After rioting in the eastern-German city of Chemnitz on August 26 and 27 by neo-Nazis and other forces of the extreme right, many observers are questioning whether far-right sympathies among the security forces allowed things to get out of hand.
The riots broke out in the wake of a fatal stabbing in the city (with a population of about 250,000, it’s the third-largest in Saxony, after Leipzig and Dresden) in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 26, during a brawl at the tail end of a street festival. Two men, an Iraqi and a Syrian, were arrested, and a news website, Tag24, reported that the victim, a German-Cuban man, had been killed while trying to protect a woman from sexual assault. More reputable German media have said that the Tag24 report was false. The details of the incident remain unclear, but the fact of the stabbing and the arrest of two foreigners provided a pretext for the right-wing violence that followed.
The way these riots developed illustrates how right-wing groups and parties in Germany interact, and how they are creating, all together, a sharp rightward shift in the country’s political climate. The first group on the scene was organized by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is today the largest opposition party in the German parliament. At 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, the AfD gathered about a hundred people peacefully in the city center, but they left after an hour because, according to one of their officials, they did not want to mix with the more violent group that was coming on the scene next.
This next group included Kaotic Chemnitz, a band of soccer hooligans. They came out to riot, not to demonstrate. The hooligans were able to mobilize about 800 people, who showed up around 4:30; video emerged online that appeared to show rioters chasing down people perceived to be immigrants. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the “hounding” of people in the streets of Chemnitz, while the police seemed unable to control the situation.
The following day, August 27, a much larger right-wing rally occurred—this time with about 6,000 participants and about 1,000 left-wing counter-demonstrators—organized by a small local political party called Pro Chemnitz, which has three seats on the city council. Participating openly in this rally were neo-Nazi groups such as Third Way, the National Socialists of Chemnitz, and the NPD, a racist political party. The police appeared even more outmanned than they had been on Sunday, with the right-wing forces able at times to actually attack and break through police lines. Eighteen rioters and two police officers were reported injured.
Demonstrations surrounding the stabbing and the response to it continued to roil Chemnitz through the following weekend, with an anti-Nazi leftist rock concert attracting 65,000 people on September 3, dwarfing the right-wing crowds. Two days before, on September 1, an AfD rally had attracted only 4,500 people, who faced 4,000 counter-demonstrators. But even from a position of numerical weakness, the far right seems to be setting the agenda.