Anti-immigrant arson, violence mark 80th anniversary of Nazi race laws, German civil society and leaders respond
The month of September saw more arson attacks on prospective asylum-seeker facilities in western Germany. A former school in Gersheim meant to shelter several dozen people was intentionally set ablaze on 10 September, according to the Saarland State Police Presidium.
The building of the planned shelter was still empty so no injuries occurred. Because it was about to be used for asylum-seekers, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the BfV), which is responsible for investigating extremist violence, has joined the police investigation of the arson.
Authorities estimate that tens of thousands of euros worth of damage was caused by the blaze. The incident was just one of a recent series of arson attacks in Germany on asylum-seekers' shelters.
Such fires have been set in the southern town of Weissach and in the Saxon town of Meissen. Six people were injured by such a fire in Rottenburg on 7 September.
German Government prognoses anticipate as many as 800 000 asylum-seekers coming to Germany this year, four times as many as last year. The leaders of some German states, however, believe there will be many more migrants than that.
In August alone more than 100 000 asylum-seekers were registered in the country. Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reported last month that representatives of Germany's governing parties, the conservative CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), agreed to an extensive package of asylum policy measures to address the refugee crisis, including increasing aid to refugees next year by EUR 6 billion and placing Balkan states on the list of so-called "safe countries".
The German Parliament is slated to vote on the proposals this month. Objection to such aid is being voiced in Germany in various ways.
DPA reported that a 26-year-old man lost his job last month after posting hateful commentaries online beneath the photograph of the dead Syrian boy that so shocked global public opinion at the start of September. The man had been contracted through an agency to work with a Berlin-based logistics company in the Hermes group.
Company spokesperson Martin Frommhold said the man's online commentary celebrating the child's death violated the ethics code that applies to all of the firm's employees and subcontractors. "People from 60 countries worldwide work for us and we are proud of that," the spokesperson said, adding that Hermes would not tolerate racism or xenophobia in any form.
German Police have reportedly launched an investigation of the matter on the basis of more than 100 criminal reports received about the incident. If convicted, the young man faces up to five years in prison for defaming the memory of a deceased person.
The Facebook social networking site has since erased the offensive post. The photograph of three-year old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi made the front page of many leading newspapers in Europe and sparked a wave of horrified reactions; the boy drowned together with his brother and mother during the family's attempt to reach Europe from Turkey by sea.
Merkel: Europe needs USA to aid with migrants
German Chancellor Merkel has called on the USA to do more to aid Europe with the reception of refugees fleeing wartime conflict and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard says the US is in favor of receiving more Syrian asylum-seekers.
"To believe that Europe could deal completely on its own with this, without aid from the United States, does not seem realistic to me at all," DPA reported Merkel as saying in Berlin. She believes America and Europe are capable of receiving many migrants and protecting them.
"Even in the best-case scenario, however, this will only be emergency aid," she added. The Chancellor said she believes the USA could also aid with improving the living conditions in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and with addressing the causes of the current migration crisis.
Richard told National Public Radio in the US that she is convinced that "most high representatives of the US State Department, the National Security Council and the White House want to receive more asylum-seekers. Next year the President wants to make it possible for 10 000 such migrants to come to the US. One year after that, I would like to see that number increase substantially," she said.
DPA reports that Merkel also said she does not anticipate there will be any fast answers to the crisis. "We cannot achieve solutions overnight. ... We need a great deal of patience," she said.
Minimum EU standards for refugee
Speaking to the Federal Assembly, Merkel said EU countries have acknowledged the Europe-wide dimension of the refugee crisis and described the need for collaboration not just with the US, but also with Middle Eastern states and Russia. She also called for assuring that there are minimum standards in Europe with respect to the care provided to asylum-seekers and standards for the course of their proceedings.
A long-term solution, the Chancellor believes, will only be possible if conditions manage to improve in the countries from which the asylum-seekers are coming, primarily in Syria. "Combating the causes of their flight will be very demanding for us. We can only be successful in collaboration with our transatlantic partner the United States as well as with Russis and the countries of the Middle and Near East. Let's just remember how horrible the situation in Syria is," she said.
