What's Wrong with Saxony?

A Search for the Roots of Fear and Racism

By Maximilian Popp, Andreas Wassermann and Steffen Winter

 Photo Gallery: Refugee Rage in Saxony

For a time after reunification, Saxony was widely considered an eastern German success story.

Lately, however, the state's image has darkened. Weekly Pegida marches combined with an ongoing rash of anti-immigrant attacks are raising uncomfortable questions.

Horst Hirsch saw it all coming. He warned that all of Germany could start looking like Duisburg or Cologne, metropolises with a large and visible immigrant populations. He warned that the country would begin losing its identity in the face of foreign influence. He wondered out loud: "Do we want our country to become Islamic?"

Hirsch, a 72-year-old from the Erzgebirge Mountains in southern Saxony, made his comments on Jan. 21, 2015, almost a full year before the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne. He was at a meeting of 300 citizens of Saxony who had gathered in Dresden's International Congress Center to talk about asylum and integration with political leaders. For weeks, the anti-immigrant group Pegida had been marching on the streets of Dresden and the state government wanted to counter that movement with an open dialogue. By chance, Hirsch ended up at a table with Saxony Governor Stanislaw Tillich, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

That evening, Hirsch said he was concerned about becoming a foreigner in his own country and that he was worried about the "militant ideology of Islam." It was also the evening when Tillich, seated at table 26, made a clear statement: "Islam does not belong to Germany."

One year later, the Saxony governor doesn't have second thoughts about his statement that night. But he is beginning to despair of his state. It is a sunny morning at the end of January in Dresden and frost still covers the meadows on the banks of the Elbe River as it meanders through the city. Tillich opens his office window in the state capital building to let in some fresh air.

Every Monday, Tillich has to watch as thousands of his fellow Saxons march through the historical town center waving Pegida flags. Many among them have long supported the CDU, but now accuse Tillich of being a "Volksverräter," a Nazi-era term that means "traitor to one's people." The governor feels isolated on such days. Where are the churches, the labor unions, the business community and the artists? Why are there so few people standing up to Pegida? "It is a challenge for all of society," Tillich says.

A Riddle of Significant Concern

The weekly protests against the presumed demise of the West have been ongoing in Dresden for more than 12 months, and they are set to continue. Pegida organizers have already reserved city-center squares for their demonstrations through the end of March.

What is wrong with Saxony? It is a riddle that is of significant concern to Tillich and also one that has people across the country shaking their heads. It has also attracted attention internationally, with Time magazine recently putting a Pegida demonstration on its cover along with the headline: "Unwelcome."

Recently, the state's image has become even darker. Last Thursday evening, an angry mob chanting "we are the people" blocked a bus full of refugees from pulling into an initial reception facility in the city of Clausnitz, near Saxony's border with the Czech Republic. The resulting video, which clearly shows the fear of the refugees inside the bus, some of them children, quickly spread around the country and beyond. Then, on Saturday night, a planned refugee hostel in the Saxon city of Bautzen, just east of Dresden, went up in flames in what police are now calling an arson attack. Some onlookers attempted to prevent the fire department from extinguishing the blaze and "demonstrated their undisguised pleasure that the building was on fire and that asylum-seekers likely won't be able to move in very soon," Thomas Knaut, from the Bautzen police, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The state's image has suffered tremendously as a result of such blatant racism and the negative effects on its economy have become noticeable. Tourists are staying away and scientists from abroad are cancelling planned visits to Saxon research institutes and universities, not wanting to spend time in Pegida's homeland. The xenophobic demonstrations "are destroying Dresden's image in the world," complains Christian Thielemann, principal conductor at the Staatskapelle Dresden, the city's celebrated orchestra. He would like to see a ban on demonstrations in the city center.

Prior to the beginning of the Pegida marches, the city was famed for its high culture: the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) museum, with its treasure chamber created by August the Strong, the Staatsschauspiel theater, the city's collection of masters, both new and old. A 2012 PISA study found the state's education system to be the best in Germany and Dresden is widely considered to be an economic motor of the former East Germany. But now? Anti-immigrant groups in the state register around 40 demonstrations per week. One-fifth of all attacks on refugee hostels in Germany occurred in Saxony last year, according to Mediendienst Integration, an organization which assembles facts and statistics pertaining to refugees in Germany. Leipzig Police President Bernd Merbitz has warned of a "pogrom-like atmosphere" against migrants in the state.

