Migration and the Far Right: An Interview with German Antifascists on Heidenau

Counter demonstration at Heidenau, Germany
Counter demon­stra­tion at Hei­de­nau, Ger­many

On Fri­day 21st and Sat­ur­day 22nd of August, Ger­many was shocked to once again wit­ness scenes of large scale riot­ing against a refugee cen­tre with­in its bor­ders. The grainy images shot in Hei­de­nau, a small town near to Dres­den in the east­ern state of Sax­ony, would seem dis­tress­ing­ly famil­iar for many Ger­mans - echo­ing a spate of attacks which fol­lowed re-uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990. Out­bursts of orga­nized racism were thought to be yet anoth­er dif­fi­cult chap­ter in Germany’s his­to­ry, but now firm­ly in the past.  Yet the attack in Hei­de­nau was not an anom­aly, an echo of his­to­ry, in a Ger­many keen to present itself as tol­er­ant and for­ward think­ing, but rather the lat­est, and most promi­nent moment in a series of nation­al­ist and racist actions which has been inten­si­fy­ing in recent years. Whilst nation­al pop­ulist street move­ments have made inter­na­tion­al news, the inten­si­fy­ing chain of small, iso­lat­ed attacks  and the grow­ing nation­al chau­vin­ism in cen­ter of Ger­man pol­i­tics has not. This chau­vin­ism which express­es itself in the com­mon tropes of a post-cri­sis Euro­pean chau­vin­ism: a dis­trust of migrants and refugees, a fear of Islam, and dis­gust towards those seen to be “not pulling their weight” in the cur­rent eco­nom­ic cri­sis such as the poor or the “lazy” (which in Ger­many found their syn­the­sis in the fig­ure of the “Greek fish­er­man”). Whilst the attacks in Hei­de­nau were round­ly con­demned by all par­ties, one need only see the tone which the largest par­ties and media chan­nels used dur­ing this summer’s nego­ti­a­tions with Greece’s Syriza gov­ern­ment to real­ize this nation­al chau­vin­ism runs deep­er than rel­a­tive­ly small neo-Nazi struc­tures (for a brief exam­ple of the lan­guage and argu­ments used, see this video by Ger­man come­di­an Jan Böh­mer­mann). Whilst the impli­ca­tions of this broad­er shift towards reac­tionary and chau­vin­is­tic pol­i­tics beyond small right wing struc­tures pos­es seri­ous ques­tions to antifas­cists and antiracists, and the left in gen­er­al, at the moment in Ger­many antifas­cist struc­tures are mobi­liz­ing to counter the immi­nent threat of orga­nized right wing activists on the streets.

Here in the UK the British media did not devote much time to cov­er­ing the Hei­de­nau sto­ry, main­ly using it as lit­tle more a foot­note to longer arti­cles dis­cussing the “refugee cri­sis” – that is, a cri­sis for the states receiv­ing refugees, not a human­i­tar­i­an one involv­ing thou­sands of unnec­es­sary deaths at the bor­ders of an increas­ing­ly for­ti­fied Europe. The British media’s fair­ly pos­i­tive por­tray­al of Ger­many – a land of eco­nom­ic suc­cess, excit­ing urban liv­ing and qual­i­ty soc­cer con­tin­ues.

Sarah, a mem­ber of TOP Berlin, was one of the antifas­cists who mobi­lized to go to Hei­de­nau and phys­i­cal­ly defend the refugee cen­ter in the face of both far right and police aggres­sion. We asked her a few ques­tions about what has been going on in Ger­many this year.

BL: In brief, could you explain what has hap­pened in Hei­de­nau? Who has par­tic­i­pat­ed in the attacks and can we put the respon­si­bil­i­ty at the feet of orga­nized far right struc­tures alone?

S: In the build up to the attacks, there had been sev­er­al demon­stra­tions called by the Nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (a neo-Nazi par­ty in Ger­many), which had seen up to 500 par­tic­i­pants protest­ing against the build­ing of a cen­ter for refugees in Hei­de­nau. The cen­ter, by the way, is actu­al­ly just a big emp­ty hall with 2 show­ers and 2 toi­lets for 600 peo­ple. These are hor­ri­ble liv­ings con­di­tions, even with­out Nazis threat­en­ing your life. After a protest last Fri­day, orga­nized fas­cists tried to reach the (then) unin­hab­it­ed cen­tre. The mob con­sist­ed of orga­nized Nazis, as well as drunk locals who clashed with the police through­out the night: build­ing bar­ri­cades, fir­ing fire­works and attack­ing both the police and the asy­lum home in an orga­nized way. The attacks last­ed for two nights with Sat­ur­day being much more intense with 30 cops injured and clash­es between Nazis and antifas­cists.

Whilst the cops did man­age to pre­vent the Nazis from reach­ing the refugee cen­tre the sit­u­a­tion was so intense that many antifas­cists strug­gled to even leave their cars safe­ly. Among the mob were a lot of locals who tol­er­at­ed, or even sup­port­ed the attacks so it is hard to say if it was the far right struc­tures that are respon­si­ble for ini­ti­at­ing the vio­lence but it is clear, that most of the cit­i­zens of the vil­lage jumped right into the sit­u­a­tion because they share the same racism and hate towards refugees.

