LUTHERANS staged a protest march against hatred in the German city of Chemnitz last Sunday after a week of violence and demonstrations against foreigners by neo-Nazi sympathisers.
The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony (ELCS), Dr Carsten Rentzing, told about 1000 marchers: “It takes courage to counter the message of hate and mercilessness with a message of reconciliation, every time”. He asked people to stay confident, despite the events of the previous week. He said that it took strength to preserve decency and dignity, even if the heart was filled with anger about senseless violence.
The theme of the rally was “Us in Chemnitz — listen to each other, act together”, which sought to promote non-violence, respect, dialogue, and democracy. It was part of an initiative organised by ecumenical and interfaith partners, local associations, and civil society in the city to counter the unrest provoked by right-wing extremists over the fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old man.
Two suspected assailants, an Iraqi and a Syrian, were detained by police, but before their nationalities were disclosed, agitators had used social media to organise a demonstration against foreigners last Saturday, during which violence flared. Video footage shows foreigners being chased through the streets.
In a statement, the ELCS condemned the extremists for using the attack to further their cause. It said: “As a Church, we are concerned when radical, violent groups in our society question the state monopoly on legitimate force.”
Saxony is regarded as a stronghold for the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD Alternative for Germany), which won its first federal parliamentary seats in 2017. The party has supported a series of “mourning marches” organised by clandestine neo-Nazi groups, protesting against the German chancellor, Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policies.
On Thursday, the Chaplain of Leipzig, in Saxony, Canon Martin Reakes-Williams, said that the murder in Chemnitz “brings existing fears to the surface”. He was “aware that most women feel less safe going through certain parts of town or parks on their own at night, when compared with a few years ago.” He noted the brutal rape last year of a woman jogging in a park near the city centre.
“I think there are plenty of people who despise the right-wing extremists who are making hay out of the situation, but who are nevertheless saying to themselves: ‘But they've got a point, haven't they? We don't feel as safe on the streets as we did before the refugee influx.’”
He went on: “The greatest danger is not the reaction of the extremes, but what is revealed by the incident about a breakdown of trust at many points. Citizens don't trust the politicians, whom they feel live in a bubble and lecture them rather than listening to them. They don't trust the police to protect them, and the inadequate initial reaction by the police in Chemnitz reinforces that fear. In Saxony there is the added issue that the state government has cut police numbers in recent years: chickens are coming home to roost.”
Another factor was that citizens “don't trust the media to give them unvarnished facts, but selected facts, interpreted through a Gutmensch (do-gooder) mindset. There is plenty of empirical evidence of this, including research done by the media themselves. Things have, however, got a bit better since the media self-censored in not reporting the events in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2016.”
He said: “I would argue that this breakdown of trust is a much greater danger to society than the fact that a tiny minority of extremists gave a Nazi salute, for which they are being prosecuted.”
The Saxon government was “wise in taking a measured approach,” he suggested. It was “not panicking but making it very clear that illegal behaviour of any sort will be rigorously prosecuted. They also appear to be listening: last week the Saxon ‘prime minister' attended an open meeting in Chemnitz at which he engaged with some pretty angry citizens critical of government policies and the failure to take their concerns seriously.”
There are growing concerns that violence could break out in other cities. In Saturday’s rally in Chemnitz, leading members of the AfD marched alongside the far-right protest-group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of Western Europe), and some marchers openly used the outlawed raised-arm salute of the Nazis.
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told the Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag: “When people are displaying the Hitler salute once again on our streets, that is a disgrace to our country. This is the challenge to our society as a whole: we must oppose the right-wing extremists. We must set our faces against neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.”
He exhorted his countrymen to “get up off the sofa” and confront the rise of racism after spending years in a “verbose vegetative state” and taking their freedom and democracy for granted.
This week the German government faced growing calls for the AfD to be put under state surveillance over mounting evidence of its links to neo-Nazi groups. One opinion poll showed that a majority of Germans supported the move.
On Monday, the states of Lower Saxony and Bremen placed the youth wing of the AfD, the Junge Alternative (JA), under surveillance for its suspected unconstitutional activity. Lower Saxony’s interior minister, Boris Pistorius, said: “The Young Alternative represents a world view in which minorities such as immigrants, asylum seekers and Muslims, political opponents and homosexuals are flatly devalued and defamed”.
Last month, the head of JA’s Lower Saxony branch, Lars Steinke, was removed from his post after describing Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the man who unsuccessfully plotted to murder the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, as a traitor.