On the eve of Easter Sunday a house went up in flames in the small village of Tröglitz in East Germany; the result of an arson attack. The building was supposed to accommodate 40 refugees from May onwards. This particular incident is illustrative for a change in German politics. Its implications might ultimately be felt in all of Europe.
The incident in Tröglitz has a longer background story to it. The small community in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt first came into the spotlight of the national media when its mayor, Markus Nierth, stepped down in March. He had been disappointed by the response of the authorities to a protest of far-right party NPD and other associated organisations. The far-right coalition opposed the accommodation of refugees in Tröglitz. Its demonstration was planned to be held directly in front of mayor Markus Nierth’s private family home and it was clearly meant to intimidate the local politician who had been openly supportive of the refugees. Nierth would have liked to see the planned demonstration declared illegal. After failing to achieve this and also feeling a lack of official support in any other form, Markus Nierth stepped down from his post in March. The county authorities nevertheless followed through with the plans for the refugee home in Tröglitz. Until the arson attack last Saturday.
As shocking as this story is, one might ask whether it bears any larger relevance and should not be seen as an internal problem of local German politics.
The attack in Tröglitz matters because it stands as an example for a shift in German politics. It is not an isolated case of violence fueled by intolerance and hate but a sign of the changing political landscape. This change manifests itself in several interconnected developments.
First there is the change in German party politics. One feature of the modern German party system has so far been the fact that there was no radical or populist party to the right of Chancellor Merkel’s conservative alliance of CDU and CSU. In this point German politics differed from the party systems of its neighbors (Netherlands (PVV), France (FN) and Denmark (DPP)). Although the NPD, a nationalist party sprinkled with well-known neo-Nazis, was able to achieve some electoral gains in regional elections in East Germany in the 2000s, they never became a relevant force on the national stage. In 2013, however, a new party called the Alternative for Germany (AfD) formed. This party, which first centered around Germany’s role in resolving the European debt crisis, has now broadened its platform to include populist notions on issues such as currency and economic policies, immigration, and family policies. AfD has made it into several regional parliaments and only narrowly failed to win seats in the national elections in 2013. This puts an enormous pressure on Merkel’s conservative block, there is a fear of losing one’s core electoral base. As a result, established conservative politicians, especially of the Bavarian CSU fraction, retort to populist slogans more often: “Wer betrügt, der fliegt.” (Roughly translated: Cheaters are being kicked out) is only one example of offensive rhetoric against immigrants and asylum seekers.
Secondly, a large group of Germans has emerged who feel disconnected to the political system as a whole and make their voices heard in protests, street riots and on the internet. The anti-Islam movement PEGIDA (short for: Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident), which drew up to 15,000 protesters into the streets of Dresden last winter, is only the most visible example of many displays of public discontent. There have been protests on the sites of asylum seekers homes and recently Germany’s violent football fans have united and rioted under the banner of “Hooligans against Salafists”. All these trends have been reinforced by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the emergence of IS. They have contributed to a growing acceptance of anti-immigrant, islamophobic and xenophobic stances in German society.
Lastly, and this seems to be most closely connected to what has recently happened in Tröglitz, political violence has made a comeback in Germany. According to data published by the federal government, there have been 150 cases of physical and/or verbal assault on homes for asylum seekers in 2014, which represents a 300% increase compared to the previous year. Local Politicians and journalists engaged in the fight against racism receive death threats; German newspaper Tagesspiegel estimates that since the German reunification in 1990 there have been 152 persons killed in Germany out of right-wing political motives. Furthermore, Germany is at the moment still witnessing the trial against Beate Zschäpe, the sole surviving member of the terrorist trio National Socialist Underground (NSU). This group is believed to have murdered at least ten men of Turkish and Greek origin as well as a police officer over the years from 2001 to 2006. Since the murders of the terror group first became public in 2011, the dubious role played by several local and federal authorities and a circle of up to 200 supporters has also been revealed.
In sum, we can conclude that there is a shift in German party politics, in political culture and in the relationship between politics and violence. This, however, is not a German problem only. Especially in the the wake of the crisis, one could observe how what happens in Germany is of relevance for the continent as a whole. When there is pressure from the right side of the political spectrum, this pushes the established parties towards political positions that one would otherwise not necessarily expect. This may partly explain the tough stance that Germany takes towards debtor states.
There are many reasons for the changes explained above. The difficult economic situation after the German reunification in large areas of East Germany is one factor. The speed of European integration and the role Germany has taken up in the common currency area has been met with resentment as well. More fundamentally, however, Germany has never developed an image of itself as a country of immigrants. To change this perception will be one of the major challenges for future German politicians.