Merkel said the EU agreement to redistribute 120 000 asylum-seekers on the basis of quotas is just a first step that must be followed by other moves. "I am deeply convinced that Europe needs a long-term mechanism for the fair distribution of refugees among the Member States. The Federal Government supports the European Commission's proposals in this matter," she said.
The Chancellor also called for solidarity and for the defense of human rights, which she called basic EU values. "The European Union is a society of values, a society of law and responsibility, and must also demonstrate in practice that it honors those requirements. That includes adhering to minimum standards for the accommodation of refugees and assuring their needs and standards for the course of asylum proceedings," she said.
"Currently we are in a situation where the minimum standards are not adhered to everywhere," Merkel declared. She did not mention which countries that involves.
The Chancellor has also called for asylum proceedings to be accelerated. "In order to be able to actually aid those who have fled to Europe because of persecution and war, it is necessary to significantly accelerate asylum proceedings," she said.
"Especially in cases where people have come to us because of persecution and war, we must decide their cases much more quickly and consistently enforce their subsequent return [to their countries of origin]," Merkel said. She also emphasized that the integration of immigrants into society is just as important as border protection measures or arranging for immediate aid to asylum-seekers.
"We expect these people to respect the rules and values enshrined in our Constitution, and to integrate into society on that basis. First and foremost, we expect them to be willing to learn to speak German," she said.
"How we deal with the current crisis will influence our continent for a long time to come. I want Europe to pass this cultural, economic, moral and social test. Who else is able to meet this challenge if not us?" she said.
Merkel asks Facebook to address hate and xenophobia among its users
York was broadcast via a microphone. The Chancellor asked the CEO whether his company intends to do something about the racist, xenophobic posts that are flooding Facebook in connection with the refugee crisis.
The American billionaire answered that there is "still some work to do" in that direction. Merkel would not be deterred and asked: "Are you working on it?"
Zuckerberg answered "Yes"; the transmission of the conversation was then interrupted. Agence France-Presse reports that Facebook has joined forces with a nonprofit group on Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers to combat hateful posts on the German version of the network.
German President compares refugee challenge to the unification of Germany
German President Joachim Gauck has said that the arrival of the asylum-seekers is just as big of a challenge for Germany as the reunification of the country was in 1990. Gauck made the remarks in Frankfurt at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of unification, saying that it will take several generations for the new arrivals to become a stable component of German society.
Gauck said that even though the unification of Germany had restored what should never have been divided, the process of unification was not smooth. "Gradually we all realized that reaching comparable results between East and West when it comes to living conditions and mentality is a multi-generational process," the President said.
"As in the year 1990, a challenge now awaits us that will occupy several generations. Unlike those days, however, what must now grow together are elements that have not belonged together before. East and West Germany shared a common language, after all, they shared a culture and a history," he noted.
Gauck said the situation facing Germany now is similar to the one that West Germans underwent after the first wave of immigrants into the country during the 1960s. "It will take a certain amount of time before the new arrivals become accustomed to a social order that frequently contravenes their traditional norms. It will take time for both our new and our old fellow-citizens to take responsibility for our state, which will be perceived by all as their common country," he said.
The German President said everyone, both Germans and new arrivals, must uphold basic values such as democracy, equality and freedom. Unfortunately, it seems not everyone in Germany is on board with this aim, as the following illustrates.
Germany's "Battle for Janov"
In November 2008, the Janov housing estate in the Czech Republic experienced several hours of street fighting between neo-Nazis supported by local residents and police - a scene that was reprised recently in the southern Saxon town of Heidenau, population 16 000. The local anti-Nazi activists who immediately stood up to these developments were able to draw on their experiences in recent years from the Czech towns of České Budějovice, Duchcov and Ústí nad Labem, where they have witnessed similar unrest targeting Roma.
