Clashes between anti-migrant crowds and leftist counter-protesters in the eastern German city of Chemnitz entered a second night of violence Monday night, leaving several injured.
The protests began on Sunday and were sparked by the alleged killing of a local man by two immigrants on Saturday night. An Iraqi and a Syrian were arrested on Monday. In response, some 5,000 right-wing demonstrators filled the city’s central boulevard on Monday to demand immigrants leave Germany, according to a local broadcaster. Some protesters were pictured raising their arms in Nazi salutes, as crowds chanted “Close the borders” and “This is our city.”
A smaller group of around 1,000 leftist counter protesters mobilized in opposition, chanting “Nazis out!” according to Deutsche Welle.
The events in Chemnitz reflect just how fraught the migration issue has become in Germany in recent years. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel took the decision to open Germany’s borders in response to the refugee crisis in Europe. Nearly 1 million people applied for asylum in Germany in the year that followed.
In elections last year, Merkel’s party suffered the fallout from that decision. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party increased their vote share by 8% across the country to reach 12.6%. In Chemnitz, as in much of the AfD’s heartland in eastern Germany, the vote share was 24%—close to double the national average.
What sparked the protests?
A brawl broke out on the streets of Chemnitz on Saturday night, following the end of the local Chemnitz festival earlier that evening. What allegedly began as a verbal disagreement degenerated into violence, according to Deutsche Welle, leaving one 35 year-old German-Cuban man, identified only as Daniel H., dead from multiple stab injuries.
Two men, a 23 year-old Syrian and a 22 year-old Iraqi, were arrested following the stabbing and are being held in custody on suspicion of stabbing the victim during the altercation.
What happened next?
After nationalists called on supporters to take to the streets and defend their country, far-right crowds marched in Chemnitz on Sunday. Outbreaks of violence, including bottles thrown at riot police, led to the the city festival closing early. Deutsche Welle reported videos had emerged on social media appearing to show neo-Nazis attacking people on the street who they thought were of foreign origin.
Larger protests followed on Monday, as the news of Daniel H.’s death spread. A number of far-right groups encouraged people to protest, whilst anti-fascist left wing groups organized counter protests.
Friends of the deceased told media they were shocked to see neo-Nazi groups politicizing his death, pointing out that he was of Cuban descent. “It’s sad that in the media they’re just saying that a German has died, and that’s why all the neo-Nazis and hooligans are out,” a woman who described herself as Daniel H.’s best friend told Deutsche Welle. “The media should describe who died, and what skin color he had, because I don’t think they’d be doing all this if they knew,” she added.
How have politicians responded?
Merkel condemned the violence in Chemnitz, saying that “vigilante justice” would not be tolerated. On Tuesday, she told reporters she had seen videos of protesters “going after people, riotous assemblies and hate in the streets,” adding “there can be no place in our streets for such rioting.”
“We don’t tolerate such unlawful assemblies and the hounding of people who look different or have different origins and attempts to spread hatred on the streets,” a spokesperson for the Chancellor said.
The AfD organized an official protest on Sunday following the murder, but only around 100 people showed up. Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD lawmaker, tweeted that day: “If the state is no longer able to protect citizens, people take to the streets and protect themselves. It’s as simple as that! Today it’s a citizen’s duty to stop the lethal ‘knife migration’! It could have targeted your father, son or brother!”
But after crowds turned violent, the party’s regional leader Jörg Urban tried to distance the AfD from events. “The AfD expressly distances itself from any form of violence and expressly warns against participation in the demonstrations that have been called today by the NPD among others,” he said, referring to the National Democratic Party, an ultranationalist neo-Nazi group that was present at the Chemnitz protests.
What does this mean for German politics?
Merkel’s ruling coalition, weakened by the results of last year’s election, nearly fell in July over party disagreements on immigration. She survived as Chancellor after agreeing to tougher border controls for migrants, including building camps to process asylum-seekers on the border with Austria—near to Chemnitz—a key corridor for migrants coming up through south-eastern Europe.
That move was calculated to appease the conservatives in her own party, as well as coalition partner the Social Democratic Party—many of whom represent seats in the anti-immigrant heartland of north-eastern Germany and are concerned about the electoral impact of Merkel’s pro-migration policies.
The stabbing in Chemnitz on Saturday night has been used to support the narrative peddled by anti-migrant groups that refugees are causing a wave of crime in German society. High profile cases involving migrants are often seized upon by right-wing parties, but in May authorities announced that crime in Germany is at its lowest rate since 1992.