The Small-Town Disputes That Fuel Germany’s Far Right

A municipal disagreement illustrates Germany’s polarized debate about open societies, tolerance, and integration.

Two AfD supporters wearing the party's vests sit in front of an AfD sign.
Supporters attend an AfD campaign event ahead of last weekend's state elections. (Michele Tantussi / Reuters)

GÖRLITZ, Germany—Near the center of this picturesque city on Germany’s eastern border with Poland sits an idyllic park square called Wilhelmsplatz. A large field of lush grass is ringed on all sides by colorful, carefully manicured flowers; benches line the edges of the square, and a large memorial occupies one end. On a nice afternoon, families sit on blankets, their children laughing and playing together; nearby, people lounge on benches reading or listening to music.

But recently residents of the stately houses surrounding the park have complained that it’s become too loud and unruly at night. Young people drink and blast music past 10 p.m., they say; families let their children play late into the evening, and kids kick soccer balls through the perfectly maintained flowers.

The kerfuffle over Wilhelmsplatz sounds like a typical local dispute—at least until you learn that some residents blamed the city’s small community of refugees and immigrants for the disruptions. As a result, Wilhelmsplatz, and Görlitz more broadly, have become a kind of symbol of the polarized debate about open societies, tolerance, and integration.

On a broader level, what is happening in Görlitz—which just voted 37.8 percent for the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)—is similar to the debate that is playing out in cities and towns across eastern Germany. Voters here in Saxony, as well as in neighboring Brandenburg, handed the AfD significant victories in state elections on Sunday: the party won 27.5 percent in Saxony and 22.2 percent in Brandenburg, making them the second-strongest force in both states. On October 27 in Thuringia, another of the five former East German states, the party is also expected to do well.

With Germany preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Görlitz in many ways exemplifies the enduring east-west differences in Germany, not just politically but also socially and economically, that have helped the AfD succeed.

“We know how it is in Dresden. We know how it is in the western German cities,” Sebastian Wippel, the local AfD leader who narrowly lost a race to become Görlitz’s mayor this summer, told me, referring to places with larger immigrant populations. “I don’t need to have that here to know that I don’t want it. I don’t need to experience it here, and we don’t want to experience it here.” (Indeed, he has made his views on the city’s immigrant population clear: At an event celebrating the end of Ramadan in Wilhelmsplatz last year, Wippel handed out postcards that said “Syria Misses You.”)

Is Wilhelmsplatz merely a municipal disagreement that’s taken on a life of its own, or does it showcase, as Wippel suggests, the unsettling, out-of-control effects of immigration? How Görlitzers answer this question is an immediate indication of their political persuasion, at a time when many here feel split into two camps that no longer understand or listen to each other.

The back-and-forth about Wilhelmsplatz “is very symptomatic for the lack of discourse in this society,” said Franziska Schubert, a local politician for the Greens who came in third in the June mayoral race, won by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Görlitz’s city center, Schubert said, is beautiful and calm, “like the backdrop for a movie,” but Görlitzers ultimately need to decide what kind of city they want to live in: “Do you want life, or do you want to be in a backdrop for a movie … where everything is dead and empty?”

Walking through Görlitz’s historic old town indeed feels, as Schubert says, like stumbling onto the movie set of a picture-perfect German city—which, as a popular filming location for Hollywood movies, it quite often is. The candy-colored, perfectly preserved buildings in the old town span centuries: Napoleon stayed in an orange-and-white baroque building on one side of the Upper Market square, along what used to be the path of one of Europe’s longest trading roads; down the street is the now-empty department store that served as the hotel lobby in Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

A sign for the AfD in Saxony reads "For My Country."
(Markus Schreiber / AP)

Blocks away from the old town, crumbling, empty buildings in various states of disrepair tell a different story—and hint at the social and economic problems plaguing the city and others like it. After the Berlin Wall fell, many residents left to find better jobs and opportunities in the West; Görlitz’s population shrank significantly and still hasn’t recovered. While the state government focuses resources primarily on Saxony’s bigger cities, places like Görlitz suffer: It faces shortages of skilled workers, teachers, and caretakers for its elderly, and the local infrastructure is lacking.

What’s more, most of the region’s major industry also moved out or was shuttered after 1990, leaving many jobless or underemployed. Of the large companies that remained, most were controlled by western Germans. And one of the major industries still active nearby is coal, which faces a clear expiration date as the German government looks to phase out coal production by 2038.

Many Görlitzers who remained here or returned struggle to earn enough money to get by. Görlitz residents have the lowest income in all of Germany: People here can expect to earn €2,272, or about $2,550 per month, compared with the nationwide average of €3,304 and nearly €5,000 in some wealthy southern German cities.

