Disturbing Happenings in Germany

This past weekend saw a continuation of the far-right rallies that plagued the German city of Chemnitz over the course of last week, this time with protesters clashing with counter-protesters, resulting in 18 injuries, three of them security personnel hurt while trying to keep the peace.

The protests began over a week ago with the disclosure that two immigrants, an Iraqi and a Syrian, had been arrested for the murder of a 35-year-old German man. A corrections officer admitted to having sent the confidential police information, including the full names of the suspects, the victim, witnesses and the judge involved, to a right-wing group.

On Thursday, other rumors, these unfounded and spread by social media, further stoked the flames of opposition to the government’s immigration policy.

German police estimated that some 8,000 attended the far-right rally, which was called for by the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the “anti-Islamization” movement PEGIDA.

Over the course of last week, at least nine people were injured as supporters of those movements, along with unabashed neo-Nazis brandishing symbols of their political sentiments, gathered in the center of Chemnitz, a former East German city of 250,000 in Saxony state.

The city has a history of neo-Nazi protests, but until now they have drawn only a few hundred from the fringes of society. This time around, though, officials noted, thousands of ordinary citizens participated in the rallies, with identifiable neo-Nazis leading them, waving German flags, and some flashing Nazi salutes. An angry mob made its way through the city’s streets, chasing after dark-skinned bystanders as police officers, vastly outnumbered, declined to intervene.

Although the migrant influx has significantly slowed down — Germany recorded 745,545 asylum applications in 2016, but just 93,316 were registered for the first half of this year — the presence of migrants has triggered a fierce backlash, and anti-migrant sentiment has been especially strong in Saxony state.

German neo-Nazis are growing bolder and stronger, and are better organized, officials and sociologists claim. Capitalizing on a surge of discontent against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy, the far-right AfD party has become the third largest party, and largest opposition party, in the Bundestag.

The events in Chemnitz, analysts say, showcase the symbiotic relationship between the neo-Nazis and the AfD, which officially distances itself from such groups but has adopted some of its slogans, like disdain for “the lying press,” “We are the people!” and “Germany for the Germans!”

German sociologist Matthias Quent was quoted as saying that “We have a strong neo-Nazi scene in eastern Germany, but we also have a strong current of far-right extremism in all of Germany — not just in Parliament but in society.”

That is why the far right is so self-confident, he continued: “They think their day has come.”

Germany, to its credit, has done much to distance itself from its Nazi era, placing strict limits on speech and expression when it comes to right-wing extremism. It is illegal to produce, distribute or display symbols of the Nazi period — swastikas, the Nazi salute, along with other symbols that neo-Nazis have developed as proxies to get around the initial law. Holocaust denial is also illegal.

What is more, German law prohibits “Volksverhetzung” — incitement to hatred: Anyone who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.

And even the worst of the anti-immigrant sentiment that found expression over recent days in Chemnitz is not classical Nazism, as it, at least in its declarations, is motivated only by the large influx of immigrants, many from Middle-Eastern countries, some of whose citizens do not share the values of civil societies.

So there is ample ground to discount the assessment and fears of people like Mr. Quent.

But there is no denying that the degree of hatred of “the other” in Germany today, with or without justification, is something unprecedented since World War II. And, even if Jews are not the current “other,” and even if the source of the current anger at outsiders is a plausible fear of increased crime, it is worrisome that increasing numbers of German citizens are voicing loathing of people because of their ethnicities or countries of origin.

There may be room for more prudent immigration policies in Germany, but there should be none at all for Nazi-inspired slogans or labelling of entire populations as enemies of society.