Just as the Czech Police failed to keep the peace in November 2008 at Janov, Saxon Police failed to keep the peace in Heidenau this past August. They spent hours in street battles outnumbered by violent thugs, resulting in 31 injured officers and one arrested demonstrator - who was handed over to the local deputies without being subsequently charged.
No one at all has been charged yet for these extremely violent assaults. The Saxon State Interior Ministry has launched investigations against 25 suspects.
All have been released on their own recognizance and are free to re-offend at any time. Far from a spontaneous event, their social media mobilization for the August attack began at this time last year.
A Facebook profile called "Heidenau-Hört zu" ("Heidenau, Listen") was launched in October 2014 with the slogan "We don't want to be what the left and the right want. We're non-conformist, and that's good."
On 30 November 2014 the group held a demonstration supported by the National Democratic Party (NPD). Approximately 200 people demonstrated in Heidenau "against the wave of asylum-seekers in Saxon Switzerland and the accommodation of more economic refugees in Heidenau."
Speakers at the event included Holger Szymanksi (the then-NPD head in Saxony) and Jens Baur, who leads the party there today. On 18 December 2014, the Heidenau town council held the first of several public meetings on the topic of accommodation for refugees.
The NPD called on supporters to attend the town council meetings to express their views. The number of aggressive posts to the website of "Heidenau, Listen" began to increase.
Those posts also include allegations that "Gypsy gangs" exist in the local schools. By February of 2015 the NPD was no longer hiding its cards.
On the 70th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden, the "Heidenau, Listen" movement changed its profile on Facebook from being a group of politically unaffiliated citizens to officially presenting itself with the NPD logo. The party then established a local committee in Heidenau.
On 10 April the NPD began distributing fliers around the small town against the "asylum-seeker influx". At that time there were a total of 60 refugees living in Heidenau, who were not being accommodated in any single location.
On 24 May the NPD succeeded in the local elections. After winning 7.5 % of the vote, 27-year-old Rico Rentzsch became the NPD member of the Heidenau council. (In 2009, Rentszch had been brought up on charges of being an accomplice to an assault on three youths during which he allegedly gave the Nazi salute. Along with the other four defendants, he was ordered by the court to attend anger-management classes).
On 30 May 2015 the Facebook page of "Heidenau, Listen" began to repeatedly report allegations that refugees were committing crime in Heidenau. On 1 July they called for "national resistance" against the state's decision to accommodate refugees there.
Two weeks later the Facebook page was calling for "National resistance NOW". Then on 13 August, the group informed its followers that refugees might be housed in the abandoned building of what had been a supermarket for craft materials.
On 18 August state officials announced that the former supermarket would become a temporary residential hotel for approximately 600 refugees. The Facebook page of "Heidenau, Listen" announced a "spontaneous demonstration" in front of the planned facility, noting that "Participation is mandatory".
The NPD itself then called for public protests. Between 100 and 400 Neo-Nazis and "ordinary citizens" assembled in front of the the still-empty facility, complaining they had not been given enough information about the plan and alleging they had not been given an opportunity to express their views of the decision to locate the refugees there.
That gathering was non-violent, but at the next NPD demonstration on 21 August, 1 000 people attended and neo-Nazis assaulted police officers. The protest march was announced by the local NPD councilor.
Those participating were both local "ordinary people" and neo-Nazis from the entire region. When the demonstration ended, a mob set out for the residential hotel to wait for the first refugees to arrive there.
After police attempted to disperse that unannounced assembly, roughly 200 people sat down in the middle of the highway to blockade the refugees' arrival. The situation escalated when police used tear gas.
Demonstrators attacked the police with pyrotechnics and rocks, destroying traffic signs in the process. Some riot police fled the assault.
Thus was unleashed the biggest street battle involving neo-Nazis in recent years in Germany. It took several hours for police to calm the situation.
An unidentified cameraperson posted video footage of the unrest on YouTube that stayed up only briefly. The Social Democratic Party of Dresden managed to download it, publish it on its website, and hand it over to the police.