“There’s a long-standing unhappiness,” Mirko Schultze, a politician and state-level lawmaker from the Left Party, told me. “After 1989, people put a lot of hope in development, believing that they’d finally attained their freedom … Meanwhile, many people are very afraid. They have the feeling that ‘I cannot withstand the next wave of change.’”

Görlitz’s status as a border town—Zgorzelec, its Polish counterpart, lies just a few hundred yards away, across the Neisse River—means residents are used to thinking of break-ins, stolen cars, and swiped bikes as a consequence of their geography. Wippel stresses the issue heavily and vowed during his mayoral campaign to install police officers on both of the city’s bridges to reintroduce border checks.

So when the influx of refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016, the AfD had the final trigger it needed to capitalize on widespread disillusionment: How is it, many here thought, that these newcomers are given the kinds of resources and support we never got? Though Görlitz and Saxony more broadly have been governed by Merkel’s center-right CDU for the past three decades, residents became skeptical of the party’s ability to help them or willingness to listen.

“The CDU suffered a massive loss of confidence here,” Uwe Walter, a journalist with the regional radio station Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, told me. “Certain problems that are important to the people haven’t been addressed, or were addressed arrogantly… No one was listening to them. The only ones who were there were the AfD, who said, ‘We won’t let our homeland be destroyed. We’ll help you.’”

That has played out at the ballot box. During the 2017 federal elections, the AfD candidate Tino Chrupalla ousted the longtime CDU politician Michael Kretschmer (now Saxony’s premier) from his seat in the German Bundestag here in Görlitz; the party again came in first in this May’s European elections, winning 32.4 percent of the vote here. And this summer, Wippel won 45 percent for the AfD in the city’s mayoral race, losing in a second round by only 10 points.

It was because he believed traditional parties were unwilling to admit their mistakes that Wolfram Kast, a 65-year-old writer and jurist who moved to Görlitz two years ago from southwestern Germany, initially decided in 2017 not to vote at all. Then, in June’s mayoral election, Kast cast his first-ever vote for the AfD, which he described as a “more local, personal” decision than a political one, because he knows several local-level AfD politicians well.

Kast says he still can’t imagine voting for the party at the state or national level because of its tolerance of far-right extremists. He said, however, that he’s frustrated by the speed with which people categorize or dismiss him when he acknowledges that the AfD may have a point on certain issues, including the problems that the large number of refugees have brought. “When you make certain points or say certain words,” he told me, “you’re put into a corner that you actually don’t belong in.”

I heard a similar refrain from others who voted for or sympathized with the AfD: that they’d lost friends or been decried as a Nazi for suggesting the party might have a point. “More than 40 percent of the people in this city voted for the AfD,” said Eleni Ioannidou, a Greek-Polish opera singer who runs a small cultural organization in Görlitz, and who also voted for the AfD in June. “Do people think they’re all monsters?”

Despite the salience of the immigration issue for many who voted for the AfD, including Kast and Ioannidou, Görlitz, like many other eastern German cities, has actually taken in relatively few refugees: only about 1,200 as of late 2017. (More than half the city’s approximately 6,000 foreigners come from neighboring Poland.) Wilhelmsplatz is one of only a handful of places in the city where the presence of these newcomers is even remotely visible. According to Wippel and many of his party’s supporters, their presence in these public places contributes to both a feeling of insecurity among residents and a sense of resentment that they don’t want to fully integrate. Such places are also a symbol of lifelong Görlitzers’ desire to see their city remain unchanged.

“I grew up here, and when I was a child, we could never walk on the grass in Wilhelmsplatz,” Christina Lachmann, a 73-year-old AfD supporter, told me after a party event in a local pub one evening. Even though the city has formally changed the rules and now allows people to walk or sit on the grass, she says the refugee children and families don’t respect the space or keep it clean.

“Different countries, different mentality,” she continued. “What they do at home, what they do with their families, that doesn’t concern me—that’s their problem. But on the streets, they need to adjust to us.”

Schultze, the Left Party politician who himself lives near Wilhelmsplatz, decided to see for himself how loud the park actually is after dark. Each night during the first week of August, Schultze and a few staffers and volunteers set up a table in Wilhelmsplatz from 9:30 to 10 p.m., welcoming anyone who wanted to discuss the issue to stop by. The night I joined them, Schultze stood in intense but friendly discussion with two local residents, among those who believed the park was too loud. But overall, Schultze said, though there were a few young people chatting or playing music earlier in the evening, Wilhelmsplatz was hardly the chaotic scene some have described.

Many Görlitzers “vote for the AfD because they believe the AfD can solve problems that don’t actually exist, but exist in people’s minds,” he said. “The AfD has essentially said, ‘We want everything to stay the way it never actually was.’ They present a utopian picture of a perfect world that never existed.”