How Can Nazis Be on the March in Germany?

It’s 2018, and Nazis are once again in the streets of Germany.

On August 26 and 27, thousands of far-right supporters, including open Nazis, marched through the streets of Chemnitz, located in the former East German state of Saxony.

Taking advantage of the death of a German-Cuban man who was stabbed in a fight involving an Iraqi and a Syrian man, the far right gathered under the famed bust of Karl Marx to spew hate against migrants. Ugly chants of “For every dead German, a dead foreigner,” “We are the people,” “Merkel must go!” and “This is our city!” rang out.

More than 1,000 anti-fascists mobilized to counter the right-wing demonstration, but they found themselves far outnumbered by the far right. Nazis openly gave the fascist salute and chased down anti-fascist and “foreign-looking” individuals in the streets, injuring more than 20 people in a modern-day pogrom.

The police, who knew to anticipate large crowds, mobilized fewer than 600 officers, far too little to keep the far right from going on a rampage.

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On a normal day in Germany the news of a knife fight between a group of men and the tragic death of an individual would result in an article in the newspaper, not a pogrom.

The intentional and organized street violence in Chemnitz is the result of years of far right organizing in Saxony, which has been amplified by Germany’s third-largest party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Protected by the AfD’s cloak of parliamentary respectability, far-right groups like PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), “concerned citizen” parties like Pro Chemnitz and members of overt Nazi organizations marched together in a show of force.

The combination of popular right-wing movements, elected politicians and Nazi shock troops taking the streets together is a qualitative step forward for fascism. It represents a victory for the fascist wing of the AfD, which has pursued power in the streets as well as at the ballot box.

AfD leader Alexander Gauland defended the violence in Chemnitz, saying “after a murder, it is normal that people act crazy.”

But there is nothing normal about it: AfD leaders invited the violent response. Markus Frohnmaier, a member of parliament for AfD, tweeted that people should take justice into their own hands, while the AfD in Hochtaunuskreis encouraged violence against journalists.

AfD chair Alice Weidel blamed the knife killing on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, painting a false picture of a country overrun with criminal immigrants.

In reality, it is immigrants and refugees who are the victims of violence at the hands of German residents. More than 2,200 attacks on refugees were recorded last year, ranging from arson attacks on refugee housing to hate crimes in the streets. Just days after Chemnitz, three German men beat a Syrian man with an iron chain in Wismar.

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One of the main sources of confidence of the far right is the electoral success of AfD, which won 94 seats in the Bundestag last year running on an openly racist platform. The party’s success came despite a significant drop in the number of refugees in Germany due to the closure of the overland route via Turkey and the EU’s decision to increase deportations after 2016.

Nonetheless, the AfD’s gains have shifted the political spectrum sharply rightward as the traditionally conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister Christian Social Union (CSU) chase after AfD voters.

Earlier this year, Interior Minister Horst Seehöfer of the CSU pushed through a law to establish detention centers for asylum seekers and allow police checks between the Austrian and German border. On his 69th birthday, he gloated that 69 asylum seekers had been deported.

One of the major lynchpins of the AfD program is their fanatic Islamophobia.

As proto-fascist AfD member Björn Höcke stated in echoes of the “final solution”: “We will come to power and then we will do what is necessary so that we can live a free life in the future. We tell the Bosporus that the three big Ms — Mohammed, Muezzin and Minerett — are over.” In Bavaria, the AfD is campaigning for “Islam-free schools.”

But Islamophobia isn’t isolated to the AfD. The CSU’s Horst Seehöfer stated in February that “Islam does not belong in Germany.” Meanwhile, Thilo Sarrazin, a well-known leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is on a book tour for his Hostile Takeover: How Islam Impairs Progress and Threatens Society.

Other Islamophobic initiatives range from Chancellor Merkel’s support for banning the burka to local court battles over religious symbols in schools. A Berlin court upheld the decision to remove a public school teacher for wearing her hijab to school. Now, “feminist” groups want to extend the headscarf ban to students.

But Germany’s secularism is selective: The conservative CSU is mandating the installation of Christian crosses on all state buildings in Bavaria.

In an environment where xenophobia and Islamophobia have become normalized and where a parliamentary party condones Nazi violence, there is an urgent need for broad anti-fascist and anti-racist organizing.

