Thousands of people gather at an open air “anti-racism concert” in Chemnitz, Germany on September 3, 2018.Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

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.

Yet the far-right rallies have also found support within the government itself. The AfD, which is the German parliament’s third-largest party,  appeared to cheer the public backlash against immigration—an issue that the party used to gain considerable support during the country’s general election last year. “When the state can’t protect its citizens, the citizens take to the street and protect themselves,” Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD lawmaker, said in a tweet last week. Alexander Gauland, co-leader of AfD, justified the riots in an interview with German newspaper Die Welt as a “normal” reaction to the stabbing.  

The riots in Chemnitz were the most dramatic manifestation yet of an anti-immigration backlash that has been building for some time, and that found particular focus in Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome more than 1 million asylum-seekers into the country. A number of high-profile crimes involving asylum seekers, such as the murder of a 15-year-old girl in southwestern Germany last year (her boyfriend, believed to be an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, was sentenced on Monday to eight-and-a-half years for the murder) have helped stoke anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as opposition to Merkel’s refugee policy. Such opposition, as my colleague Krishnadev Calamur reported, comes despite the fact that asylum applications and crime in Germany are both at historic lows.

But the statistics haven’t consoled the Germans who remain concerned over crimes being committed by immigrants, nor have they hampered support for the AfD, which has capitalized on those fears. This is particularly true in places like Chemnitz and elsewhere in the eastern German state of Saxony, where the number of immigrants remains low relative to the rest of the country. The AfD beat out every other party in Saxony in last year’s general election, and a recent poll shows the AfD’s support ahead of next year’s state election stands at 25 percent, just three points behind Merkel’s ruling Conservatives.

Andreas Zick, a researcher who studies extremist groups and conflict at Bielefeld University, told me many of these attitudes date as far back as the reunification period in the 1990s. “In the former east, a lot of people didn’t see any improvement and they started to focus on the risk and fears,” he said, noting that the populist right in Germany has proven effective in stoking those fears. “The right-wing populists did a very clever campaign saying that society lost control of immigration—Merkel lost control.”

Though there has been a historic presence of neo-Nazi groups in Saxony, what happened in Chemnitz was largely unprecedented—and not just because of the scale of the riots. “What is interesting about this is you obviously had a mix of people on the far-right side,” Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist at the University of Kiel, told me, noting the confluence of AfD supporters with more extreme groups such as the far-right, anti-Islam nationalist movement Pegida. Though the AfD has attempted to distance itself from groups like Pegida in the past, some within the party have called for making common cause with them in order to mobilize more supporters. In Chemnitz, Dirusus said, “it seems the radical wing of the AfD won out.” Indeed, one of AfD’s lawmakers, Björn Höcke, was pictured last week marching alongside Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann.

Though the AfD may be emboldened by its boost in the polls following the events in Chemnitz, it might still encounter trouble elsewhere. This week, the AfD has faced calls by some of its political opponents for the party to be put under domestic surveillance for its links to radical groups. Although such surveillance has been imposed on two of AfD’s youth groups over concerns of right-wing extremism, calls to impose surveillance on the entire party have been rejected by Interior Minister Hoorst Seehofer, who cited insufficient grounds for such a move.

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