On 22 August, more such attacks on police were committed. Heidenau was the top story in all of the German media.
The small town had become a synonym for hatred of foreigners. Both the federal government and the state government of Saxony condemned the violence.
Mayor Jürgen Opitz called on citizens not to participate in any protests, whether for or against refugees. The leadership of the Saxon State Police did not increase the number of officers deployed to the town despite the unrest.
On the evening of 22 August, anti-Fascists and other citizens held a spontaneous demonstration in support of the refugees in front of the residential hotel, called for by the Dresden Regional Antifa group. Police from all over the region were deployed to secure that event.
After the anti-Fascists left the scene, another sudden explosion of violence occurred. Around 150 neo-Nazis turned up to throw pyrotechnics, rocks and traffic signs at the police.
Civil society, media and politicians respond
The next day, the entire German "media landscape" immediately launched an educational campaign about the nature of the current humanitarian crisis and the danger of neo-Nazism and racism, giving ample room to figures condemning the violent unrest. The work of the Saxon Police leadership and state Interior Minister were sharply criticized.
Commentators recalled the year 1991, when the newly-united Germany experienced the worst racial unrest of its young history. At that time civil society did not demonstrate any practical solidarity beyond lighting candles to commemorate the victims.
Members of the Saxon state government sharply condemned the violent unrest. The Governor of Saxony spoke of citizens' obligation to aid refugees.
On 23 August the police established a "security zone" around the residential hotel and the Heidenau train station. Police began to ask citizens attempting to enter the zone for their identification and were empowered to issue "red card" tickets for entering the zone.
Hundreds of opponents of the neo-Nazis demonstrated in front of the residential hotel once again. Police pushed themts back to the train station, where a special train returned them to Dresden.
The next day, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel visited Heidenau and spoke with the refugees at the residential hotel. The chair of the SPD referred to the nighttime attack by the neo-Nazis by saying "In our home we call them vermin."
The Saxon Government Plenipotentiary for Foreginers, Geert Mackenroth, blamed the NPD for sparking the unrest. In an interview for public radio, Mackenroth said the problem was happening because the NPD had not managed to win enough votes during the last regional elections to the state legislature and was trying to increase its voter appeal
Meanwhile, in Leipzig, refugees staying in an emergency shelter there demonstrated with the help of local activists against the news that they would be transferred to the residential hotel in Heidenau. Officials responded to their demands and accommodated them elsewhere, but other refugees were sent to Heidenau in their place; the facility had only two showers and two toilets for 600 people at the time.
On the evening of 23 August more than 200 people assembled for ecumenical prayer in the Christuskirche in Heidenau. Clergy of various confessions said their wish was for residents to view the refugees without prejudice and to consider them their fellow human beings, with hopes and needs like anyone else.
On 25 August, Rainer Wendt, the chair of the police union, asked the Government to release financing for better police equipment, so units could remain flexible and mobile. He welcomed the idea of establishing security zones around the refugee shelters so demonstrations could not be held within view of them.
On 26 August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the refugees in Heidenau and, together with the mayor, spoke with them about their situation. As she was leaving she was "welcomed" by demonstrators who had assembled outside the facility to boo her, curse her, and whistle loudly at her.
During her brief press conference in front of the facility the Chancellor emphasized that there would be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of others. She spent absolutely no time with local residents.
On 27 August, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas visited the refugees and then attended an evening discussion with students of the local high school. Some of the pupils admitted that they were afraid to publicly express their opinions because they felt threatened by right-wing extremists.
Maas was accompanied by a well-loved television moderator, Dunya Hayali, who has Arab roots and was able to speak Arabic with the refugees. She called those opposed to the refugees "right-wing trash".
The Justice Minister said he had sent the European headquarters of Facebook a written complaint about the fact that the pages they operate tolerate racist posts. He announced he would be meeting with the leadership of Facebook on 14 September.
