A sudden surge of anti-immigrant mob attacks in eastern Germany has renewed fears of another wave of xenophobic violence like the one that swept the country in the early 1990s. The most recent spate of violence began on August 26, after the arrest of two men—one from Iraq and one from Syria—following a murder of a 35-year-old man during a street festival in the city of Chemnitz. This became the excuse for an angry right-wing mob of 1,000 to rampage through the city, hunting down and attacking foreigners. The next day, 6,000 people gathered for a second far-right march, giving Hitler salutes and chanting anti-immigrant slogans, and overwhelmed police.
The murder that set off the anti-immigrant frenzy occurred after an altercation at an annual street festival on Saturday night ended in a fight; one man died of knife wounds, and two others were injured. The news that the police had arrested two Middle Eastern suspects ignited the climate of widespread xenophobia and Islamophobia. Police have dismissed as false rumors on social media that suggested the fight was related to the sexual harassment of a woman.
The man who was murdered—a carpenter identified as Daniel H—also had immigrant roots (his father was Cuban). But many news reports in Germany did not mention this, enabling the Far Right’s framing of the incident as “immigrant” suspects arrested in the killing of a “German.”
The next day, the mobs started gathering. Their slogans included “For each dead German, a dead foreigner” and “Chemnitz is ours—foreigners out.” Some journalists said they were not safe enough to continue reporting. The crowds shouted “Lügenpresse” (“Lying press”) at them—a Nazi slogan which is now also part of the vocabulary of Trump’s supporters.
Islamophobia and Xenophobia in Germany’s East
Saxony, the eastern state in which Chemnitz is located, is a stronghold for the right-wing political party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which took 27 percent of the state vote in the September 2017 election. Nationally, AfD received 13 percent of the vote, making it the most successful German far-right party since WWII. Deeply Islamophobic, the party positions include banning minarets, the Muslim call to prayer and veils that cover the face. The BBC says that former AfD leader “Frauke Petry once said German police should ‘if necessary’ shoot at migrants seeking to enter the country illegally. And she was seen as an AfD moderate.”
AfD parliament member Markus Frohnmaier appeared to have encouraged the attacks, tweeting on Sunday: “When the state can no longer protect its citizens, people take to the streets and protect themselves,” and “Today, it is a civic duty to stop the lethal ‘knife migration.’”
The AfD had called for the initial demonstration on Sunday, which was attended by 100 people. But Kaotic Chemnitz, a group of far-right soccer hooligans, apparently drew up to 1,000 at a march directly afterward, and is blamed for much of the violence. The Monday march included groups like the Islamophobic street movement Pegida, which originated in nearby Dresden, and the local Pro-Chemnitz movement. Other groups that attended included the National Democratic Party of Germany, which is to the right of the AfD; the Soldiers of Odin, an Islamophobic street patrol group which has members in the United States; and The Third Way, a small neo-Nazi party. Roland Wöller, the interior minister of Saxony, said far-right activists travelled to Chemnitz from across Germany to join Monday’s mob.
The violence, caught on video, was so bad that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said, “Such riotous assemblies, the hunting down of people who appear to be from different backgrounds or the attempt at spreading hate in the streets, these have no place in our country.” One German Turkish group called the events “an attempted pogrom.” (As one of the largest minority groups in Germany, Turkish people are a frequent target of attacks.) The Central Council of Jews said it was “now the duty of citizens to counter the far-right mob.” And about 1,000 people came to a counter-demonstration in Chemnitz on Monday.
The attacks recall a similar period in German history. In the 1990s, the reunification of East and West Germany brought a new wave of nationalism. (German nationalism had largely been suppressed in the wake of Nazism.) With this came a wave of attacks on foreigners. The most well documented of these occurred between August 22 and 24, 1992, in Rostock. There, a right-wing mob threw firebombs at a housing complex occupied by refugees while crowds of thousands stood by and watched, and police failed to intervene. A similar attack occurred in 1991 in Hoyerswerda, which is also in Saxony. There, after the refugees fled, residents happily proclaimed their town was “foreigner-free.” And news that the arrest warrant seems to have been intentionally—and illegally—leaked to far-right groups by a member of the police has also added to the gravity of the situation, leading some to accuse the police of encouraging the violence.
AfD’s electoral success in September had already put the German left on notice, and members of the left have often spoken of a “crisis in antifascism” because of antifascists’ failure to prevent the far-right party from getting into parliament. Trump’s election, just two months later, showed that this was not just going to be a German problem. With the outsized influence of the United States on the world, a new wave of Islamophobic nationalism showed it was no longer going to remain a fringe movement in the West.
Will Right-Wing Mob Violence Emigrate to the United States?
And as both the United States and Germany show, when right-wing populists become elected officials, they can continue to act hand-in-hand with violent street movements. Trump’s supporters have not shied away from violent street marches. The most well-known was when 1,000 people, led by open white nationalists, came to Charlottesville in August 2017. But a better comparison to what’s going on in Germany is the “alt-lite”—the slightly more moderate faction of the “alt-right.” Its adherents share their parent movement’s Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hostility, misogyny, bellicose nationalism and baseless conspiracies. However, they stop short of advocating a separate white state or open anti-Semitism, and welcome right-wing gay men, Jews and people of color into their membership. Here they match the politics of the AfD quite well, whose leader, Alice Weidel, is a lesbian. The AfD Member of Parliament Markus Frohnmaier, who seemed to have encouraged the violence in Chemnitz, is an immigrant who was born in Romania.
Today it is the “alt-lite”—who work closely with militias and members of the Patriot movement—who are most able to draw combative members into the streets. Joey Gibson of the US group Patriot Prayer, who is Japanese American, was able to assemble 400 far-right activists in Portland, Oregon, on August 4. They showed up in body armor and shields. A clash seemed inevitable with the much larger group of antifascists who had assembled to oppose them and was only averted when police attacked the antifa demonstration and scattered the crowd.
While largely remaining independent of the Republican Party, the “alt-lite” serves as Trump’s troops in the streets, while maintaining a distance of plausible deniability—the same relationship the AfD had to the thousands who gathered in Chemnitz. Trump’s recent attempt to use the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a white woman who was allegedly killed by a Mexican immigrant, to rile up xenophobia bears a striking resemble to what happened in Chemnitz. And Trump has not-so-subtly encouraged his followers to commit violence on more than one occasion. What the politician implies, the street activists enact.
This expansion of violence is a worrisome move that should be monitored. European Islamophobia and far-right nationalism developed in several countries for years before its talking points were taken up to such effect by Trump. Despite Germany’s painful self-consciousness about its own bloody history, the events in Chemnitz show the power of bellicose nationalism to rouse citizens to racist violence. Trump’s followers have already taken a number of cues from their European cousins. We should be on guard against the possibility that Trumpists could also attempt to follow the lead of the mobs in Chemnitz.