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.”