On 28 August, in response to the unrest, an association called "Nazi-Free Dresden" organized a celebration to welcome the refugees at the residential hotel in Heidenau. The group demonstratively ignored the ban on public assemblies at the facility, as did German MP Cem Özdemir (Green Party).
Just before the announced start time for the public party, the Saxon District Court overturned the official ban on it. Saxon State Justice Minister Markus Ulbig attempted to attend the party but was not allowed in by his fellow citizens, who expressed themselves to him non-violently, but resolutely.
The minister and his security team eventually left Heidenau without getting their photo opportunity with the refugees. The anti-Fascists' opposition to his participation stems from the fact that he has showed too much tolerance for neo-Nazis and the Pegida movement in Saxony.
The activists' event included a "bouncy castle" for the refugee children. A 10-ton truck also arrived from Berlin with gifts for the refugees.
After the party ended, 100 neo-Nazis turned up and attempted to access the residential hotel. Police surrounded them, issued 180 "red cards" and removed them.
Across all of Germany that evening, thousands of people displayed their solidarity with the refugees and protested against the violence in Heidenau. In Frankfurt around 300 people participated in a demonstration protesting the racist violence and the German Government's previously anti-refugee policy.
On 29 August, the German Supreme Administrative Court upheld the lower court's verdict overturning the ban on assemblies in Heidenau. The appeals court sided with the plaintiffs, law students from Bonn, whose initial complaint had only partially been agreed with by the lower court.
While the first-instance decision said it would allow a welcoming celebration in front of the residential hotel, it persisted in banning demonstrations. An administrative fine of EUR 1 000 was levied against the young plaintiffs and later revoked.
A demonstration was then held by the "Nazi-Free Dresden" association under the slogan "Prevent Tomorrow's Pogroms Today." Afterward, 400 participants set out for Heidenau to express their solidarity with the refugees there.
German news server Spiegel Online has reported that the Federal Prosecutor has begun to research whether the violent unrest in Heidenau had been planned and whether those who convened it met the felony definition of "establishing a criminal organization". If so, they would face tough sentencing once convicted.
On 30 August, the Saxon Secret Service for the protection of the Constitution announced that it considered the violence around the refugees to represent a new "dimension of violence". Secret Service head Meyer-Plath told the German daily Die Welt that what was new were the attacks and brutality against police officers.
Previously right-wing extremists had done their best to present themselves to police as "decent people who just want to uphold order in the town", Meyer-Plath said. Meanwhile, Mayor Opitz announced that he had received written threats of violence against his family.
"There are options for us to protect ourselves," Opitz said. "I will not be terrorized. I will continue to speak out against racism and to advocate for the citizens of my town demonstrating solidarity with asylum-seekers and behaving decently."
That same day Merkel held a two-hour press conference describing Germany's new refugee policy. She said there would be zero tolerance for those who seek to terrorize others.
The number of people who are aiding the refugees in Germany is exponentially larger than their antagonists. "We can be proud of ourselves today," the Chancellor said.
She went on to say that "today we are faced with a great national challenge that will last a long time." For that reason, Germany will have to change - "German punctiliousness is super, but now we need German flexibility", she said.
Merkel considers it a problem that the eastern Member States of the European Union do not want to show solidarity on this issue. "Europe as a whole must move forward. If Europe fails in its relationship toward these refugees, the great common value of civil rights may be damaged, and this would harm all of Europe," she said.
On 1 September there was an extraordinary session on providing asylum in the Saxon Parliament where all political parties in attendance condemned the violence. According to the Governor of Saxony, those "who participate in demonstrations by right-wing extremists endanger social peace."
Frauke Petry, chair of the populist AfD party's faction in the legislature, demanded the Schengen agreements be abolished and border controls reintroduced. The Saxon Interior Minister was again sharply criticized for the poor police work during the August intervention at Heidenau.
On 6 September the "Heidenau, Listen" Facebook group once again published an NPD election poster on its page and announced a demonstration for Friday, 11 September. Their event was timed to coincide with a previously-announced march by children from the local nursery school.