It has often been said in recent months that the public mood regarding refugees in Germany is in danger of becoming nasty. In Saxony, it already has. The state offers a prime example for what happens when civil society partly fails and when discourse is non-existent.

Thankful for Pegida

In Flöha, a town near Chemnitz, Horst Hirsch is sitting in the small kitchen of his ground-floor apartment, pictures of his eight grandchildren and four children hang on the wall behind him.

An amicable man with silver hair, eyeglasses and a full beard, he was monitored by the East German secret police, the Stasi, before the Wall fell and his children were not allowed to enroll in university. He earned his living working for an Evangelical youth group.

The table is set with blue-onion patterned tableware and a flagpole rises outside. Next to the kitchen window hangs the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, which he received in 2003 from then-German President Johannes Rau for his involvement in youth work, for his principled resistance to the East German regime and for his engagement on behalf of Roma from Romania.

This same Horst Hirsch has taken part in Pegida demonstrations -- out of curiosity, he says.

But also because he is happy "that there are people who open their mouths. That releases some of the pressure." Hirsch thinks that Germany should be thankful for Pegida "because step-by-step politicians have adopted positions long demanded by the demonstrators from Dresden."

Hirsch believes the German government has moved to the left, a shift that isn't popular in eastern Germany, he says. He sees the reemergence of old socialist ideologies that promise people a kind of paradise. One example, he says, is Merkel's refugee-crisis insistence that "we can manage it." It is, he says, an attempt to manipulate the populace in accordance with one's own needs and to silence critical voices. "People in the east notice such things because we've seen it before. We've experienced forced education and patronizing," he says. People, he goes on, don't want Islam and the refugees have to respect the country's traditions instead of "putting on airs." But what are the country's traditions? "Christianity. That's what defines the social order in Germany."

Statistics show that 4 percent of the populace in Saxony is Catholic and 19 percent Protestant.

Fully 75 percent are unaffiliated with any religion. Forty years of socialism effectively drove religion out of the state. Hirsch is nevertheless convinced that this religious tradition holds the state together. And that Islam represents a threat to this traditional social order. The events in Cologne on New Year's Eve, which saw hundreds of women being sexually abused on the public square in front of the train station by a mob made up primarily of migrants, proves as much, he believes. He argues that the state must crack down and the police must become more proactive. Incidents like in Cologne, he says, "are the first fruits of negligent politics."

Fear of Multiculturalism

But why haven't people in western Germany drawn the same conclusions? Why have there been no mass protests there? Hirsch believes it is simply because western Germans are out of practice.

Eastern Germans realized in 1989 that taking to the streets can lead to change. Although Saxons are cosmopolitan people, Hirsch says, they are afraid of the ideology of Islam and of multiculturalism.

He believes that the demonstrations in Dresden will continue. "Because the problem is ongoing and because there are no significant elections approaching that might change things."

The conversation with Horst Hirsch in his kitchen was largely congenial. He didn't refer to journalists as the "lying press" as Pegida does, instead calmly presenting his point of view.

Could such a discussion perhaps be the foundation for a broader societal debate?

Not long later, Horst Hirsch sent a furious email to the SPIEGEL editorial offices. He was upset about a critical cover story about the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and suddenly no longer wanted to be quoted by name in a "leftist organ," which is why we have chosen to use a pseudonym, Horst Hirsch, to refer to him. During the interview, he was pleased by the attempt to start a dialogue, but in the email, he made it clear that the conversation was over. "Even the sweetest broth tastes terrible if the pot is dirty," he wrote.

It is difficult to understand why it is Saxony where the rhetoric has grown so radical, positions so obdurate and space for exchange and compromise so limited.

Many people have been monitoring this development for quite some time, and one of them is Omar Allham. He, too, has taken part in marches in Dresden -- counterdemonstrations protesting against Islamphobia and fears of foreigners felt by people like Hirsch. Born in Syria, Allham joined a demonstration of perhaps 150 people on a central square in Dresden to defend the city's diversity against thousands of Pegida fans. Allham still can't understand why more people didn't show up. "You have to show that Dresden is more than just Pegida," he says.

