Real and perceived xenophobia on the rise in Germany
Increasing attacks against asylum seekers in Germany in recent months have raised fears that a new wave of racism and xenophobia is about to sweep the nation.
Berlin-based human rights organisation ProAsyl has reported 47 attacks against asylum seekers were recorded in the first four months of the year, which it attributed to “a dramatic increase in growing far-right populist sentiment in society”.
And suspected neo-Nazis also set fire to a new refugee shelter in the eastern town of Troeglitz on April 4, almost three months after a similar attack against asylum homes in the south-eastern German town of Vorra.
German Social Democrat politician Eva Hoegl warned the developments may lead to the return of early 1990s-style xenophobia.
“I am concerned that the atmosphere in Germany could be like early 90s again,” Hoegl told local media, referring to dozens of xenophobic riots and arson attacks which took place in the country between 1991 and 1996 and claimed the lives of at least 18 asylum seekers and immigrants, and injured dozens more.
Far-right extremists carried out 162 attacks against asylum seekers and their houses in 2014, according to police records, almost three times higher than in 2012 when police recorded 24 attacks by far-right extremists against refugees and their shelters.
There were just 58 attacks in 2013.
Hajo Funke, a professor of political science and a far-right expert at Berlin’s Free University, expressed grave concern over the increase in an interview with The Anadolu Agency on Friday.
He said: “I have similar concerns. There are similarities to the early 90s.”
“But there are also stark differences to that situation. The public and politicians are today more aware of the problems, of the challenges.”
The latest arson attack against a refugee shelter in Troeglitz, a small town in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, came after weeks-long protests organised by far-right demonstrators to block plans for housing about 40 asylum seekers in the town.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government and opposition parties immediately condemned the attack and various public demonstrations were held in the town in favour of housing refugees.
But the implementation of the original plan to host refugees in May had to be postponed due to the amount of damage the refugee shelter has suffered at the hands of the arsonists and amid security concerns in the town.
Professor Funke said that the anti-refugee campaign and demonstrations conducted by the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD, in Troeglitz and various other towns had played a major role in recent attacks.
He said it was important for the authorities in Troeglitz not to retreat from sheltering refugees.
“It’s a fight about decency, a fight about tolerance and mutual acknowledgement,” Professor Funke said.
Running concurrently with the spike in attacks on asylum seekers has been the rise of the Pegida movement – a group which opposes multiculturalism and migration programs in Germany.
Germany’s political establishment has responded to Pegida in loud, clear and swift fashion.
Federal president Joachim Gauck called Pegida’s followers ‘Chaoten’ – a term usually reserved for football hooligans and violent demonstrators on the far left – and used his traditional Christmas address to affirm Germany’s commitment to welcoming migrants of all kinds.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was forthright in her televised Christmas address to the nation, urging Germans not to join demonstrations organised by Pegida.
The group has its roots in a Facebook campaign originating in Dresden under the name Peaceful Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West and was triggered by a rally by supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation in many Western countries, including in Australia and Germany, but which has gained admirers recently because of its military support in the fight against the Islamic State.
For months the group ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident’ – under its German acronym – demonstrated against supposed “foreign infiltration” of German society through Islam.
The movement also campaigned against numerous other phenomena: against asylum applicants, against Germany’s and Europe’s Russia-policy and against the media.
The largest Pegida demonstration included 18,000 participants and took place at the end of December in Dresden.
Organisers and supporters of the Pegida movement consider themselves a “citizen’s movement” and publicly distance themselves from right-wing extremists. They rely on the “Christian idea of man” but church leaders accuse them of “racism veiled by religion”.
Pegida uses fear of Islamic terror to spread general sentiment against refugees and foreigners. The alliance itself speaks of a defamation campaign.
But Pegida was only incorporated as an association in December, with its founder Lutz Bachmann as its chairperson. Only twelve people have so far been identified as actively involved in the organisation.
And Swinburne Institute for Social ResearchProfessor of History Klaus Neumann says the group is not yet as influential as many suggest.
“Considering the barrage of fire the organisation has drawn, non-Germans could be forgiven for assuming it is the nucleus of a powerful new party on the far right, a kind of German equivalent of the Front National, which won almost a quarter of the French votes at last year’s European election,” Professor Neumann said, writing for The Conversation.
“Or that Pegida is a particularly violent movement, whose followers torch mosques and hostels for asylum seekers. Far from it: Pegida does have a reasonably strong following in Dresden, the capital city of Saxony and the second-largest city (not counting Berlin) in former East Germany, but outside Saxony it has attracted little support. And its leaders have not condoned violence, nor – publicly, at least – peddled extremist views. In fact, what’s remarkable is not so much Pegida’s strength or the depth of racism expounded by its leaders, as the backlash it has attracted.”
“Pegida’s official positions are comparatively innocuous, and hardly explain the outrage and fear the movement has prompted,” he said.
But Professor Neumann warns that sentiments reflected by the rise of Pegida may become an issue in Germany.
“Pegida represents people who have every reason to feel marginalised. In today’s Germany, their ideas are increasingly anachronistic. That won’t stop them. And it won’t prevent people from embracing these ideas to justify violence: against Muslims, against asylum seekers or against those seen to be responsible for their marginalisation, including journalists or politicians.
“Last year, racist violence, including thirty-five incidents of arson in hostels for asylum seekers, has been on the rise. Saxony has seen a good deal of that violence; it recorded the comparatively largest number of racially motivated assaults on refugees.”
AMES Senior Journalist