CHEMNITZ, Germany (AFP) — Mobs attacking migrants in Chemnitz this week were the latest, most flagrant demonstration of Saxony’s difference from the rest of Germany, spotlighting a state in the formerly communist east that has since the 1990s been a stronghold of the radical far right.
More than anywhere else in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel — detested by right-wing nationalists for allowing more than one million migrants and refugees into Germany since 2015 — is greeted in Saxony by angry crowds chanting demands for her to step down.
“Back during the GDR [the communist German Democratic Republic], we weren’t allowed to utter the word ‘fascist,'” remembers Sabine Kuehnrich, a singer and musician born in what before German reunification was known as “Karl-Marx-Stadt.”
But in recent decades the state has seen the emergence of “a whole network of far-right activity in the shape of student groups, associations, neo-Nazi music and hooligan clubs,” says the energetic leader of Arbeitsgruppe Friedenstag, a grassroots movement for democracy and tolerance.
But the current wave of violence in the city is unprecedented, she said.
After an Iraqi and a Syrian were arrested over the knife murder of a local man on Sunday, hooligans and neo-Nazis attacked foreigners and battled police and counter-demonstrators, with images rebounding around social media and reaching television screens around the world.
“Many people have told me they’ve never seen such hatred, such readiness for violence,” Kuehnrich said.
‘Left on their own’
“Haven’t they learned anything in Saxony?” asked Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel this week, listing a catalog of racist incidents in the state since Germany’s 1990 reunification.
Observers are often all the more astonished by Saxon xenophobia given its comparatively low proportion of foreigners — just 4.4 percent of the region’s 4.1 million inhabitants, compared with 15% in some western states.
Many still remember the days of terror inflicted by hooligans on a home for asylum seekers in the town of Hoyerswerda in 1991, when the aggressors were egged on by the neighbors.
The 230 inhabitants of the home were forced to leave town under police escort, handing the far right a victory that has stuck in people’s memories.
In formal politics, Saxony had an equally “very large problem” with neo-Nazis scoring electoral successes during the 1990s and 2000s, recalls Anetta Kahane of the anti-racism Amadeu Antonio foundation.
That didn’t stop then-state premier Kurt Biedenkopf of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party from regularly declaring that “Saxony is immune to right-wing extremism.”
Local mayors were “systematically left on their own” to face down the far right during the turbulent post-reunification period, Kahane told news channel NTV.
Last September, anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the strongest party in Saxony in federal parliament elections, raking in 27 percent of the vote.
Berlin-based political scientist Dieter Rucht argues that other regions in former East Germany like Thuringia or Mecklenburg offer ground just as fertile as Saxony’s for the far right.
But “Saxony is unusual because the parties in power in the state, especially the CDU, completely denied the problem for a long time,” he explains.
What’s more, the region suffered heavily as waves of people — some 750,000 since 1989 — moved away in the wake of reunification.
“They left, and there’s a whole missing generation in Saxony, especially in rural areas,” lamented state integration minister Petra Koepping to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.
As elsewhere in the former GDR, those left behind often feel like second-class citizens, with a quality of life that still lags far behind western Germany.
The economic gap stings for a region that calls itself a “free state” in the mold of prosperous Bavaria, as does widespread mockery elsewhere in Germany of the thick Saxon accent.
“Whole swathes of society are disoriented because they’ve lost their sense of direction, their ideological stability” following the disappearance of the former communist regime, says Frank Richter, director of the Saxon branch of the nationwide Center for Political Education.
Combined with the population’s struggles to adapt to the liberal economic structures of the west, that means “right-wing nationalism is especially seductive” to Saxons, he judges.
In that respect, the state has a lot in common politically with Central European nations like neighboring Poland and Hungary.
That sentiment was cheered by a thousand-strong crowd of demonstrators in the center of Chemnitz Thursday when a speaker hailed the anti-migrant policies of the “Visegrad group” that also includes the Czech Republic and Slovakia.