Allham has been living in the Saxon capital for 22 years. He came to East Germany from Damascus in 1986 to study medicine. During his university years, Allham says, he encountered no racism at all.

"We came from different countries, were friends with other students from Germany and we all had a common goal: to become good doctors," he says.

'Happy to Make It Home Safe'

All that changed suddenly with the end of East Germany, with taunting, threats and even physical violence becoming a common occurrence. "Often, I was just happy to make it home safe," Allham says, recalling the early 1990s when skinheads and neo-Nazis in the east hunted down immigrants, often without fear of police interference.

Allham long ago took on German citizenship and works in the Heart Center at the Dresden university hospital. He lives in a middle-class, Gründerzeit neighborhood in eastern Dresden.

Like Hirsch, he too believes in God, though Allham's god is called Allah. And in contrast to Hirsch, Allham doesn't believe that religion should have anything to do with politics.

A look at Saxony's history could help explain why potential threats to identity may be felt more strongly here than elsewhere. It was in Saxony where the Reformation put down its first roots.

Johann Sebastian Bach developed his artistic genius here and Saxony also developed its own formula for the manufacture of porcelain, a triumph of German chemistry. "All of this made Saxony a breeding ground for ideas, the center of the world," says Martin Roth, who led the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen -- the world-famous collection made up of several art and ethnographic museums in Dresden -- for years before moving on to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Yet Saxony has also long had a problematic relationship with its own identity. The region was the cultural heart of the German-speaking world, but its Prussian neighbors to the north were much more powerful. It was well educated, had a self-confident middle class and didn't lack for prosperity, but the region was nonetheless among the first to throw its support behind the Nazis. The state suffered World War II bombing raids on its capital comparable to those in Hamburg and Cologne, but it was only in Saxony that a cult of mourning developed -- one that continues to hold sway to this day.

"In Dresden, you can still sense the loss of identity during and after the Third Reich," says Roth. "What remains is this self-importance, this navel gazing, combined with the belief that they are the greatest."

Just a few kilometers up the Elbe River from Dresden is Kötzschenbroda, a district of the town of Radebeul. Gabled houses from past centuries surround the central square, their ground floors providing quarters for small shops or comfortable pubs with names like Old Dispensary or Steam Ship, where the odor of Saxon specialties is unmistakable.

Author Jörg Bernig moved to the tidy little town 14 years ago, renovating a 19th-century house together with his wife. Now, the place is just as attractive and comfortable as the Old Dispensary.

Bernig could be completely satisfied with life. But the 52-year-old feels estranged from his country, its politicians, the media and the cultural scene. Bernig, who is a member of the Saxon Academy of Arts and the German PEN Center, is bothered by what he sees as a political correctness that imposes multiculturalism and ignores "people's need for homogeneity."

'Rage Everywhere'

A sign printed with a verse from the Book of Matthew hangs in Kötzschenbroda's main church: "Quoth Christ: For I was a stranger and you invited me in." Such "campaigns dictated from above," Bernig says during a walk across the churchyard, "are what upset the people in Saxony." He says they also alienate churchgoers "who reject the policy of unlimited admission of refugees."

"Rage Everywhere" is the title Bernig chose for an essay he wrote about his views on the state of Germany and of a world that has become unmoored. The piece includes ideas that can also be found at the Pegida marches in Dresden, though they are more elegantly articulated.

Instead of using the loaded Pegida term Volksverräter, Bernig writes: "What rage over the federal government's brushing aside of state sovereignty by opening the doors -- even appealing for -- mass uncontrolled, or hardly controlled, border crossings."

Instead of adopting the phrase "Lügenpresse," or "lying press," he writes: "What rage too that we, the people, to use a term of pathos, are daily told how to think. Look at the chastening tone and view adopted by (the evening news) when discussing people who express criticism of refugee policies."

The Dresden-based daily Sächsische Zeitung was wary of printing the piece, but it ultimately appeared on Dec. 21 and met with broad agreement. "Thank you for the courage to publish this piece," wrote one reader. Another opined that it was no longer possible "to be proud of Germany" and that one could only "think and speak in terms acceptable to the 1968 Zeitgeist."

