So what happened?
After news broke that a carpenter (Daniel Hillig) in his thirties had been stabbed, the German media was quick to report the nationalities of those involved, emphasising the fact that a German had been killed by a Syrian and an Iraqi. This has subsequently attracted much local scrutiny. A childhood friend of the victim claimed that the protests might not have started had it been known that the victim was half-German and half-Cuban. She said: “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, but the media should describe who died, and what skin colour he had, because I don’t think they’d be doing all this if they knew.”
The killing played into a far-right narrative which claims that crime has risen with an influx of immigrants, despite German police statistics revealing that crime is not disproportionally committed by foreigners, and has decreased in Saxony recently.
The protests escalated once news spread on social media and quickly took on a distinctly xenophobic tone with Nazi salutes, violence towards those of foreign appearance, and bottles, fireworks, and stones thrown.
The AfD MP Markus Frohnmaier encouraged the protests, tweeting: “If the state is no longer to protect citizens then 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!”
What’s the response been?
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
This week 4,500 anti-migrant marchers were met with 3,500 pro-migrant anti-fascist marchers. Moreover, on Monday 50,000 attended an anti-racism concert in Chemnitz, perhaps showing that the extremism is limited to a small section of the population.
The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted in support of the pro-migrant response, saying: “The Second World War started 79 years ago. Germany caused unimaginable suffering in Europe. If once again people are parading today in the streets making Nazi salutes, our past history forces us to resolutely defend democracy.”
How much far right sentiment is there in East Germany?
In an August opinion poll carried out in Saxony, Alternative for Germany polled at 25% – second only to the CDU. The AfD did well in elections to the Bundestag last year with 12.6% of the vote, and it received its largest percentage of votes from Saxony.
The anti-migrant movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has also held weekly marches in Dresden since Merkel’s new immigration policy in 2015. The biggest marches attracted 20,000 demonstrators – not all were extremists, but all marched under the old Nazi slogan of “Lügenpresse” (lying press).
In a 2016 survey, 40% of voters polled in Saxony thought muslims should be banned from immigrating to Germany, and 69% agreed with the statement ‘Most Muslims living here do not agree with our values’.
Why is there more pronounced far-right sentiment in the East than in the West?
While migrants make up around 25% of the population in West Germany, they only account for between 4 and 9% in the East excluding Berlin. As such, it is clear that the hostile responses in the East cannot be simply explained by numbers. In Chemnitz itself, foreigners account for 8.9% of the population, below the national figure of 14.9%.
A German cabinet paper in 2016 raised concerns about racism in the former East – rates of violence motivated by xenophobia are far higher than in the West with 2014 showing that 47% of hate crime perpetrated in the East although only a fifth of Germany’s population lives there. There are key social differences between East and West – 40% of East Germans are working class compared to 20% in the West. Unemployment is far higher.
East Germans were in part incubated from a true reckoning with Germany’s fascist past. School textbooks blamed Nazism on the excesses of free market capitalism; racism was seen as a West German phenomenon.
East Germany is an extremely homogeneous society – 1.2% of the population before the fall of the Wall was foreign. Unsurprisingly, very, very few ‘Westies’ sought asylum in the Socialist East. That picture hasn’t changed much over the last few decades. In 2011, the foreign population in the East remained below 5%.