Der Spiegel April 07, 2015 – 06:06 PM
Events this past weekend in Germany have left many worried that a dismaying wave of xenophobia may be returning to the country. Early Saturday morning, one or more perpetrators broke into an apartment building in the town of Tröglitz in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. The building was being remodelled to accomodate 40 refugees starting in May. Although nobody was injured, the arson attack left the building badly damaged and uninhabitable. The local prosecutor and other officials believe it may have been a politically motivated crime.
The act clearly shook former town mayor Markus Nierth. “It’s terrible and I’m sad,” he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “People are really upset here. Many are angry and know exactly what this fire will do to the city’s reputation. I’m assuming this was arson — and if this proves to be true, it will be a disgrace for Tröglitz, putting it in the same ranks as Mölln and Hoyerswerda.”Nierth is referring to the sites of two anti-foreigner attacks that are infamous in Germany. In November 1992, a Turkish grandmother and her two granddaughters were killed when right-wing extremists set fire to their home in Mölln, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. One year earlier, in the town of Hoyerwerda — located in the eastern German state of Saxony — far-right mobs attacked hostels for foreign contract workers and asylum-seekers. Now many people are wondering whether the Tröglitz attack marks the return of early-1990s-style xenophobia.
Only days before the Tröglitz attack, officials in the city of 2,700 had held a town-hall meeting to discuss plans to house the refugees. The meeting attracted 500 people, including a senior member of the far-right, neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). It also came less than a month after Nierth, the town’s former volunteer mayor — who had campaigned for greater tolerance and acceptance of refugees — stepped down. Neighbors and members of the NPD had threatened to march to Nierth’s home, and he had received death threats, sparking outrage across Germany.
At the meeting, one local resident could be heard shouting out, “A lot of money is given to foreigners, but we aren’t given anything. They get apartments and everything covered from A to Z. Every damned thing.”
‘This Is a National Problem’
Those kinds of views, unfortunately, can be found well beyond Tröglitz. On Tuesday, Reiner Haseloff, the governor of Saxony-Anhalt warned that this weekend’s attack shouldn’t be seen as an isolated incident. “This is a national problem,” the conservative politician told the daily Die Welt. “We need to address these unspeakable acts at the national political level.”
On Tuesday, officials at the state Interior Ministry in Saxony-Anhalt said that now only 10 asylum-seekers would move into Tröglitz in May and that they would be housed in private homes. The total figure would then later increase to the original 40 allocated to the town.
Given Tröglitz’ socio-economic problems, locals’ anti-foreigner sentiment isn’t entirely surprising. The town was first established in the 1930s to provide housing for workers at a local coal mine, but after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the mine closed and some 4,500 jobs disappeared. Many local residents today have no work or opportunities. Younger people have vacated the town in droves, leaving behind mostly older residents.
This forms an effective recruiting backdrop for populist or far-right parties like the neo-Nazi NPD, whose officials are active in the area. For weeks now, far-right voices have been trying to turn public sentiment against the asylum-seekers. But other reasons, including recent changes in the German political climate, could have helped spur the attack as well.
A Sharp Increase in Refugees
Like many European Union countries, Germany has seen a sharp upsurge in the number of asylum-seekers arriving inside its borders in recent years. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees estimates that around 250,000 refugees will arrive in Germany this year, an increase of 80,000 over 2013. Many come from Syria and the Balkan states. Although responsibility for asylum-seekers is shared by the federal, state and local governments, this growth has put a massive strain on many municipalities, which have struggled to come up with suitable accommodations.
This, in turn, has fed the rise of a vocal anti-refugee movement in various parts of Germany. The examples are myriad. There’s the Dresden-based Pegida movement, a campaign against the alleged Islamization of Saxony, an eastern state that has a foreign population of only 2.5 percent. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) has been winning seats in parliament in one state after the next. The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, long ago began flirting with populist lines like, “We’re not the world’s welfare office,” that could have been lifted straight from the NPD.