The term "1968 Zeitgeist," referring to the anti-establishment counterculture that evolved in Germany in protest against the conservative war and immediate postwar generations, is a central battle cry in Saxony. The societal modernization that took place in West Germany following the student revolts at the end of the 1960s is seen by broad swaths of Saxon's educated middle class as a fundamental evil.

Modern and conflict-prone Germany has never been well received in Saxony, and not just in the narrow valleys of the Erzgebirge Mountains. Even members of the educated middle class in Dresden harbor yearnings for yesteryear. Such desires survived East Germany by way of the house concerts and poetry readings held in private salons -- and they informed the historically accurate rebuilding of Dresden.

A Glorious Past

The reestablishment of a pre-socialist civil society was one of the most important goals for them following reunification. It was an urge that Kurt Biedenkopf, the West German CDU politician who became governor of Saxony in 1990, recognized and encouraged. He realized that people are better able to deal with political upheaval if they can look back to a glorious past and cultivate a feeling of homeland. He took Bavaria, with a similarly proud history, as an example.

At the CDU's initiative, state parliament resolved to declare Saxony a "free state" once again, recalling its 19th century history. Politically, it was a rather meaningless move, but it was full of symbolism. The people of Saxony were enthusiastic and it also served the needs of those in power.

As the man who gave Saxony its identity back, Kurt Biedenkopf could stand up to his political adversary Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a way that only Bavarian Governor Franz-Josef Strauss had before him. At the time, SPIEGEL wrote a cover story about Saxony, with Biedenkopf depicted on horseback as Saxon Prince August the Strong. A poster of the cover image still hung in the governor's office years later.

Dresden-based political scientist Hans Vorländer believes that one of Pegida's roots can be found in such regionalism. He speaks of a kind of "Saxon chauvinism": the idea that Saxons know what's right and are thus entitled to more than others.

In Kötzschenbroda, the author Bernig -- who has received numerous literature prizes named after the likes of Eichendorff, Hölderlin and Lessing -- searches for other words to describe the Saxon character. Citizens of the Free State, he says, are not "outmoded," they just want to protect their state. They have been forced to endure significant changes since 1990, he says.

"Now they need time to reflect and take a deep breath. They don't want the conflicts of other cultures imported."

Yet when it comes to conflicts in Saxony, it is primarily the locals who are responsible, as can be seen from reports gathered on a random winter weekend: In Chemnitz, three masked men chase two migrants through the city and demolish a döner-kebab stand, injuring the owner and one of the migrants. In Bautzen, two men attack the information stand of a pro-diversity organization. On the same weekend, right-wing extremists set a former asylum-seeker hostel on fire. In Altenberg, a town in the Erzgebirge Mountains, a man wearing a steel helmet and sporting a Hitler moustache goes after two Afghans. He beats one of the two men and raises his arm in a Hitler salute.

In Meissen too, home of the famous porcelain factory, a building being prepared to house refugees was set on fire. Prior to the blaze, there were anonymous warnings: notes posted on the door telling future residents to leave "our Meissen" as quickly as possible.

Harmful to the CDU's Image

The target of the arson attack is just a few hundred meters from the porcelain factory, which received 90,000 visitors from abroad in 2015. "Some people in Meissen only like foreigners when they spend money and then leave the city again at 6 p.m.," says Walter Hannot.

Originally from the Rhineland, Hannot has lived in Saxony since 1991. He has been a member of the Christian Democrats since his youth and has been deputy head of CDU chapter in Meissen for just short of a year. He has organized candlelight vigils against racism and thrown parties for refugees.

But many of his fellow party members aren't particularly pleased by such events, believing them to be harmful to the CDU's image. One CDU member, who used to be part of the city government, is one of the founders of Pegida and has written hate-filled postings on his Facebook page. But the local party chapter has nevertheless declined to expel him from the party. Another Christian Democrat from Meissen, Geert Mackenroth, became Saxony's commissioner for foreigners, but prefers to call himself the "commissioner for natives" and has adopted positions represented by Alternative for Germany.

