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The unrest in Chemnitz is a sign that Germany has a populist problem too

Right-wing protesters and counter-protesters march across Germany after the death of a man in Chemnitz. Photo/Getty Images

The populist contagion sweeping Europe spreads to Germany, Cathrin Schaer writes from Berlin.

Driving into the east German countryside can be a nerve-racking experience, and not just because the roads are narrower and the coffee worse. It’s because we know that, behind those twitching lace curtains in those respectable cottages, there are wood-chopping, apple-picking, hay-baling neo-Nazis lurking.

How do we know? Because occasionally they emerge. This past month, they came out on the streets of the east German city of Chemnitz. After a 35-year-old local was stabbed to death there, and two suspects, an Iraqi and a Syrian, were arrested, a protest was organised.

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Some of the demonstrators were ordinary citizens worried about law and order. But there was also a nasty conflation of football hooligans, neo-Nazis and mixed martial arts fighters – the last’s motto: “white brothers testing themselves against white brothers”. Those groups called adherents to come to the Chemnitz protest, eventually estimated at 6000 strong.

The mob shouted “Foreigners out”, “We are the people”, “Germany for Germans”, “Bring back Nazism”. There were Hitler salutes, “vigilantes” chased anyone who looked “foreign” and a Jewish restaurant was attacked. Watching video clips of angry faces distorted by misplaced hatred – misplaced because only about 5600 of Chemnitz’s 250,000 residents are refugees – was scary.

German authorities condemned the violence, sent police reinforcements and arrested anyone caught doing the outlawed Hitler salute. Non-white Berliners shared stories of malevolent stares at rural supermarkets and insults muttered at them on countryside excursions and decided to holiday in Spain instead. The fallout continued for weeks, as senior politicians and bureaucrats either sympathised with or criticised the far-right-flavoured bits of Germany.

The Chemnitz unrest is not just worrying because it restricts our choice of holiday destinations. It’s also of concern because, for a while, it looked as though Germany would be one of the last European hold-outs against the populist politics roiling the continent. Not any more. Germany, too, has a problem.

This is a comparatively conservative country. People generally stick to the rules, trust the Government, put family and community above capitalism (yes, the shops are closed on Sundays) and don’t dance at rock gigs. They also use less social media, have strong unions and benefit from a generous social welfare system buoyed by a budget surplus and a booming economy.

Maybe that’s why it took a bit longer for the pitchfork-wielding mob to get organised. As both far-right and far-left parties become more popular here, it’s as though it’s no longer even about policies, or migration, or even – let’s face it – reality. It’s about tribalism. It’s about extremes.

But these are not the political extremes of shortly before World War II that allowed the opportunistic Nazi Party to take control. Back then, it was about choosing what system to believe in after a decade of chaos. This century, it’s about the choices you make when you no longer believe in the system after decades of relative prosperity.

A few months ago, a former colleague from Washington came to dinner in Berlin. The atmosphere in the US capital was awful, she told us; nobody was willing or able to bridge the personal and political divides caused by Donald Trump. You couldn’t talk to people any more and you constantly wondered whose side the neighbours were on, she said. We didn’t grasp what she meant or why she was so upset.

But this weekend, heading out to the east German countryside, Chemnitz casting a sinister pall over our new neighbours with the odd tattoos and a German flag atop their holiday house, we’re starting to understand.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.