Germany fears xenophobia taking hold in ex-communist east

Participants hold up a poster that reads 'Open your mind - stop racism' during a solidarity rally near the refugee shelter in Clausnitz, Germany on Feb 20, 2016.
Participants hold up a poster that reads 'Open your mind - stop racism' during a solidarity rally near the refugee shelter in Clausnitz, Germany on Feb 20, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

BERLIN (AFP) - Germany fears xenophobia is taking root in its former communist east, where Islamophobic movement PEGIDA was born and where two recent incidents involving anti-migrant mobs shocked the country.

The ugly scenes of 20 to 30 apparently drunken onlookers cheering as a would-be asylum seeker home went up in flames Sunday in the town of Bautzen in Saxony state prompted one politician to warn that the region risked becoming a "failed state".

The outrage was compounded by the fact it came just two nights after 100 people angrily shouted "We are the people" while trying to block a bus carrying about 20 asylum seekers to a new shelter in Clausnitz, another Saxony town.

"It almost seems like a brown mob is striking somewhere everyday in Saxony and rearing its ugly face," said the tabloid-style daily Bild, in reference to the khaki-coloured shirts of the Nazis.

Burkhard Lischka, a Social Democratic lawmaker, went as far as to warn that "Saxony should be careful that it does not develop into a kind of 'failed state' with regards to far-right extremism".

The latest episode in Bautzen was also reminiscent of another low-point in Germany's history of anti-foreigner violence.

In 1992, thousands of bystanders applauded as a marauding mob flung stones and petrol bombs at a housing block for asylum seekers. That riot happened in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, another town in the former communist east.

Statistics suggest that the former German Democratic Republic, and specifically Saxony - where the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany (NPD) has seats - has got a particular far-right problem.

Of 231 extreme-right attacks recorded across the country between January 1 and February 20 this year, 47 happened in Saxony, according to an independent count by non-government groups the Amadeu-Antonio Foundation and Pro Asyl.

Saxony also saw the most cases of attacks against refugee homes.

According to the state's interior minister, 101 of 924 cases of such violence across Germany occurred in Saxony. The independent count by the Amadeu-Antonio Foundation puts the state in first place for such offences, with 146 attacks.

Former parliamentary speaker Wolfgang Thierse said xenophobia was more visible in the east as a result of the "sharp upheavals" that the region has been through in the past quarter-century.

"A person who had to survive so many changes in the last 25 years would obviously stand less firm in his democratic and moral convictions," he told the Funke regional press group, in reference to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Although east Germans were finally in the embrace of democracy in the 1990s, they were also subject to massive changes and trauma including fears of economic collapse.

Even today, the east lags behind the west in terms of jobs and wealth.

Sociologist Matthias Quent said another key difference was that in the west, any talk of xenophobia is promptly quashed by its "stronger civil society with an strong culture of debate".

"Far-right comments are mostly taboo in public," he told news weekly Die Zeit.

For Quent, a game-changer was the rise of Islamophobic street movement PEGIDA, which was born in the eastern town of Dresden.

PEGIDA started life around 18 months ago as a xenophobic Facebook group, initially drawing just a few hundred protesters in Dresden before gaining strength, peaking with a rally of 25,000 people.

It has recently seen a revival with the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, many fleeing war in mostly Muslim countries like Syria and Iraq. They are part of an unprecedented influx of newcomers to Germany, which took in more than a million migrants and refugees last year.

"In eastern Germany... PEGIDA and other groups have taken public space and opened it to the right. Far-right comments are accepted," said Quent. "Politicians and society have been caught sleeping on this count." Government spokesman Steffen Seibert urged a "clear response from government institutions and the majority of citizens" to prevent such "deeply shameful" episodes against migrants.

Individuals too must stand up against racism and xenophobia, he said, condemning the "cold-hearted and cowardly" mob.

"This is not something that we can solve with rules from Berlin," he said. "It is something that we must, as a society, take a clear stance on. That's something that we can do."