BL: This attack has not just come from nowhere. Could you explain a lit­tle about the sit­u­a­tion regard­ing nation­al chau­vin­ism and the far right in Ger­many today?

S: Nation­al­ist and racist Ide­olo­gies have been vir­u­lent with­in the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion his­tor­i­cal­ly but we can see that since 2013 the sit­u­a­tion has wors­ened. In 2013 demon­stra­tions against the “Heime” (refugee cen­ters) began. These usu­al­ly see a mix­ture of orga­nized right wing activists along­side unor­ga­nized, angry Ger­man cit­i­zens. Hellers­dorf, a sub­urb in the east of Berlin where TOP is active, was amongst the first to see these forms of demon­stra­tion.  At the same time attacks and phys­i­cal vio­lence against refugees, migrants and the cen­ters they are being housed in are now tak­ing place on an almost dai­ly basis. Hei­de­nau is not the first exam­ple of an orga­nized racist attack here in Ger­many this year!

These devel­op­ments need to be placed in the con­text of an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple seek­ing refuge in Ger­many. Pub­lic aware­ness of this is grow­ing how­ev­er there is a def­i­nite process of these refugees being split into “deserv­ing refugees” (from places such as Syr­ia) and “non-deserv­ing refugees” (say from the Balka­ns and East­ern Europe). The Ger­man state’s cur­rent pol­i­cy of hous­ing these refugees in shod­dy, repur­posed facil­i­ties in small towns, many in the east, is then pro­vid­ing the pre­text for a host of local anti-refugee protests. The hatred of refugees cor­re­lates per­fect­ly well with the gen­er­al ten­den­cy of a rise in reac­tionary ide­olo­gies in times of crises, which is seem­ing­ly the only pos­si­ble answer in unsta­ble times many peo­ple can find.

As well as this pop­u­lar move­ment against refugees we should also men­tion the huge PEGIDA (Patri­ot­ic Euro­peans against the Islamiza­tion of the Occi­dent – a street based anti-Islam move­ment most promi­nent in east­ern Ger­many) demon­stra­tions in Ger­many and else­where. Some of these demon­stra­tions saw up to 25’000 peo­ple on the streets, osten­si­bly against “mil­i­tant Islam”, but in actu­al fact against a vari­ety of per­ceived threats to Ger­many – with migra­tion being one of them. The large and vio­lent demon­stra­tions of HoGeSa (Hooli­gans against Salafism) last year in west­ern Ger­many is anoth­er exam­ple of a grow­ing pop­u­lar chau­vin­ism.

BL: Is this sole­ly an East Ger­man prob­lem?

S: No, it is not. This has become quite clear. Although the larg­er and more aggres­sive demon­stra­tions take place in east­ern Ger­many, night­ly arsons and small actions are hap­pen­ing more and more in west­ern Ger­many. Also the inten­si­ty and size of the HoGeSa demon­stra­tions in Cologne and Han­nover last year show that west­ern Ger­many is not any­where near being a nice place. Still, one can­not deny the sup­port and accep­tance neo-Nazis, par­ties like the NPD and racist move­ments gar­ner more eas­i­ly in the east of Ger­many, from both the peo­ple and the gov­ern­ment. This makes it even more dif­fi­cult to cre­ate and sup­port antifas­cist actions and to stand in their way, lit­er­al­ly.

BL: How is this summer’s refugee cri­sis being report­ed and dis­cussed in Ger­many?

S: The fact that the num­ber of refugees arriv­ing in Ger­many is at a par­tic­u­lar high is being dis­cussed in quite dif­fer­ent ways. There is great sup­port for help­ing refugees from Syr­ia but there is a dele­git­imiza­tion of “eco­nom­ic refugees” (who flee only due to the weak economies in their coun­tries) and the most urgent demand seems to be to deport those as soon as pos­si­ble. There is a huge dif­fer­ence in people’s approach­es to the chang­ing sit­u­a­tion, from wel­com­ing par­ties, sup­port, and pro­tec­tion; to the racist mob who want to get rid of them by any means nec­es­sary. This is also mir­rored in the media, whose cov­er­age is much more dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed than it was in the 90s, some­times crit­i­cal and smart but often racist and dan­ger­ous. Espe­cial­ly the racist label­ing of refugees as crim­i­nals or as being inher­ent­ly lazy has found its echo in the plat­forms and calls of the racist insur­rec­tions.

How­ev­er, the count­less num­bers of drowned refugees in the Mediter­ranean and those dying at the EU-Bor­ders are actu­al­ly being dis­cussed as a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis. But, the blame is being laid on inef­fi­cient bor­der-con­trol and crim­i­nal traf­fick­ers and smug­glers. There is no dis­cus­sion about cre­at­ing safe pos­si­bil­i­ties to flee dan­ger­ous states. There is a clear incen­tive for the state to treat the refugees as bad­ly as pos­si­ble and to deny them the most basic human rights to make them leave Ger­many. This often then leads to civ­il soci­ety step­ping in: peo­ple orga­nize them­selves, donate, give free Ger­man lessons, pro­vide places to sleep etc. This char­i­ty work is then sup­port­ed by the min­istries, since they don’t need to pay vol­un­teers, whose work would oth­er­wise actu­al­ly need to be pro­vid­ed by the state.

