pictures were shared of a group of women said to have been beaten by immigrants.
It didn’t matter that there was no attempted rape, or that much of the rest of these accounts wasn’t true. The anger soon transferred to the real world. Over the next few days, Chemnitz, a town of around 250,000 people in the state of Saxony, would become the center of anti-immigrant protests that produced shocking images of people raising Hitler salutes, and mobs chasing people through the streets.
On Monday, around 7,500 people gathered to protest the death of Daniel H., a 35-year-old German citizen of Cuban descent, in a rally that saw people chant “Chemnitz to the Saxons, foreigners out!” and “We are the people.” This part of Saxony, long a hotbed for anti-immigrant groups and a neo-Nazi underground, had seen right-wing protests and occasional violence before. But this time felt different.
What seemed new — and alarming — was that such a broad range of far-right groups had come together alongside overt neo-Nazis. Much like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, it shook many Germans’ faith that certain lines would never be crossed. When authorities and the mainstream press attempted to counter online rumors with facts, many people became convinced there was a coverup — the truth was what they knew from their Facebook timelines.
Local police were quickly overwhelmed on Monday evening and the city center descended into chaos. Many of the town’s 20,000 immigrants hid in their homes, scared to go outside, as gangs stalked the streets.
A Syrian refugee who works at a local kebab shop told BuzzFeed News he was chased by a group of 10 or more thugs as he was leaving work. He said his pregnant wife, who wears a hijab, is afraid to leave the house even to go to the doctor. He said he didn’t want his name used because he was afraid, and that he now wanted to move out of Chemnitz to somewhere in Germany’s west.
A pizza shop owner, who goes by the nickname Momo and moved to Germany from Tunisia 30 years ago, said he even recognized his own customers in the crowd.
“They treat us like [sacrificial] lambs before Eid al-Adha,” he told BuzzFeed News, adding that he also didn’t want his real name to be published. “They play with us for some years and are all nice, but when the day comes, they have no problem to sacrifice us.”
Pictures of these protests made headlines around the world. But what shocked many was the number of average citizens who rallied behind the protesters, saying they were expressing a righteous fury against immigrants that Germany’s politicians have tried to sweep under the carpet. Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested the violence was a threat to Germany’s post-war constitution, which included provisions designed to ensure Nazism could never return to Germany. “We have video footage of the fact that there was [hunting people down], there were riots, there was hatred on the streets, and that has nothing to do with our constitutional state,” she said on Tuesday.
The furor continues to build into this weekend. Police have been deployed from across the country to prevent more violence, with four separate protests scheduled for Saturday alone. One is organized by Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right party that now leads the opposition in Parliament. The party’s deputy leader defended the rioting by saying, “It's legitimate to go berserk after this kind of crime.”
The events of the past week may yet mark a turning point in Germany — a before and after. The left hopes that Germans will recoil in horror at the images of Hitler salutes and thuggish street violence. On the other side, the AfD senses an opportunity: They hope these crowds demonstrate a broader public appetite for their anti-immigrant rhetoric, opening the door for them to make further democratic gains. Crime rates are falling in Germany according to official police statistics, but spokespeople for the AfD push wild exaggerations of the number of murders committed by immigrants, then say that the government is lying about it. Several messages to AfD representatives seeking comment were not returned.
If the German state won’t protect its people, they say, then they will have to take matters into their own hands. Many mainstream politicians, fearful of losing voters to the far right, have either stayed quiet, or offered only limited criticism.
During a town hall in Chemnitz on Thursday, the deputy leader of the state government challenged an angry crowd: “If you realize who you’re actually standing next to, and at last when hatred, fear-mongering, and violence are involved, every single one of you has to decide whether you’re still standing on the right side of the street.”
“How long will this [violence] go on?” shouted back someone from the audience. Another yelled, “Your voters are sitting here — think about it!”
Under Angela Merkel, Germany welcomed more than 1.2 million refugees in 2015 and 2016. Many Germans felt a certain pride in this openness, a stark contrast to rising nationalist movements across the continent. There were even jokes that it was a surprising third act in a global play, in which — after two world wars and the horrors of the Holocaust in the 20th century — Germany was riding to the rescue of liberal democracy.
But, after the events of the past week, there is a growing fear that the backlash against these immigrants could rapidly push the country back toward its darkest past. And this could happen faster than ever before, because false reports whip up fear online at a speed almost impossible to stop, playing into the fears of many voters. It doesn’t seem to matter that the rumors are often broadcast by neo-Nazis and far-right groups that would have repelled the average German just a few years ago.
At the town hall in Chemnitz, many complained that they were being tarred with the brush of Nazism, simply for standing up for their fellow Germans — as they see it. “I was at this demonstration and I was called a Nazi,” said one man. “8,000 people were not Nazis, but the press called those 8,000 people and all Germany Nazis!”
