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Chemnitz: Portrait of a city shaken by anti-foreigner riots

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Chemnitz: Portrait of a city shaken by anti-foreigner riots
Anti-migrant protesters hold German flags during a demonstration in Chemnitz on September 1st 2018. Photo: DPA
12:23 CEST+02:00
The Saxony state elections, where the AfD is expected to make big gains, take place a year after anti-foreigner protests broke out in Chemnitz. The Local found out how the city is trying to recover.

In the four and a half years Klaudio lived in Chemnitz, one incident he felt was racist sticks in his mind.

“I was with friends from Mexico and Turkey and we went to a club,” the 28-year-old graduate from Albania says. “They asked us for ID; we showed ID and they didn’t let us in because I was Albanian. They said: ‘No, we don’t allow Albanians here.’”

That incident at a well-known hip-hop club in the city was about two and a half years ago. It was an “ugly thing,” and something Klaudio hadn’t experienced in the city before although he’d felt tension.

Klaudio, who recently graduated from Chemnitz Technische Universität (Technical University) with a Masters in computer science, describes Chemnitz as "50/50". Half the time people in the city are decent, but there’s also a darker side. “There are people here who don’t really like internationals,” he says.

That underlying tension against people with a migrant background blew up last August.

They were “horrible protests”, says Klaudio, who used to live in Chemnitz city centre but has recently moved to the state of Hesse for a job. He recalls feeling a bit vulnerable as his phone buzzed with emails and texts from friends and his university, advising him to stay at home, “because everybody who didn’t look like a German was being attacked".

He stayed indoors, preferring to catch up on TV shows and message his friends. 

READ ALSO: Weekend Wanderlust - From communism to Christmas, tracing history in Chemnitz

Violent demos 

The unrest began on August 26th, 2018 when a German man of Cuban heritage, 35-year-old carpenter Daniel Hillig, was stabbed to death during a festival to mark the city’s 875th anniversary.

It resulted in people taking to the streets, many carrying Germany flags and some making Nazi salutes, in protests against immigration.

Violent demonstrations where footage appeared to show extremists chasing after non-white people grabbed headlines around the world, marking Chemnitz as a neo-Nazi stronghold where foreigners are unwelcome. 

The events almost toppled the coalition government in Berlin, as politicians questioned if “Hetzjagd” - the hunting down of foreigners had actually taken place.

A demonstration in Chemnitz featuring far-right groups on September 1st 2018. Photo: DPA

A court in Dresden found that Alaa Sheikhi, 24, from Syria, together with an Iraqi man, known as Farhad A who is still at large, stabbed Hillig to death in the early hours of August 26th 2018.

On August 22nd, just under a year later, Sheikhi was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nine and a half years in jail after a trial held in Dresden.

Klaudio recalls how a fellow student at his university from a non-German background was targeted during that time.

“He was from Pakistan or Syria, I can’t remember exactly. He was coming out of a supermarket and these neo-Nazis attacked him,” says Klaudio. “There were also a lot of similar stories. Luckily I didn’t face any of them.”

But for all that, he feels international students were better prepared and had information on how to deal with it. “It was a tougher time for the refugees,” he says.

Since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept an influx of asylum seekers and migrants at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, Germany has become increasingly polarized.

It’s led to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) entering the Bundestag in 2017 as well as state governments. This year the party is expected to make big gains in the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, where elections take place on September 1st, exactly a year after the protests. 

There's also a vote in the nearby state of Thuringia on October 27th.

Stronghold of the AfD

Chemnitz is one of three larger cities within Saxony, along with the state capital Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz. The state has a diverse landscape, with smaller cities like Bautzen and Görlitz (known as Görliwood thanks to its starring role in Hollywood movies like Inglorious Basterds), and beautiful nature regions like the Ore Mountains.

But extremism has bubbled away under the surface, especially in recent years.

It is home of the Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) movement which began in Dresden in 2014, when a group of locals marched to protest what they saw as an encroaching dilution of German identity through immigrants.

Pegida demonstrations still take place every Monday involving around 2,000 people, says Dresden-based political scientist Werner Patzelt. 

“These are things that are still going on without being noticed very much by the public,” he says to point out that the protests haven't stopped even though they are currently not on the front pages of newspapers. 

Saxony last held elections in August 2014 where Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) won with 40% of the vote, and entered into a coalition with the centre-left SPD.