Civil society meets the challenge
While Heidenau became a symbol of anti-refugee violence overnight, thanks to the powerful, timely anti-racist campaign by the German Government and civil society, today it is synonymous with a new beginning. The German Government reversed its previously restrictive policy toward refugees in short order.
The country has already announced extensive changes to its laws and regulations that will not only facilitate asylum proceedings and provide dignified living conditions to new arrivals, but will also undertake measures to make sure Germany is not seen as a paradise for refugees from around the globe. The Government also managed to rapidly and significantly reduce the impact of the series of violent attacks on refugee shelters.
A great deal of work awaits Germany in the years to come. It will not be possible to integrate almost one million people in a brief amount of time, and the Government definitely will not be able to accomplish this without civil society.
80th anniversary of the racist Nuremberg Laws
All of these events are coinciding with a significant anniversary in Germany. On 15 September 1935, the German Parliament adopted the "Law on the Protection of German Honor and German Blood" and the "Law on Citizenship of the Reich".
These two legal norms, known as the Nuremberg Laws, provided formal legitimacy to the anti-Semitic measures of the Nazi regime and prepared the groundwork for the physical destruction of the Jewish minority. They were in effect until September 1945, when, together with other Nazi legislation, then were abolished by the Allied Control Council.
Hatred of the Jewish minority was an integral component of National Socialist ideology from the very beginning. The conviction that Jewish people were responsible for Germany's economic and moral decline was wedded in the Nuremberg Laws with pseudo-scientific theories about the inequality of human races.
Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Briton living in Germany, was a significant promoter of such theories. After Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler in January 1933, the way was opened for the self-appointed protectors of "the racial purity of the nation" to introduce their ideas into practice.
The anti-Jewish terror, in the beginning, took the form of more or less informal, spontaneous actions and partial measures excluding Jews from performing some professions. The Nazis soon felt the need to given formal legitimacy to their oppression of the Jews, however.
The result was the Nuremberg Laws, adopted at an extraordinary session of Parliament in that city. The "Law on Citizenship of the Reich" prescribed that only persons "with German or related blood" could become citizens.
All other inhabitants fell into a category called "state members" and were deprived of their political rights. The law became more and more restrictive over the years and the Jews were not only deprived of their right to vote, but were banned from visiting local libraries, colleges or parks and banned from working in retail.
The "Law on the Protection of German Honor and German Blood" banned marraiges between "Aryan" Germans and Jews and also extramarital relations between them. The deciding criterion for establishing Jewish origin was whether a person's grandparents were members of a Jewish religious community.
On that basis, three categories of inhabitants of the Reich were distinguished: Persons of German and related blood, Jews, and "mixed-race" people. With their famed precision, the German authorities elaborated a scheme for prescribing the position of children from "mixed" marriages.
People labelled "mixed-race" were divided into two categories according to the degree of their "Jewishness". Persons who had two Jewish forebears but who were not members of a religious community and were not married to Jews were called "first-class mixed-race" people.
These people were ascribed similar rights to those considered "racially pure", but some restrictions still applied to them, including a ban on their marrying a person from their same category. The laws on "second-class mixed-race" persons (those who had just one Jewish forebear) were a bit more benevolent.
These people were banned from working in some professions but were essentially considered capable of integrating into Germany society. The principles of the Nuremberg racial laws were also applied in German-occupied territories during the Second World War.
In the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia they were first used under the Reichsprotektor's Edict on Jewish Property, issued on 21 June 1939. That measure banned Jews from freely managing their own property and put their businesses under forced administration.
The legal anchoring of discrimination against Jews and other groups - such as Roma - was a significant milestone on the way to the eventual physical annihilation of the members of these minorities. The number of Jews from Germany and German-occupied countries who were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, during death marches or as a result of criminal actions is estimated at six million persons; the number of Romani victims is estimated at approximately one million.
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