A Surge in Crimes against Refugees
The rise of these populist ideas may have created an environment that allows these attacks on asylum-seeker hostels and refugees to take place. The federal government reported there had been 150 crimes by right-wing extremists directed on German asylum-seeker hostels in 2014, a figure three times greater than in the previous year. During the last quarter of the year alone, perpetrators committed 67 crimes. The crimes range from everything from sedition to attacks with weapons or incendiary objects.
“The number of attacks is rising significantly across the country,” Saxony-Anhalt Governor Haselhoff told Die Welt. “Tröglitz is happening all over the place.”
Christine Lüders, director of Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, “Tröglitz is happening everywhere, but sometimes not as obviously. We cannot tolerate right-wing radical violence like that which happened in Tröglitz in our society.” She then warned, “First the homes will burn and then the people.”
A Slew of Incidents
There have been a slew of anti-refugee attacks across Germany in recent weeks.
- On April 3, two Egyptian asylum-seekers in Wismar in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were the subjects of what is believed to have been an anti-foreigner attack. Police stated that eight as-yet-unidentified men shouted anti-foreigner slogans as they harassed the refugees.
- One month earlier, on March 7, an unknown assailant flooded a building in Malterdingen in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg that was being prepared as an accomodation for asylum-seekers. The perpetrators broke into the house, unscrewed drain pipes and turned on two faucets. Police said the incident caused tens of thousands of euros in damage and the local mayor said he believed the attack was xenophobically motivated.
- On Feb. 9, 2015, in the city of Escheburg in Schleswig-Holstein, a burning gas can was thrown into a duplex on the day that a family of six refugees from Iraq was supposed to move in. Because the house was still empty, nobody was injured in the incident. A 38-year-old man who lived next door with his wife and daughter — and who had allegedly earlier critized the plan to house the refugees — confessed to the crime. His trial is expected to begin in May. If convicted, he could face at least one year in prison for arson.
- On Feb. 6, in Dortmund in North Rhine-Westphalia, right-wing extremists carrying torches gathered in front of an asylum-seekers’ hostel, shouting anti-foreigner epithets. Some also set off fireworks.
- Between Jan. 16 and 17, perpetrators in Porta Westfalica in North Rhine-Westphalia attacked an asylum-seekers home. Police reported that around six men had fired paintball guns at the building and shouted racist epithets.
- On Jan. 27, in Wassenberg in North Rhine-Westphalia, seven Germans attacked three North African refugees with clubs. The masked attackers shouted racist insults during the attacks. One of the victims was injured so badly that he had to be taken to the hospital.
- On Dec. 12, in the town of Vorra in Bavaria, police believe right-wing extremist perpetrators set fire to a guest house with a barn and a renovated apartment building. The perpetrators painted two swastikas on a neighboring building and the message “no asylum-seekers in Vorra.” Around 70 refugees were originally meant to move into the building, which is being renovated to house them. Police still haven’t found the culprits.
Some Residents Show Solidarity with Refugees
In some cases, local residents have protested against xenophobia. In Vorra, 350 people attended a demonstration after the attack. And on Saturday, 350 people turned up at a rally against xenophobia in Tröglitz.Former Mayor Nierth said many local residents had been mad at themselves for not attending last week’s town hall meeting on the refugees and expressing their own opinions. “Most residents of Tröglitz are friendly,” he said. “We’re not a place that is home to Nazi sentiment, even if it looks that way.” Together with a local priest, Nierth has created a citizen’s intiative that aims to foster a welcoming culture for refugees.
So far, the events of 2015 have been anything but welcoming. In a Tweet posted on Sunday, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) cited figures from the Amadeu Antonio Foundating indicating that there have already been 20 attacks in 2015 against accommodations for asylum-seekers. “The bitter truth,” he wrote, “is that Tröglitz is only the tip of the iceberg.” In an earlier Tweet, he wrote: “We need to continue to make clear that we welcome refugees.”
Reported by Christina Hebel