Angela Merkel visited Chemnitz in November 2018 to talk to residents following the protests. Photo: DPA

Since then, Saxony has emerged as a stronghold of the AfD, which won the highest percentage of the state's votes both in the 2017 federal elections and in the 2019 EU election in Germany.

Patzelt predicts the AfD will score an “impressive result” in the state election and reach a close second place after the CDU.

But surveys suggest the party could do even better. A recent poll conducted by Emnid for Bild am Sonntag showed the AfD on top among respondents in eastern Germany with 23 percent support, followed closely by the CDU with 22 percent.

Those voting for the AfD “no longer want to vote for the conservatives because they feel betrayed, unprotected and they feel they are being neglected,” says Patzelt. 

“Regardless of whether this is true or not, this is a widespread feeling.”

It's a “protest vote against the Christian Democrats”, Merkel and her policies, he adds. These voters want to see the party take a harder stance against immigration.

'Dare you to vote for us, Saxony'

With election posters that say: "for our future" and "dare you, Saxony", the AfD is appealing for first-time voters to choose them. What do locals have to lose? is the message. 

Tino Schneegass, spokesman for the AfD in Chemnitz tells The Local the election campaign for the AfD is progressing well. "We are hoping for a positive election result and want to see the AfD as the strongest force in Saxony," he says.

A post by the AfD in Saxony on Facebook showing election posters. 

When asked by The Local why he thought people protested last year, Schneegass says it stemmed from residents feeling neglected by the government.

The German media landscape was filled with negative stories last summer, about asylum seekers connected with offences “such as robbery, rape, but also identity theft, social benefits and the like,” says Schneegass. 

Then Daniel Hillig's death in Chemnitz sparked “spontaneous street protests" as locals felt authorities "at all levels" were ignoring problems and failing to make any changes or take action.

However, according to Schneegass, structural hostility towards foreigners “does not exist in Chemnitz”.

“We have a technical university with a lot of foreign students, who have a good understanding of everyday life  and are integrated,” says Schneegass.

“In this respect, foreigners who adhere to the law are always welcome in our city. A certain percentage of xenophobic people exist in Chemnitz as is the case in other cities. These people form a minority.”

Tension 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall

On paper, Chemintz is in good shape. Unemployment has fallen by around 50 percent since reunification, to about 6 percent.

Yet eastern Germany’s population continues to drop. A recent study on economic history by the Dresden Branch of the ifo Institute found the number of people living in eastern states has fallen back to a level last seen in 1905, while more people now live in the regions that used to make up West Germany than ever before in history.

Benjamin Gruner, 30, who was born around 30km away from Chemnitz in the former East Germany but has lived in Chemnitz since 2013, says there is still a lot of tension in the east stemming from the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened 30 years ago this November.

“After the Wall came down, people were promised that everything would become better,” says Gruner, a self-described creative as well as a project manager of art and cultural initiatives, when we meet in a cafe in Kassberg, a plush part of Chemnitz.

“But the reality was that for some of them it wasn’t like this. In the GDR (German Democratic Republic) these people felt more comfortable.”

Gruner believes that labour market reforms, which included the controversial Hartz IV unemployment benefits, contributed to the feeling that Germans were being let down by their government.

These low paid jobs and short-term employment contracts of the “Agenda 2010” measures may have led to a drop in unemployment rates but it's also led to many Germans struggling to make ends meet.

“The whole industrialization process and now globalization was far too much for them,” he says. “These are the people you can now see on the streets (demonstrating)."

Add to that the influx of refugees and migrants to Germany who appeared to be receiving support from Merkel and the state, anger errupted further.

For Gruner, the demonstrations weren’t a shock.

“Everybody in eastern Germany was expecting something to happen,” he says. Hostility to foreigners has come in waves in the past, he adds,  mentioning the Pegida demos.

He says the unrest in Chemnitz in August last year was “like a breaking point.”.

“It was like a bomb that exploded,” he says. “ People went on the streets thinking, ‘that’s my moment, I have to take this moment.'"

Then the “right-wing parties and extremists saw this as a chance to step in”, adds Gruner, suggesting that parties like the AfD have capitalized on this anger. 

'We are still more'

But life goes on in Chemnitz, and the majority of residents want to change the perception with events like the recent Kosmos festival. 

Held on July 4th this year, the sprawling event brought 50,000 people together and showcased live acts and discussions in the city.  It was inspired by the #WirSindMehr (there is more to us) concert in Chemnitz held on September 3rd last year, which attracted 65,000 people. 