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In the days since Chemnitz, amid the public horror and shock, the CDU and CSU have doubled down on defending the far-right’s violence. Interior Minister Seehöfer declared that “immigration is the mother of all problems” and said that he would have been in the streets with the far right.

Saxon Minister President Michael Kretschmer of the CDU claims there was no racially motivated pogrom. His words are echoed by Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of the Verfassungschutz, the agency in charge of protecting Germany’s constitution.

Centrist and leftist politicians speak out for the rule of law and condemned the far right’s violence. Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Barsch, co-chairs of the Left Party, even implied that more police were necessary to control the streets of Chemnitz.

But relying on the state or police to manage the far right is misguided. The authorities have enabled the far right and actively intervene against anti-fascists. According to Marcel Tschekow, writing for Jacobin, of the AfD’s 94 members of parliament, 30 have links to the security, legal or military sectors.

In Saxony, the governing Christian Democratic Union has long turned a blind eye to Nazi organizing and declined to prosecute hate crimes, creating a welcome atmosphere for far-right and Nazi organizations, including right-wing football clubs, youth groups and underground support networks.

The consequences have been deadly. Saxony has been a hotspot of Nazi violence since the early 1990s, particularly in Hoyerswerda and Rostock-Lichtenberg, where Nazi beat immigrants in the street and burned refugee housing.

Between 2000 and 2006, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a terrorist cell based out of Chemnitz and later Zwickau, murdered nine Greek, Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers throughout the country. In a stunning example of institutional racism, the police dismissed the murders as work of the “Turkish mafia” and neglected to investigate for years.

And since 2015, Nazi assaults on refugees have been recorded in Bautzen, Chemnitz, Clausnitz, Meissen and Altenberg.

The police have also rolled out the welcome mat for the Nazis by criminalizing anti-fascist organizations and mobilizations.

In 2011, Dresden Nazifrei organized a 20,000-strong anti-Nazi march, only to have the police raid the group’s offices and confiscate its laptops in clear attempt at intimidation.

Last month in Berlin, more than 2,300 police escorted 700 Nazis through the anti-fascist neighborhood of Friedrichshain. This was an intentionally provocative move: it is where Nazis killed anarchist Silvio Meier in 1992.

Recent scandals have exposed police as active participants in the anti-Islam PEGIDA.

In August an off-duty police employee was caught harassing members of the press, demanding that police detain them for filming him at a PEGIDA rally. Jan Timke, a right-wing politician and former federal police officer, leaked the arrest warrant for the men accused of the Chemnitz stabbing to PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann.

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Instead of relying on the state or the police, Germany’s left should return to the legacy of 1990s antiracist organizing, which mobilized broad layers of society against Nazi-led pogroms.

The reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 was a time of political instability and high unemployment, combined with the arrival of close to 500,000 asylum seekers.

Blaming new arrivals for the government’s shock privatization in former East Germany, Nazi violence spiked, targeting immigrants from Turkey, Vietnam, Angola and Mozambique, as well as asylum seeker from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union.

Between 1990 and 1992, there was an 800 percent increase in attacks on foreigners. A 1995 report from Human Rights Watch found that “physical injury, fear and humiliation have become a daily experience for foreigners in unified Germany.”

In one of the first large-scale attacks in 1991, Nazis attacked Vietnamese vendors in Hoyerswerda — followed by school children smashing the windows of immigrant housing. Hundreds gathered outside the apartment building and cheered as Nazis threw Molotov cocktails amid what one police officer described as a “festival mood.”

The response of police was to evacuate hundreds of immigrants, which only increased the confidence of the Nazis.

Two days later in Freiburg and Saarilouis, skinheads burned a Ghanaian man to death and severely injured two Nigerians, and there were repeated attacks on immigrant housing in Rostock, Hünxe, Cotbuss, Magdeburg and Mölln, often with tacit support of onlookers.

The large-scale mob actions encouraged smaller-scale acts of violence in the streets and by police. In one example, a Ghanaian man was stabbed in front of passengers and thrown out of a moving train in Berlin.

In 1992 alone, Nazis perpetrated 700 arson attacks and murdered 17 people.

Much like today, the government capitulated to these xenophobic demonstrations. Conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl maintained that “the boat was full” — implying that any more refugees allowed in would drown Germany. In 1993, the SPD and CDU voted in the Bundestag to restrict the constitutionally guaranteed right to asylum and created today’s precedent of “safe third countries” and “safe countries of origin,” essentially offshoring asylum seekers elsewhere.

