- The recent anti-immigrant mobs in Chemnitz, Germany, were stunning in their open embrace of racist ideology and Neo-Nazi propaganda.
- Germany has long suffered from residual undercurrents of neo-Nazism, but in recent years, has witnessed an unprecedented rise in public demonstrations of hatred and racism thinly veiled behind the guise of nationalism.
- The issue is not one of economic apprehension—Germany’s economy continues to be one of Europe’s strongest performers—but of a dystopian nostalgia fueled by opportunists and demagogues.
- Germany is far from alone in this predicament, electorates in other Western nations have also demonstrated a recent shift toward embracing populist politicians pushing nativist and isolationist agendas focused on exclusivity.
The defeat of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime at the end of World War II failed to completely eradicate Nazi ideology in Germany. Since then, however, the country has made remarkable strides in acknowledging its horrific past and culpability during the reign of Hitler while avoiding any notion of honoring it. There are no statues to notable figures of the Third Reich and it is illegal in Germany to display the Nazi swastika or to give the Nazi arm salute.
Germany’s hyper self-awareness and introspection over its past sins is one reason why the recent protests and mob violence in Chemnitz, a town of 250,000 in eastern Germany, were so stunning.
On August 26, far-right extremists sought to exploit the murder of a man in Chemnitz following the arrest of two suspects, an Iraqi and a Syrian, both of whom are asylum seekers. The arrests touched off an explosion of anti-immigrant and racist sentiment, fueled in part by rumors and false stories spread on social media. German citizens marched through Chemnitz, with smaller groups of right-wing extremists chasing and beating people believed to be immigrants while chanting, ‘Chemnitz is ours, foreigners out.’ On August 27, a mob of nearly 8,000 marched and rioted, again shouting anti-immigrant and racist slogans, with a few protesters defiantly displaying Nazi symbols and the Hitler salute.
A peaceful counter protest occurred in Chemnitz on September 1, where those denouncing the neo-Nazis far outnumbered those supporting the odious ideology. Still, the scale and scope of the initial anti-immigrant protests were shocking for a country that, even in 2018, is still clearly confronting its past. The far-right and openly anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland or AfD) now holds the third-most seats in the Bundestag after the elections that took place last fall. Germany’s Social Democrats recently called for AfD to be placed under surveillance by members of the domestic intelligence service on suspicion of undermining the country’s Constitution. There has been a steep rise in attacks against newly arrived immigrants in Germany amidst concerns that the government is not doing enough to protect them from far-right extremists and their supporters.
The spectacle in Chemnitz is not an anomaly, but rather a symptom of a nation struggling to deal with a revitalized far-right. A poll published in an August 29th Reuters article stated that while 57% of those polled viewed the riot in Chemnitz as ‘a danger to democracy,’ 90% of AfD supporters did not. Such a strong divide over an incident featuring overt Nazi symbols and racist violence is an indication of a troubling divide over basic standards and decency.
Germany’s issues with its own ascendant neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant ideology are far from unique in Europe, where strains of ‘Euro-Skeptic’ viewpoints have been successfully coopted into a rejection of multiculturalism and ethnic inclusion. The issue tends to be couched in terms of economic anxiety, but often devolves into xenophobia and racism, with calls to ‘take back’ the identity of what it means to be European.
Germany’s economy is strong and its crime rates are at historic lows. Each country within the EU has its own respective parochial concerns but the larger issue of rejecting what the 28-member political and economic union represents is a common thread. The matter has been identified as divisive and exacerbated by Russia, as well as by provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, former advisor to U.S. President Trump, who is active in promoting nativist and nationalist movements in Europe. The spectacle in Chemnitz is proof that only steady and persistent leadership—at the local, federal, and global levels—is necessary to combat the historical threat posed by a rise in right-wing extremism and neo-Nazi ideology.