Gruner, who helped to organize Kosmos, said: “The idea was to continue the spirit and the vibe of #WirSindMehr."

Under the motto “#WirBliebenMehr (we are still more) the festival was “very successful”, says Gruner.

The Kosmos festival took place on July 4th 2019 in Chemnitz. Photo: DPA

“Of course, it’s just one day of action but I think it provides a lot of energy and motivation for work that needs to be done in the future."

Gruner says a wide variety of people, took part in the event, and he hopes those who protested last year also joined in to hear from different perspectives. 

"This is a city with a lot of potential and interesting players," he says.

SEE ALSO: How Chemnitz is using art to show there's more to eastern Germany than far-right extremism

Along with art, music and restaurants, Chemnitz boasts a fascinating history, such as the narrative of the city’s name, which comes from the river Chemnitz.

In 1953 the GDR changed the name to Karl-Marx-Stadt. The philosopher had no connection to the town, but the GDR wanted to mark the 135th anniversary of Marx's birth as well as the 70th anniversary of his death – and it was a nod to Chemnitz' industrial heritage.

Following a vote after reunification the town changed the name back to Chemnitz, but a huge Karl Marx head still stands in the centre of the city.

Anja Richter was born in Karl-Marx-Stadt but today is a proud Chemnitzer.

She was horrified by the demonstrations last year, but is trying to work with people to change things and encourage diversity.

Last year Richter started a programme through the museum she works at called Art and Democracy with the hope of bringing together people from different backgrounds.

“This is my focus in the museum,” she says. During a recent exhibition she organized events, such as an inter-religious discussion involving a Rabbi, an Imam and a Priest. “We had three different religions with everyone discussing what art is and what it means to them,” she says.

After that Richter organized a concert and a drumming workshop for people from different backgrounds. That was followed by a discussion where refugees and migrants, including the owner of a restaurant in Chemnitz who was attacked by neo-Nazis, were invited to talk.

Richter describes Chemnitz as an “unfinished city”, with potential but with a lot of work to do. "To me it’s a horrible situation because I love my city,” she says.

“I want to do lots of things in culture and art and then these idiots come and destroy everything. Chemnitz is now known as somewhere where the Nazis demonstrate every week. 

“Chemnitz is not known as a city with a really impressive historical background that has beautiful museums. But this is also what we have to change now. We have to work.”

Richter is hopeful for the future, not least for her young son who she wants to see grow up in a place without divisions. 

“I want him to have a beautiful home and a tolerant home and an open home,” she says. 

Residents around the famous Karl Marx statue during the Kosmos festival on July 4th 2019. Photo: DPA

Gruner describes Chemnitz as a city with unclaimed spaces that are beneficial to artists or creatives in the same way as places like Leipzig or Berlin were before the waves of gentrification.

But he says the threat of more unrest is still present.

"It’s more relaxed now but nobody knows how it will develop” he adds.

Chemnitz is not known for being a tourist magnet but plenty people from abroad form a bond with the city because of the university. To them, the protests were disturbing.

Poulomi Mukherjee Reddy, an author and writer from New Delhi, India, who studied for a Masters of Science in Chemnitz' Technical University from 2014 to 2016, tells The Local she fell in love with the city because of its friendly and “extremely welcoming” people. 

Reddy says the riots last year, which she watched from her home country, made her feel “really sad”.

“Something inside me felt broken because I’ve known the city very deeply and such an event was not only unexpected but heart-wrenching as it tarnishes the image of the city and those beautiful people who stay there,” she says.

Those demonstrations don’t put her off though, and she is planning to visit again soon. 

“There has been a lot of effort made by the natives and the internationals to come together and start afresh,” she says. 

For Klaudio, Chemnitz is not the sort of place you'd want to make your long-term home.

Klaudio mentions another demo that happened slightly later in September. He says demonstrators were walking right under his window – and the disturbing thing was that “they looked like normal people, not like the neo-Nazis who shout ‘We are the people’”, he says. 

That general anti-foreigner vibe is why many internationals who study in Chemnitz “don’t want to stay” after they finish their studies, adds Klaudio. 

Besides the tension, Klaudio says there are a lot of positive parts to Chemnitz, especially for students. In fact it’s among the top three cheapest university towns for students in Germany, making it more accessible than other places.

People around the campus are friendly, Klaudio says, even if others in Chemnitz aren't.

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