Germany’s refugee inferno
Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th September, 2015)
In the three-storey house in the neat village of Gerstungen, the smell of smoke and charred wood hangs heavy in the air. Shards of broken glass crunch beneath my feet and police stickers across the door warn against entry.
Just hours before, in the early hours of Friday morning, arsonists firebombed the empty building – shortly after its owner revealed he had offered it as a home for some of the 800,000 refugees pouring into Germany this year.
Such extreme violence feels at odds with the respectable rural village, filled with lovingly tended gardens, duck ponds and carefree children on bikes enjoying the late summer sun.
But this was just the latest in a series of vicious assaults on refugees and sinister arson attacks on their housing that reveal the dark side of German generosity towards the world’s refugees.
This year there have been 306 attacks on refugee accommodations – 46 of them torchings such as the one I witnessed in the eastern state of Thuringia. Nine of them have been in the past fortnight alone.
This is already four times the number last year, itself a threefold rise on 2013. There have also been attacks on buses of refugees and Syrians fleeing civil war. Recent victims include teenagers beaten with bottles, kicked to the ground and even urinated on in a train.
Shockingly, they show how the resurgent far-Right is exploiting the fears of many Germans over the influx of foreigners in such numbers, with incendiary talk of civil war. One neo-Nazi source even told me they were running secret military-style exercises with firearms.
It is plain a majority of Germans support Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept refugees in such high numbers. Recent arrivals have been greeted warmly with welcoming banners, food and hugs. Ministers predict the country may take another 500,000 annually over the next few years and have challenged other European nations, especially Britain, to display similar resolve.
Yet the cowardly attacks, bigots and fascists show another side to the story – and they are a chilling echo from the nation’s past, as I discovered arriving at Gerstungen less than one hour after passing the site of the former Buchenwald concentration camp.
The village of about 3,000 people currently hosts 160 refugees, housed in a seedy centre that greets visitors with a warning against xenophobia. These numbers will rise – and one after another, residents showed sympathy for the aims, if not the actions, of the bombers.
Heike, 52, a mother of two who, like others, urged me not to use her last name, claimed the mood in the village was tense after a series of break-ins blamed on refugees. ‘There are too many single men and there is nothing for them to do,’ she said.
Stefanie, a 34-year-old housewife and former casino worker, said she felt ‘uncomfortable’ amid so many foreigners and afraid even in her own house. ‘The village is going down the river. We go out to work but they come here and do nothing.’
She fears tensions between factions with opposing views on refugees may explode in Germany. ‘In this village, the divisions are getting worse and worse. It is very sad,’ she said.
Werner Hartung, Gerstungen’s mayor, rapidly condemned the attackers for hurting those most in need, while at the refugee centre I found a young couple unloading a car filled with clothes and toys for the mainly Syrian residents there.
The attacks are taking place across Germany. Recently, incendiary bombs were hurled at a new shelter in Berlin; a hostel in nearby Nauen was destroyed just before 130 asylum-seekers moved in; and a fire injured five people and forced the evacuation of 80 refugees from a unit in Baden-Württemberg.
There have also been threats to behead a conservative politician backing a new centre, while a mayor was forced out after a hate campaign over his support for refugees.
Last month, protesters shouting ‘Foreigners out’ attacked asylum-seekers arriving in a town near Dresden. Last week, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee in Potsdam was punched in the face and kicked on the ground.
Few of the arsonists and thugs have been caught, so it is unclear whether these are the actions of angry local people or organised covertly by far-Right groups. Yet one thing is clear: Germany’s neo-Nazis want to inflame and exploit concerns over refugees.
On Thursday evening, I went to a protest purporting to be against ‘civil war in Germany’ in Freital, Saxony. There have been more than 150 rallies organised by the far-Right against refugees this year. Security services recently forced removal of online posts by a shadowy group calling itself ‘Defenders of Freital’ to ‘arm themselves’ against asylum-seekers.
Another group tried and failed last month to get permission for a Nazi-style torchlit march through the town. Facebook posts by organisers of the latest protest asked people to avoid flags associated with the far-Right; they also discussed the attempted arson of a potential refugee centre.
As soon as I arrived, I was surrounded by a group of burly men, while my photographer’s camera was grabbed. ‘You do not speak English in our country,’ one crop-haired man told me. ‘You are in Germany now.’
After showing my press card, I was able to listen to the rally, although most people refused to talk to me. The photographer, however, was harassed throughout the protest, during which people chanted ‘We don’t want homes for asylum-seekers’.
Speakers displayed the usual persecution myths of the far-Right, with cheers when they complained of being seen as racists for saying they were against foreigners. ‘We talk about the problems of society and they say we are Nazis,’ claimed one.
When we left the demonstration, two menacing men in hoodies followed as we turned down badly lit streets towards the car. Fortunately, riot police were watching and rushed around in a van to drive beside us, forcing the pair to shuffle away.
Among those at the protest were four local pensioners. ‘What the last speaker said is what we are all thinking,’ said 69-year-old Barbara Sobe.
One friend, a 72-year-old retired engineer, said they felt betrayed by a Chancellor they had supported. ‘Everyone wants to come to Germany because Merkel says everyone is welcome here,’ he said. ‘We do not want civil war but we fear civil war.’
Such statements sound absurd in this peaceful and prosperous powerhouse of a modern European nation, which currently enjoys the lowest unemployment levels for 24 years. Most analysts believe refugees will revitalise the nation’s ageing society by slowing population decline and plugging gaps in the workforce.
Yet, to my astonishment, I heard similar fears of unrest not just from protest organisers – who said this was the first of weekly demonstrations by ‘patriots’ – but from almost all the ordinary Germans I spoke to in both Freital and Gerstungen.
‘Maybe there could be civil war,’ said Matthias Weinlich, a former anti-asylum activist who now assists refugees in Freital. ‘When you have so many people coming from North Africa, they have a different culture. But I hope Germans can stay cool.’
They were also echoed when I talked with Dr Alexander Gauland, one of the founders of the Right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that has been gaining ground in areas such as Saxony and Thuringia.
Gauland claimed many German people were frightened of losing their culture. ‘It is hard to say what will happen in the future but these scenes of welcome will turn to disillusionment,’ he said.
Let me stress again that six in ten Germans believe their country can cope with the influx.
But Professor Fabian Virchow, head of the research unit on Right-wing extremism at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, told me that while the majority wanted to help refugees, they harboured concerns about the long-term consequences for their country.
He added that a significant number – more than ten per cent – thought too many foreigners were being admitted. ‘They fear this is changing Germany in a negative way. This is why we will see violent attacks.’
Or as Christine Luders, director of Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, put it earlier this year: ‘First the homes will burn, and then the people.’
A neo-Nazi skinhead called Werner, jailed for hate crimes, told The Mail on Sunday how far-Right extremists used codewords in chatrooms as calls to attend protests at refugee centres. He said: ‘A buzzword will give you the information where to meet for a protest against immigrant scum.’
This unpleasant racist, who wears the Iron Cross, claimed neo-Nazis held covert firearms and explosives exercises in the Czech Republic.
Thankfully, such hate-filled people remain fringe figures. Yet amid the nation’s inspiring response to Europe’s refugee crisis, they show the dangers still lurking in the darkest shadows of German society.