Migration and the Far Right: An Interview with German Antifascists on Heidenau

Counter demonstration at Heidenau, Germany
Counter demonstration at Heidenau, Germany

On Friday 21st and Saturday 22nd of August, Germany was shocked to once again witness scenes of large scale rioting against a refugee centre within its borders. The grainy images shot in Heidenau, a small town near to Dresden in the eastern state of Saxony, would seem distressingly familiar for many Germans - echoing a spate of attacks which followed re-unification in 1990. Outbursts of organized racism were thought to be yet another difficult chapter in Germany’s history, but now firmly in the past.  Yet the attack in Heidenau was not an anomaly, an echo of history, in a Germany keen to present itself as tolerant and forward thinking, but rather the latest, and most prominent moment in a series of nationalist and racist actions which has been intensifying in recent years. Whilst national populist street movements have made international news, the intensifying chain of small, isolated attacks  and the growing national chauvinism in center of German politics has not. This chauvinism which expresses itself in the common tropes of a post-crisis European chauvinism: a distrust of migrants and refugees, a fear of Islam, and disgust towards those seen to be “not pulling their weight” in the current economic crisis such as the poor or the “lazy” (which in Germany found their synthesis in the figure of the “Greek fisherman”). Whilst the attacks in Heidenau were roundly condemned by all parties, one need only see the tone which the largest parties and media channels used during this summer’s negotiations with Greece’s Syriza government to realize this national chauvinism runs deeper than relatively small neo-Nazi structures (for a brief example of the language and arguments used, see this video by German comedian Jan Böhmermann). Whilst the implications of this broader shift towards reactionary and chauvinistic politics beyond small right wing structures poses serious questions to antifascists and antiracists, and the left in general, at the moment in Germany antifascist structures are mobilizing to counter the imminent threat of organized right wing activists on the streets.

Here in the UK the British media did not devote much time to covering the Heidenau story, mainly using it as little more a footnote to longer articles discussing the “refugee crisis” – that is, a crisis for the states receiving refugees, not a humanitarian one involving thousands of unnecessary deaths at the borders of an increasingly fortified Europe. The British media’s fairly positive portrayal of Germany – a land of economic success, exciting urban living and quality soccer continues. 

Sarah, a member of TOP Berlin, was one of the antifascists who mobilized to go to Heidenau and physically defend the refugee center in the face of both far right and police aggression. We asked her a few questions about what has been going on in Germany this year.

BL: In brief, could you explain what has happened in Heidenau? Who has participated in the attacks and can we put the responsibility at the feet of organized far right structures alone?

S: In the build up to the attacks, there had been several demonstrations called by the National Democratic Party (a neo-Nazi party in Germany), which had seen up to 500 participants protesting against the building of a center for refugees in Heidenau. The center, by the way, is actually just a big empty hall with 2 showers and 2 toilets for 600 people. These are horrible livings conditions, even without Nazis threatening your life. After a protest last Friday, organized fascists tried to reach the (then) uninhabited centre. The mob consisted of organized Nazis, as well as drunk locals who clashed with the police throughout the night: building barricades, firing fireworks and attacking both the police and the asylum home in an organized way. The attacks lasted for two nights with Saturday being much more intense with 30 cops injured and clashes between Nazis and antifascists.

Whilst the cops did manage to prevent the Nazis from reaching the refugee centre the situation was so intense that many antifascists struggled to even leave their cars safely. Among the mob were a lot of locals who tolerated, or even supported the attacks so it is hard to say if it was the far right structures that are responsible for initiating the violence but it is clear, that most of the citizens of the village jumped right into the situation because they share the same racism and hate towards refugees.

BL: This attack has not just come from nowhere. Could you explain a little about the situation regarding national chauvinism and the far right in Germany today?

S: Nationalist and racist Ideologies have been virulent within the German population historically but we can see that since 2013 the situation has worsened. In 2013 demonstrations against the “Heime” (refugee centers) began. These usually see a mixture of organized right wing activists alongside unorganized, angry German citizens. Hellersdorf, a suburb in the east of Berlin where TOP is active, was amongst the first to see these forms of demonstration.  At the same time attacks and physical violence against refugees, migrants and the centers they are being housed in are now taking place on an almost daily basis. Heidenau is not the first example of an organized racist attack here in Germany this year!

These developments need to be placed in the context of an increasing number of people seeking refuge in Germany. Public awareness of this is growing however there is a definite process of these refugees being split into “deserving refugees” (from places such as Syria) and “non-deserving refugees” (say from the Balkans and Eastern Europe). The German state’s current policy of housing these refugees in shoddy, repurposed facilities in small towns, many in the east, is then providing the pretext for a host of local anti-refugee protests. The hatred of refugees correlates perfectly well with the general tendency of a rise in reactionary ideologies in times of crises, which is seemingly the only possible answer in unstable times many people can find.

As well as this popular movement against refugees we should also mention the huge PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident – a street based anti-Islam movement most prominent in eastern Germany) demonstrations in Germany and elsewhere. Some of these demonstrations saw up to 25’000 people on the streets, ostensibly against “militant Islam”, but in actual fact against a variety of perceived threats to Germany – with migration being one of them. The large and violent demonstrations of HoGeSa (Hooligans against Salafism) last year in western Germany is another example of a growing popular chauvinism.

BL: Is this solely an East German problem?