Saxony’s premier, Michael Kretschmer of Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, began his remarks that evening by addressing voters just like this man.
“I’ve met so many people who feel misjudged and come up to me to say, ‘But we’re no Nazis!’ And I know that,” Kretschmer said.
Though he criticised the protests, which he conceded had “got completely out of control,” and pleaded with the audience to wait for the police to release the full account of Sunday’s killing, Kretschmer told BuzzFeed News he felt obliged to respond to people’s perceptions — even if they weren’t based in reality.
“For me it’s the fact that when you walk through the city center, or you go home after work as a [woman] shop assistant, some people say they feel unsafe,” he said. “That wasn't the case three or four years ago. And now it’s not about the question of what actually is or isn’t, but how people perceive the situation.”
Official statistics say most violent crime is down in Chemnitz, as in the rest of Germany. It’s true that more people are being charged with sexual assault, but that’s because the sexual assault laws were tightened in 2016, not because the country has grown more dangerous for women.
Social media is partly to blame, said Chan-jo Jun, a lawyer who brought a landmark lawsuit against Facebook on behalf of a Syrian refugee smeared online. His litigation helped lead Germany to pass one of the world’s most aggressive laws targeting hate speech last year, but even now false information can still whip up hate online at blinding speed.
“People don’t trust the media; they only believe what they see in their timeline,” Jun said. “Until we get control back of our timeline, people will keep believing fake news. There’s no point in having fact-checkers in the regular media, because people don’t believe them.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
One of the engines for pumping out false information about the Chemnitz killing was the Facebook page of a group called Pro-Chemnitz, which has three seats on the local city council and organized the protest on Monday that ended in mob violence. In calling for the protest, it claimed the victim in Sunday’s stabbing was “a brave helper who lost his life trying to protect a woman.” The post is still online.
The group knows just how important Facebook is to its political fortunes. “We are completely social-media based,” said Benjamin Jahn Zschocke, the group’s spokesperson. “If our Facebook page were to be deleted, we would disappear completely.”
Even in death, Daniel H. has become caught up in a vicious online battle.
Nationalists have tried to turn him into an anti-immigrant symbol. But as a Cuban German, he is a poor poster child for the far right’s cause, and in another time might have been held up as a product of multicultural Germany.
Daniel H. — German media customarily does not name victims to protect their privacy — appears to have stopped updating his Facebook page some time ago, but it suggests his politics leaned left. One of his last posts was about a protest that began on Turkish social media, in which men wore miniskirts to protest the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman. He shared posts endorsing decriminalizing weed and mocking critics of Chancellor Merkel. He once shared a post that said, “Nationality doesn't matter, an asshole is an asshole.”
After he died, people took to Facebook saying they were his friends and pleading for others not to heed the far right’s message. “I'm asking you for one thing: Don’t let your grief turn into anger and hatred,” one wrote. “Those rightists using this as a platform are the ones we got into fights with because they didn’t consider us German enough. Everyone who has known Daniel H. knows, that this can’t possibly have been his will. Don’t let yourselves be instrumentalized, just mourn.”
The police have released information slowly, but many people have wanted answers at the speed they’ve grown accustomed to online, forcing officials to play a kind of game of whack-a-mole.
Daniel H. was one of three people injured in an altercation early on Sunday morning, they confirmed, but was the only one who died. There was no sexual assault. Two men in their early twenties, one from Syria and the other from Iraq, were arrested on manslaughter charges later that day.
It quickly emerged that one of the accused had been due to be deported because his asylum application was denied, but he was still in the country while this decision was under appeal. One of the accused also had a criminal record that included assault charges and narcotics violations, the German newspaper Die Zeit reported.
Their full names are also publicly known, though only because a prison official in the state capital leaked them illegally. Right-wing figures including a member of the AfD and Pro-Chemnitz immediately posted them online.
No one knows what will happen next in Chemnitz.
Federal authorities and neighboring states have sent police to Saxony to deal with the next protests organized by both the right and left. The showdown in Chemnitz could continue into next week with a concert organized by a left-wing band on Monday night.
But an AfD march on Saturday evening may be the most politically significant, with the party poised to make big gains in Saxony when the state holds elections next year.
In the statement announcing the march, the AfD called Daniel H. “the next, avoidable victim of an irresponsible government policy that accepts the multiple deaths of natives with icy coldness.”
The statement continues, “we want to mourn for Daniel H. and all the dead of forced multiculturalization in Germany,” instructing participants to march silently, dressed entirely in black.
“The cartel media have tried to make Chemnitz, the city of the victims, into a city of the perpetrators,” the statement said. “They will leave no stone unturned to discredit the peaceful protest. Do not give the press representatives the pictures they are waiting for.”
Florian Franze contributed reporting from Chemnitz.