In such a climate, it has become difficult to represent other points of view. One group, called "Buntes Meissen," or "Diverse Meissen," promotes cooperation between Saxony and the refugees. But many shop owners prefer not to display the group's posters for fear that they might get a brick through their shop windows. "There are patrols in the city," says Hannot.

"I'm beginning to feel foreign myself here in Meissen."

Saxony's racism problem hasn't just developed in the last year. There have long been regions of the state where neo-Nazis have essentially taken control. The escalation of right-wing violence, Pegida's success, xenophobic demonstrations: Dietrich Herrmann, a social scientist at the Technical University of Dresden, believes that it's no accident such things are taking place in Saxony. Rather, he argues, it is the product of the state's political culture. For years, he says, manifestations of right-wing extremism have been ignored and trivialized in the state.

Andrea Hübler, who works for an organization that helps victims of right-wing violence, agrees. "For years, very little has been done to counteract the daily lunacy in Saxony," she says.

Every day, reports about attacks on migrants land on her desk. On behalf of her organization, Hübler has spent countless hours in recent years at trials against right-wing extremist perpetrators. Her evaluation is devastating. She says that it often takes years before perpetrators end up in court and potential right-wing motives are all too often ignored. She says that the oft-invoked judicial severity is rarely seen in practice.

Instead, activists who actively campaign against racism and neo-Nazis are hassled. Anti-fascists, opposition activists and refugee helpers are often seen as disturbing the peace or meddling -- or are perceived as a threat. For a time, Saxony even had a so-called "Extremism Clause" enshrined in law, a codex that required initiatives to formally pledge allegiance to the state. The Saxon Police Force likewise spent years investigating a presumed "Antifa Sports Club," which was suspected of hunting down neo-Nazis in Saxony. The police raided apartments, forced people to take DNA tests and eavesdropped on more than 200,000 telephones. A year and a half ago, the case was dropped. The alleged leader of the group was only proven to have taken part in a peaceful demonstration against neo-Nazis.

'Problem on the Left'

When over 250 neo-Nazis and hooligans laid waste to the Connewitz neighborhood of Leipzig in January, the head of the Saxon Police Force, Jörg Michaelis, issued a warning -- against left-wing extremism and not against right-wing violence. Left-wing anarchists had engaged in a street battle with police in Leipzig just before Christmas. "We have a serious problem on the left," he said at a CDU event in Dresden.

And now? Will business as usual in Saxony continue for the next several months, or even years? Has the public peace been compromised to such a degree that there is no longer room for understanding, or even for measured debate?

There are places in Saxony where politicians, church leaders, artists and businesspeople stood up to Pegida from the very beginning. In Leipzig, for example, the largest city in the state. On Monday, Jan. 11, Mayor Burkhard Jung, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, joined thousands of other Leipzig residents, candle in hand, to demonstrate against Legida, the local chapter of Pegida. The organizers of the original in Dresden had called for a large rally in Leipzig, but their success was limited. Racists and Islamophobes have never had much success here, regularly encountering large groups of counter-demonstrators, as often happens in cities in western Germany.

Why is Leipzig different than Dresden? Jung doesn't have an immediate answer to the question. He thinks for a while, gazing into the middle distance. He then leans over the table in his city hall office and says: "Leipzig is constantly changing and renewing itself. Half of our population has turned over since 1990. Many new residents have come over from the west."

Like the mayor himself. Jung grew up in Siegen, near Cologne, and first came to Leipzig in 1991. So has Leipzig become a western German city? "In terms of its approach to life, I would say yes," Jung responds. "At least we are cosmopolitan, because of the trade shows we host, and not too Saxon."

Even in Dresden, though, there have been periodic signs of improvement. It used to be that the anniversary of the Feb. 13, 1945 bombing of Dresden brought out thousands of neo-Nazis protesting the "bomb Holocaust." There were demonstrations this year too, but they were smaller -- and dwarfed by the 13,000 people who formed a human chain in opposition to war, xenophobia and extremism. "Those who close their hearts to people who come here looking for protection haven't understood the message of Feb. 13," said Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert.

Just five days later, though, when the chanting mob blocked the refugee bus in Clausnitz, Dresden's mini-victory against extremism proved empty. Then came the refugee hostel fire in Bautzen. What's wrong with Saxony? The search for answers goes on.

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