CHEMNITZ, Germany — Many of the brick homes built at the edges of Chemnitz in the late 19th century stand empty, their darkened windows staring threateningly at visitors to the city. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, many cities in the former communist East Germany shrank when their residents fled west in search of a better life. Chemnitz’s population, around 250,000 today, fell by nearly 25 percent in the first two decades following reunification.
But during a visit by a reporter Friday, Chemnitz seemed to have left its years of crisis behind. The restaurants and shopping centers were full, the main market square thronging with people.
Still, the day before, the streets were filled with an estimated 8,000 participants in the biggest Nazi march since World War II. It was the peak, for now, of a protest that began with the fatal stabbing last Sunday of a German citizen.
Two men are in custody, an Iraqi and an asylum seeker from Syria. New demonstrations were expected Saturday, one by neo-Nazis and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, amid a counterprotest by the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and others.
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Many of the city’s longtime residents want to restore the lost glory of East Germany. “The best thing would be to rebuild the wall and move all the foreigners to the other side,” a tall man who gave his age as 37 and his name as Hummler told Haaretz.
He grasped a bottle of beer in one hand, and one of his eyes was bandaged. “The ones who work can stay here; all the rest need to go,” he added, but immediately complained that the foreign workers took jobs from locals. Hummler, who said he was temporarily unemployed, is a construction worker.
Two well-dressed matrons who asked not to be named also said that things were more relaxed during the 41 years of the German Democratic Republic. “I worked as a hospital nurse, and I could finish my shift at 3 A.M., as the men were leaving the beer halls, and everything was calm,” one said. “Everyone would greet one another.”
She said that in the current era she was once robbed by an immigrant wearing a face mask; the police never found him. “We’re afraid to leave the house, even in daylight,” one of the women said.
Their complaints about immigrants didn’t stop there. “Their culture is different,” said the woman who was robbed. “Their children play in the yard until 10 at night and afterward they start to cook, and the food they make smells — because it’s a different culture, and we don’t like it. Most of the people don’t assimilate into society, and that’s a problem.”
Despite their complaints, the women stress that they don’t support the far right in Chemnitz and they steer clear of the neo-Nazi marches each year on March 5 that commemorate the Allied bombings in 1945 that left the city in ruins.
Mario, a man in his 40s who sells honey in the market square, says the media has exaggerated the recent events in the city. “The older people sit at home, watch television and they’re afraid to go out; as a result there are fewer people today,” he said.
When asked to weigh in on the violent clashes over the past week, he blamed Chancellor Angela Merkel. “She’s from here, from the G.D.R., and she belongs to the conservative party,” Mario said.
“In the first years she did good work, but then the whole story with the immigrants started. She said that Germany would cope, but we don’t agree .... She spends billions on immigrants and Greece’s debt instead of on old people and people who depend on social benefits.”
Mario, who proudly declared that he was born in Karl-Marx-Stadt, as the city was called under communism, also finds many advantages in the past.
“There was order, everything operated according to the rules,” he said. “True, there were fewer goods, but on Christmas, for example, you could find a melon, or oranges. Everyone had the right to work and there were obligations. And there was more justice — everyone had the same thing.”
Prof. Teresa Pinheiro, an expert on cultural and social change at the Chemnitz University of Technology’s Institute for European Studies, says that the current wave of racism isn’t the first to sweep the city. After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, veteran residents turned their hatred toward the labor migrants who had come to East Germany from communist countries such as Vietnam and Angola and settled there.
These immigrants were very surprised, Pinheiro says. “People who had been their neighbors and friends for years turned on them,” she said, adding that the earlier wave of racism might now have swept all of Germany, not only the east, and that it was linked to the major changes the country was undergoing. “Today, too, it’s a reaction to changes.”
The fear, anger and frustration of the established residents also found expression in a roundtable Thursday in the city’s soccer stadium, Pinheiro says. As neo-Nazis demonstrated outside, inside residents silenced the governor of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, and Chemnitz Mayor Barbara Ludwig. One of the main issues raised by residents was their fear.
“In Chemnitz they don’t like immigrants very much,” said Lydia, an immigrant from Nigeria who lives in the city with her husband and their year-old son. “We tried just now to find a restroom to change a diaper,” she added, pointing to the son of her friend as they left a shopping center. “But they say they don’t understand English. If you don’t speak German you can’t do anything. We never found it.”
Lydia says it’s rare for her to go into the city. “I stay at home with the baby most of the time, I have no reason to go out,” she said.
Black women and women wearing hijabs can sometimes be seen on Chemnitz’s streets. But according to Haider, a 27-year-old refugee from Iraq who has lived in the city for two years, his wife is reluctant to go out and has stayed at home for the past several days. Their children are too young for kindergarten.
“Many children don’t go to preschool and school now because their families are afraid; it’s not easy. Many immigrants have been beaten up,” Haider said, adding that even before the latest clashes and protests he didn’t feel at home in the city. “They look at us as if we’re all the same thing. Syrians, Iraqis; as far as they’re concerned we’re all brown and we don’t speak German.”