Yet tighter asylum laws didn’t stop the violence, but rather encouraged it. Just three days after the asylum restriction passed, Nazis burned five Turkish women and girls to death in Solingen. When the restrictions were enacted in June 1993, there was a record of 256 violent attacks that month.

Importantly, however, there was a strong response to right-wing violence. Activists organized self-defense teams to guard immigrant housing and left-wing spaces, and mobilized people for community and mass demonstrations.

The movement’s iconic candlelight vigils brought thousands into the streets. In Munich alone, 400,000 people demonstrated against Nazi hate, accompanied by 350,000 in Berlin and 300,000 in Essen. In Solingen, the Turkish community marched on the police, demanding justice for the murdered women. Demonstrators blocked the highways in Solingen, Hamburg, Bonn and Cologne.

By bringing together people from churches, nonprofits, schools and workplaces, the demonstrations showed that a majority of people opposed anti-immigrant violence.

The mass demonstrations shifted the mood in Germany and discredited the far right’s hate, reducing Nazi violence. Yet the German government’s decision to curtail asylum seekers in the face of far-right violence had essentially painted refugees as the problem. This decision bolstered right-wing organization in the longer term and set the stage for the situation today.

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Chemnitz today is a warning and a prediction of what is to come. The cohering of a fascist force that encompasses both Nazi street thugs and parliamentary power is incredibly dangerous. What the left does at this moment matters.

The immediate response has been inspiring: In the weeks since Chemnitz, activists have organized dozens of solidarity demonstrations across Germany, including an anti-racist concert in Chemnitz attended by over 60,000 people.

This is part of the larger landscape of anti-racist and pro-refugee organizing since 2015. The initiative Aufstehen gegen Rassismus (Stand Up to Racism), supported by unions and political parties, has mobilized tens of thousands against the AfD. On October 13, just before state elections, organizers hope to turn out 100,000 people against far-right hate under the slogan Unteilbar (Indivisible).

Ongoing refugee solidarity campaigns are also significant, such as Europe-wide Seebrücke (Safe Harbor) to demand safe passage for refugees in the Mediterranean, anti-deportation actions, and Solidarity City, a network of European cities that advocate for social services for all, regardless of paperwork. Finally, the #MeTwo movement has highlighted the scourge of everyday racism that Germans of color face.

Unfortunately, dedication to large-scale, anti-racist organizing isn’t universal within the left. In particular, the Left Party co-chair Sahra Wagenknecht has shifted to the right in an effort to win back AfD voters, fudging the question of asylum rights and open borders, and even implying that immigrants who commit crimes should be deported.

Wagenknecht launched a multi-party campaign Aufstehen (Stand Up), which calls for a renewed movement for higher wages, better pensions and affordable rent. In the course of her transformation, however, she has scrubbed her language of anti-racism and dismissed questions of racism as “identity politics.”

This is a critical mistake. The history of anti-fascism in the 1990s demonstrates that ceding political ground to the right only acts as an accelerant, while confronting racism can push the far right back.

Ignoring or downplaying the question of immigration won’t weaken the right, but it will weaken the working class’s ability to unite — both against the Nazis and for social demands. This is especially true as the AfD appropriates traditionally left-wing demands on a nationalist basis “for Germans Only.”

Today’s xenophobia and Islamophobia are not a separate issue from inequality, but a central component of it, driven by German capital’s need for cheap labor and helped along by the neoliberalism of SPD and CDU.

Germany’s working class is multiracial and international: One out of every five Germans has an immigrant background, and 4.5 million Germans are Muslim. Quite simply, there is no German working class without immigrants or Muslims. Defending the working class means defending every part of it.

The fascist breakthrough at Chemnitz is a qualitative step forward for the forces of reaction. Unless the left mobilizes to stop the growing right wing, these forces will continue to gain momentum, abetted by sympathetic political parties and protected by the police.

Staying silent on the question of Nazi violence or courting AfD voters who cling ever tighter to their party’s fascistic tendency is no answer. Instead, we need to organize the majority: Germany’s increasingly immigrant working class and the thousands who have stood up in the streets to oppose the brown mob.