In August, far-right mobs in the eastern German town of Chemnitz hunted foreigners through the streets. In the chaos, a kosher restaurant was attacked and its owner injured. With right-wing political extremism on the rise, where will it end?
On August 27 at around 10 p.m., a mob numbering around a dozen approached the kosher restaurant Schalom in the eastern German town of Chemnitz. Far-right demonstrators had been marauding around the city center that day shouting, “Foreigners, out!” and, in some cases, giving the Hitler salute. Dressed in black, their faces covered, the gang descended upon Schalom—launching rocks, bottles, and a metal pipe. The building was damaged and the owner, Uwe Dziuballa, injured. “Judensau, hau ab aus Deutschland,” the assailants reportedly shouted—“Jewish pigs, get out of Germany.”
The day before, a 35-year-old German man was stabbed and killed in Chemnitz during an altercation. Local police arrested two men, including a 23-year-old Syrian refugee. Multiple demonstrations and counter-demonstrations broke out that evening. Packs of far-right thugs “hunted foreigners through the city streets,” The Guardian reported—scenes that “were described as reminiscent of civil war and Nazi pogroms,” with mostly white men hurling abuse and physically attacking those deemed to be foreigners. It is in this context that, the following day, Dziuballa’s restaurant was set upon.
It wasn’t only neo-Nazis who marched in Chemnitz that weekend. Observers reported the presence of gangs of far-right soccer hooligans who had come from across eastern Germany, as well as members of the ultra-nationalist National Democratic Party and the German wing of the pan-European Identitarian Movement, whose recent slogans include “Europe for Europeans.” The far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) held their own rally in Chemnitz, at which leading members of the party reportedly marched alongside the anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement. (Based in Dresden, PEGIDA’s leader Lutz Bachmann was photographed in 2015 styled as Adolf Hitler.)
The membership of German neo-Nazi groups numbers only around 10,000 today. However, Fabian Virchow, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, believes they represent a clear threat: to migrants and refugees, to Jews, to left-wing counter-demonstrators. Eastern Germany, unsettled by the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany as well as deindustrialization, high unemployment and a loss of hope, remains fertile ground for the far-right. But the threat is not confined to that region. In Dortmund in the west, neo-Nazis prowled the streets in September shouting: “Whoever loves Germany is an anti-Semite!” and “National Socialism now!”
AfD, meanwhile, has “changed the political landscape,” says Virchow. Founded in 2013 as an anti-Euro party, the AfD took off after the 2015 refugee crisis as a far-right populist anti-immigration party, placing third in national elections in 2017. Since 2015, the party’s völkisch (ethno-nationalist) current has come to dominate the party, says Karin Priester, professor at the University of Münster. She defines its ideology as “racist, xenophobic populism”—illiberal both economically and socially. The AfD has been a magnet for far-right groups like PEGIDA, whom Priester accused of acting like the party’s “street arm.”
AfD politicians have also challenged the German national consensus regarding the country’s past. In January 2017, regional AfD leader Björn Höcke called Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe a “memorial of shame” and said Germany need to completely change its “memory politics.” One of their national leaders Alexander Gauland, who comes from the party’s völkisch wing, said in June that Hitler and the Nazis were like “bird shit” within the context of a thousand years of German history, having previously landed himself in hot water for arguing Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”
Of course, anti-Semitism in contemporary Germany does not come from the far-right alone. Anti-Semitism “is widespread in the refugee communities from Syria and Iraq,” a December 2017 study published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found: “Anti-Semitic attitudes, stereotypes, and conspiracy theories” and “a categorical rejection by many of the State of Israel.” Incidents such as the assault on a 21-year-old kippa-wearing Israeli by a 19-year-old Syrian refugee in Berlin led Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, to warn “against openly wearing a kippa in big German cities.”
But the far-right in Germany as an anti-Semitic threat and a threat to German democracy has never gone away. The political system is being “challenged” by the AfD, Priester concludes, in the same way that the Freedom Party in Austria or the Lega in Italy have brought far-right populism into the mainstream. Next year’s European elections in May and state-level elections in Saxony in September are ones to watch by way of judging the AfD’s strength. And though 19 German Jews recently founded their own association inside the AfD, the mainstream Jewish community remains “alarmed” by the political situation precisely “because of the close alliance between right-wing extremists and the AfD,” says Schuster.
“Anti-Semitism has always been part of the far-right’s DNA,” says Fabian Weissbarth, associate director of public affairs at the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations. In Germany, as in the rest of Europe, the main targets of far-right rhetoric today are Muslim, Islam and migrants. But as the attack on the kosher restaurant in Chemnitz showed, “At the end of the day, it might start with Muslims or refugees, but Jews are affected as well. It starts with one minority—but it never ends there.”