The eastern German city of Chemnitz had, by The New York Times’s account, “never seen anything like” it: Thousands of protesters, led by far-right and neo-Nazi groups, rioting and flashing Nazi salutes in what German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned as an effort to “hunt down” foreigners. But even these massive protests, which broke out last week in Chemnitz in response to the alleged murder of a German man by two immigrants, were dwarfed by a counter-protest in the city on Monday night. “Refugees welcome,” chanted tens of thousands of protesters in direct rebuke to the far-right chants of “foreigners out” that had earlier echoed in the streets.
But the show of solidarity toward refugees occurs in a dark context, in which the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is gaining popularity in polls while stoking fears among some voters that Germany is being overrun by immigrants.
The initial demonstrations erupted after last week’s fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old German man, who was allegedly attacked by two immigrants of Iraqi and Syrian origin. But it soon spiraled far beyond one man’s death. One journalist shared footage of protesters chasing dark-skinned bystanders in targeted attacks, while others showed the crowds chanting “foreigners, get out of our city.” Merkel, in a statement delivered through her spokesperson Monday, condemned the violence as having “nothing in the least to do with sadness for a person or with concern for a city’s cohesion.” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, in a similar rebuke, called on people to “get up off the sofa and speak up” against the neo-Nazi presence, noting that “if the Hitler salute is shown on our streets today once again, it will be a disgrace to our country.” And Germans did appear to answer that call Monday night, with counter-demonstrators drawing an estimated 65,000 attendees to a unity concert, in contrast to the estimated 8,000 who attended the far-right rallies.