Eastern Germany a hotspot for attacks against refugees

Frank Zeller
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Police stand guard during a far-right demonstration near a shelter for asylum-seekers in Heidenau, eastern Germany, on August 28, 2015

Police stand guard during a far-right demonstration near a shelter for asylum-seekers in Heidenau, eastern Germany, on August 28, 2015 (AFP Photo/Tobias Schwarz)

Berlin (AFP) - A record influx of refugees to Germany has cast an ugly spotlight on its formerly communist east, which has been rocked by a disproportionate wave of racist protests and hate crimes.

Small towns such as Heidenau and Freital have earned nationwide notoriety as neo-Nazis and angry residents have hurled abuse at people fleeing war and misery -- and rocks at police sent to protect those seeking a safe haven.

Arson attacks against refugee shelters, and swastikas scrawled on their walls, have brought back dark memories of xenophobic violence that flared at the time of Germany's reunification a quarter-century ago.

In the turbulent early 1990s -- when East Germans got their first taste of democracy, but also faced economic collapse and uncertainty -- the frustration exploded in sometimes deadly mob attacks against asylum shelters.

Leaders of the five eastern states have this week insisted that the resurgence of racist violence has hit all areas of Germany, not just theirs, as Europe's top economy expects a record 800,000 asylum requests this year.

They have cautioned against "stigmatising" the east, which despite a multi-billion-euro infrastructure overhaul still lags the former West in wealth, jobs and opportunities more than 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.

In the far-right hotspot state of Saxony, the upsurge of violence now threatens "an economic disaster if hatred of foreigners destroys the image of a Saxony that is modern and open to the world," its economy minister Martin Dulig warned on Wednesday.

- 'No east-west conflict' -

Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who grew up in the East -- has vowed "no tolerance" against racists, but she ducked the regional question Monday by saying: "I don't want to turn this into an east-west conflict."

The data, however, has painted a disturbing picture -- of all racist attacks recorded by the government last year, 47 percent were in the east, home to just 17 percent of Germany's population.

And of the 202 known violent attacks against refugee shelters in the first half of this year, 42 took place in Saxony alone.

Saxony's state capital Dresden was also the birthplace of the far-right PEGIDA movement, short for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident", whose flag-waving marches peaked at 25,000 people early this year.

The anti-immigration movement only fizzled after its founder Lutz Bachmann posted pictures of himself sporting a Hitler moustache and hair-do on Facebook, sparking media outrage and a leadership split.

"For months now, Saxony has been the most unpleasant German state. It made headlines with PEGIDA, right-wing extremism and attacks on refugees," judged Hamburg-based liberal news weekly Die Zeit.

"Isn't it time for a 'Saxit' -- the exit of Saxony from the Federal Republic?" it asked, only half in jest.

- 'Furious and frustrated' -

Dresden has long been an iconic city for German neo-Nazis embittered by the Allies' aerial bombing of the Baroque city centre in World War II.

Historians point at other roots of entrenched far-right sentiment in the east, the only part of Germany where the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany (NPD) has seats in a state assembly and in many town halls.

While West Germany was credited with dealing relatively openly with the Nazi era and Holocaust, the East German regime resisted "de-Nazification" in the Cold War and painted the Third Reich as an outgrowth of Western capitalism.

It termed the Berlin Wall it erected in 1961 to stop a massive popular exodus an "anti-fascist" rampart.

The foreign-born population was minimal, with the largest group some 60,000 labourers from "socialist brother state" Vietnam, who would bear the brunt of racist attacks after the Wall fell.

It was a time for East Germans when "an entire generation of people were economically disempowered, and the youth were without direction, furious and frustrated," said Hajo Funke of Berlin's Free University.

It was this disenchanted "brown" youth culture that, in the eastern state of Thuringia, spawned three neo-Nazis whose bloody crimes, when they finally emerged in 2011, would shock Germany.

The trio formed the National Socialist Underground -- a secret extremist cell that laid bombs and shot dead nine people with migrant backgrounds as well as a policewoman, in post-war Germany's worst racist killing spree.