S: No, it is not. This has become quite clear. Although the larger and more aggressive demonstrations take place in eastern Germany, nightly arsons and small actions are happening more and more in western Germany. Also the intensity and size of the HoGeSa demonstrations in Cologne and Hannover last year show that western Germany is not anywhere near being a nice place. Still, one cannot deny the support and acceptance neo-Nazis, parties like the NPD and racist movements garner more easily in the east of Germany, from both the people and the government. This makes it even more difficult to create and support antifascist actions and to stand in their way, literally.

BL: How is this summer’s refugee crisis being reported and discussed in Germany?

S: The fact that the number of refugees arriving in Germany is at a particular high is being discussed in quite different ways. There is great support for helping refugees from Syria but there is a delegitimization of “economic refugees” (who flee only due to the weak economies in their countries) and the most urgent demand seems to be to deport those as soon as possible. There is a huge difference in people’s approaches to the changing situation, from welcoming parties, support, and protection; to the racist mob who want to get rid of them by any means necessary. This is also mirrored in the media, whose coverage is much more differentiated than it was in the 90s, sometimes critical and smart but often racist and dangerous. Especially the racist labeling of refugees as criminals or as being inherently lazy has found its echo in the platforms and calls of the racist insurrections.

However, the countless numbers of drowned refugees in the Mediterranean and those dying at the EU-Borders are actually being discussed as a humanitarian crisis. But, the blame is being laid on inefficient border-control and criminal traffickers and smugglers. There is no discussion about creating safe possibilities to flee dangerous states. There is a clear incentive for the state to treat the refugees as badly as possible and to deny them the most basic human rights to make them leave Germany. This often then leads to civil society stepping in: people organize themselves, donate, give free German lessons, provide places to sleep etc. This charity work is then supported by the ministries, since they don’t need to pay volunteers, whose work would otherwise actually need to be provided by the state.

The racist attacks and arson at the moment can be used by the state as an easy example of how Germany “can’t deal with this many refugees” and other EU countries need to take them. So whilst these images of over-extension are not totally produced on purpose by the state, they are helpful. It’s a complex dynamic that is hard to analyze.

BL: Once again the police have been accused by some of not being as pro-active as they could have been in protecting the refugees, with some going as far to claim there is blatant support for the attacks from the police. With the investigation into the Verfassungsschutz’ (German state constitutional police) tacit support of the NSU (National socialist Underground – a Nazi terror structure responsible for several assassinations, bank robberies and bombings) still ongoing, could you comment on the police’s behaviour in Heidenau?

S: The police presence in Heidenau varied. Despite the large scale public order situation, the police took the strategic decision to protect the refugee center alone. The racist mob was allowed to do as they pleased, no one was arrested and there were no consequences except for one use of tear gas. The policing recalls that in Rostock/Liechtenhangen in 1992, where a large racist mob also attacked a refugee center whilst the police refused to escalate their tactics or call in sufficient reinforcements.

In contrast to this, the antifascist demonstration in Heidenau was accompanied by a huge number of police and ended brutally with antifascists being pushed back to the train station really quick. Several activists were hurt or injured by pepper spray and physical attacks. It clearly shows, who the real enemy for the police in Saxony is.

On the other hand, from a state-critical perspective, the demand for more state intervention and police presence is difficult and one should also try not to drift into conspiracy theories. But most of all, the almost unbelievable ties of the police and the Verfassungsschutz to the terrorism of the NSU and the ongoing ignorance towards and acceptance of Nazi-violence and other right-wing activities clearly show that there is a huge tendency, especially but not only in Saxony to be blind on the right eye (German phrase – to ignore far right activity).

BL: What has the response been from civil society and from the Left?

S: The politicians have condemned the attacks but with a focus on rejecting any violence, whether from the left wing antifacists and antiracists or the right. Civil society does not really exist in Heidenau, or to put it in a correct way: they are the ones who are currently throwing stones at the refugee center. You have an 18% NPD vote there and a lot of antifascist activists reported that there is massive hostility towards refugees and foreigners in the whole village.

Left-wing and antifascist activists held a strong and powerful demonstration on the Sunday after the riots. Others blocked and stopped a bus that was supposed to take Refugees from Leipzig to the center in Heidenau shortly after the attacks.

Tomorrow there are plans to have a big antifascist demonstration in Dresden, with a nationwide mobilization. All in all one can say, the left is reacting quite slowly, maybe because there is a lot of fear and uncertainty about what to do. But there is, of course, rage and the clear feeling that this has to stop!

BL: What effect has this attack had on the wider far right scene?

S: That is hard to tell. The fact that there is little possibility of countering those attacks means in the long turn it will strengthen Nazi structures and push them forward. The arsons and attacks since last weekend have gained a lot more attention than the ones during the previous month. On the one hand that is good and helpful, because media attention can help mediate antifascist interventions and can help explain the urgency of the situation. On the other hand, it is a success story for fascists that their actions are known and written about and getting so much attention in the media. This situation needs strong and decisive antifascist action as an answer, to stop pogroms before they even start. So in the end I would say: it is up to us now!

Authors of the article

is a member of Plan C, an anti-capitalist organisation based in the UK. Plan C and “…ums Ganze!” are members of Beyond Europe, an exchange platform for European anti-capitalist groups.

is a member of TOP Berlin, which is part of “…ums Ganze!” an anti-capitalist alliance currently consisting of 11 groups based in Germany and Austria. “…ums Ganze!”