The racist attacks and arson at the moment can be used by the state as an easy exam­ple of how Ger­many “can’t deal with this many refugees” and oth­er EU coun­tries need to take them. So whilst these images of over-exten­sion are not total­ly pro­duced on pur­pose by the state, they are help­ful. It’s a com­plex dynam­ic that is hard to ana­lyze.

BL: Once again the police have been accused by some of not being as pro-active as they could have been in pro­tect­ing the refugees, with some going as far to claim there is bla­tant sup­port for the attacks from the police. With the inves­ti­ga­tion into the Ver­fas­sungss­chutz’ (Ger­man state con­sti­tu­tion­al police) tac­it sup­port of the NSU (Nation­al social­ist Under­ground – a Nazi ter­ror struc­ture respon­si­ble for sev­er­al assas­si­na­tions, bank rob­beries and bomb­ings) still ongo­ing, could you com­ment on the police’s behav­iour in Hei­de­nau?

S: The police pres­ence in Hei­de­nau var­ied. Despite the large scale pub­lic order sit­u­a­tion, the police took the strate­gic deci­sion to pro­tect the refugee cen­ter alone. The racist mob was allowed to do as they pleased, no one was arrest­ed and there were no con­se­quences except for one use of tear gas. The polic­ing recalls that in Rostock/Liechtenhangen in 1992, where a large racist mob also attacked a refugee cen­ter whilst the police refused to esca­late their tac­tics or call in suf­fi­cient rein­force­ments.

In con­trast to this, the antifas­cist demon­stra­tion in Hei­de­nau was accom­pa­nied by a huge num­ber of police and end­ed bru­tal­ly with antifas­cists being pushed back to the train sta­tion real­ly quick. Sev­er­al activists were hurt or injured by pep­per spray and phys­i­cal attacks. It clear­ly shows, who the real ene­my for the police in Sax­ony is.

On the oth­er hand, from a state-crit­i­cal per­spec­tive, the demand for more state inter­ven­tion and police pres­ence is dif­fi­cult and one should also try not to drift into con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. But most of all, the almost unbe­liev­able ties of the police and the Ver­fas­sungss­chutz to the ter­ror­ism of the NSU and the ongo­ing igno­rance towards and accep­tance of Nazi-vio­lence and oth­er right-wing activ­i­ties clear­ly show that there is a huge ten­den­cy, espe­cial­ly but not only in Sax­ony to be blind on the right eye (Ger­man phrase – to ignore far right activ­i­ty).

BL: What has the response been from civ­il soci­ety and from the Left?

S: The politi­cians have con­demned the attacks but with a focus on reject­ing any vio­lence, whether from the left wing antifacists and antiracists or the right. Civ­il soci­ety does not real­ly exist in Hei­de­nau, or to put it in a cor­rect way: they are the ones who are cur­rent­ly throw­ing stones at the refugee cen­ter. You have an 18% NPD vote there and a lot of antifas­cist activists report­ed that there is mas­sive hos­til­i­ty towards refugees and for­eign­ers in the whole vil­lage.

Left-wing and antifas­cist activists held a strong and pow­er­ful demon­stra­tion on the Sun­day after the riots. Oth­ers blocked and stopped a bus that was sup­posed to take Refugees from Leipzig to the cen­ter in Hei­de­nau short­ly after the attacks.

Tomor­row there are plans to have a big antifas­cist demon­stra­tion in Dres­den, with a nation­wide mobi­liza­tion. All in all one can say, the left is react­ing quite slow­ly, maybe because there is a lot of fear and uncer­tain­ty about what to do. But there is, of course, rage and the clear feel­ing that this has to stop!

BL: What effect has this attack had on the wider far right scene?

S: That is hard to tell. The fact that there is lit­tle pos­si­bil­i­ty of coun­ter­ing those attacks means in the long turn it will strength­en Nazi struc­tures and push them for­ward. The arsons and attacks since last week­end have gained a lot more atten­tion than the ones dur­ing the pre­vi­ous month. On the one hand that is good and help­ful, because media atten­tion can help medi­ate antifas­cist inter­ven­tions and can help explain the urgency of the sit­u­a­tion. On the oth­er hand, it is a suc­cess sto­ry for fas­cists that their actions are known and writ­ten about and get­ting so much atten­tion in the media. This sit­u­a­tion needs strong and deci­sive antifas­cist action as an answer, to stop pogroms before they even start. So in the end I would say: it is up to us now!

Authors of the article

is a member of Plan C, an anti-capitalist organisation based in the UK. Plan C and “…ums Ganze!” are members of Beyond Europe, an exchange platform for European anti-capitalist groups.

is a member of TOP Berlin, which is part of “…ums Ganze!” an anti-capitalist alliance currently consisting of 11 groups based in Germany and Austria. “…ums Ganze!”