Simmering tensions in Germany have reached a boiling point, manifesting in violent attacks from various directions. Two weeks ago I was traveling to Berlin and Dresden for a policy study Human Rights First is conducting with German partners on extremism, xenophobia, and antisemitism. The trip was bookended by an attacker harming passengers on a train with an ax and the shooting spree in Munich which left nine people dead.
Two other violent attacks followed in Reutlingen and Ansbach, leading Anna Sauerbrey in the New York Times to pose the question: “What kind of extremism poses the greatest danger to Germany – the Islamic State or the German far right?”
Some context for this question: Germany has seen a significant rise in hate speech in the past year. It’s a trend that came up repeatedly in our meetings with civil society and government officials. It is not as shameful as it used to be to publicly air divisive, angry, hateful, racist sentiments.
This shift is shocking for Germany. And there’s a likely interrelated phenomenon—there is a greater acceptance of violence, and there is a sense that that is being manifested by those who hold these extreme beliefs.
I went to Dresden, a small, beautiful city, with a tragic history of WWII demolition, in Eastern Germany. It’s also where the far-right populist movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) originated. The arrival of refugees in Germany stirred up latent hatreds, particularly in the rural areas surrounding Dresden. Pegida created an umbrella structure for expressing and directing xenophobia and racism.
After the dramatic transformation of the past 25 years in this East German city, people are feeling insecure, as if the town they once knew has “emigrated to the West” because they resent the intrusion of Western elites. Feeling depressed about their futures, and hopeless about controlling the changes, a sizable group is scapegoating refugees and stoking fears that the arrival of outsiders is ushering in more unwelcome change. Civil society activists and government officials we spoke with in Dresden talked of witnessing a rise in acts of violence, linked to the emergence of the PEGIDA movement and increased hate speech online.
Every Monday, several thousand PEGIDA supporters show up to protest. They are met by a much smaller number of counter protesters, many of them bearing placards with messages of “No Place for Nazis.” While the PEGIDA message is not specifically antisemitic, many believe that its anti-immigrant message is appealing to far-right, neo-Nazi sympathizers. Another troubling concern is structural racism at the law enforcement level which is enabling PEGIDA to become more aggressive and threatening in its actions.
Over the past 70 years, Germany has taken seriously its global role of righting past wrongs and creating a rights-respecting democracy with a culture of tolerance and welcome. Dresden is a microcosm of today’s tensions, and perhaps a necessary place to focus to try to find solutions. There is an urgent need to establish trust in the ability of Dresden’s local government to maintain order and manage the integration process in a way that defuses tensions and helps the residents to come together around a peaceful future.
Politicians should be careful to use rhetoric that urges tolerance and respect for others. One official we spoke with expressed some optimism that because these grievances and conflicts are now out in the open, there are opportunities to engage, negotiate, and begin working together on a path forward.
Dresden has in some ways prided itself on having a special history, which is inward-looking and resistant to outsiders. But on the other hand, those that seek to promote peace and an integrated solution would like to look outward to examples in the United States and with multilateral institutions on how to build broader coalitions that are fighting racism and extremism. Striking a balance will be key to moving forward.