When two men stab a third, it is always a horrific crime, but only seldom does it make it into the national news. But when two refugees stab a German, the story could hardly be any bigger in today's Germany. Last weekend in Chemnitz, two men stabbed a German man with Cuban roots. The suspects are a man from Iraq and another from Syria, both of whom are now in custody. But their bloody crime and its consequences have held the country in their grip ever since.
Not much is known publicly about the perpetrators or their motives. But it is imperative that the authorities quickly get to the bottom of it and that the criminals receive severe punishment. Those who stab others cannot expect leniency, no matter where they come from.
But if you've followed the pogrom-like mood that has spread since the crime in both Chemnitz itself and in the internet, if you've seen the scenes of mobs hunting down anyone who looks like they might be foreign, then it becomes clear that the demonstrators are less concerned with justice and mourning than they are with sending a message. A throng of several thousand right-wingers and right-wing extremists paraded through the city, throwing stones and showing the Hitler greeting. A whiff of the events in Rostock's Lichtenhagen district was in the air, where 26 years ago, neo-Nazis set fire to an asylum-seeker hostel full of residents. Something has emerged in Saxony the dimensions of which we have never seen before. And it should be cause for great concern. In the streets of Chemnitz, neo-Nazis, hooligans, supporters of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and disenfranchised citizens have coalesced into a lynch mob that see themselves as storm troopers fighting on the front lines of German identity. Like the Islamophobes from Pegida on amphetamines. How could such a thing happen? And what lessons can we learn?
Let's first look at the police, who, just as they did in Lichtenhagen in 1992, stood by helplessly – and hopefully not in quiet acceptance – unable to prevent the worst excesses. Twice in just a few days, the Saxony police showed that they have no clear idea as to what, exactly, their job entails in a democracy. The first instance came when officers prevented a team of journalists from German public broadcaster ZDF from doing their jobs during an anti-Merkel march in Dresden. Then came Sunday and Monday in Chemnitz. If you cede the streets to the hooligans and the neo-Nazis, if you are unable to protect innocent bystanders from violent attacks, then you are abandoning the rule of law. If the Saxony interior minister and the chief of police aren't able to do their jobs, then they have to go.
Saxony itself, meanwhile, must ask itself how this alliance between normal citizens and violent criminals came into being. It must explore what role was played by the meek approach to the AfD taken by state Governor Michael Kretschmer, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). After all, this isn't the first time that neo-Nazis in Saxony have been allowed to do what they want by acquiescent local politicians. Nor is it the first time that a mob has taken control of the streets of Saxony, as the examples of the xenophobic rampages in Heidenau in 2015 and Clausnitz in 2016 show. In many places, right-wing extremists are still seen as "our boys" and right-wing violence is treated as a trivial offense.
And what about the role played by the media? The fact that MDR, the public broadcaster for the eastern German states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, chose to forego a special report on the riots, opting instead to run an old East German film; the fact that the state's leading daily, the Sächsische Zeitung, reserved significant space in the Monday paper for its search for the "Saxon word of the year," making only brief mention of the previous day's events in Chemnitz – all of that is part of the unique Saxon strategy for dealing with the right-wing fringe. It is a strategy that is extremely difficult to understand for those who don't live in the state.
But it was the AfD itself that unleashed the mob, calling on its followers to take to the streets on Sunday, mere hours after the attack. And once the hordes got going, Alice Weidel, the AfD floor leader in the federal parliament, spurred them on a day later while AfD parliamentarian Markus Frohnmeier downplayed the rampage by saying people had merely taken to the streets in self-defense. The demonstrators from Chemnitz belong in part to Weidel and Frohnmeier.
Indeed, the third lesson from Chemnitz is that the riots were a key moment for the future of the AfD. It must decide what kind of a party it wants to be: a conservative, even nationalist-conservative, party that acts as an alternative for disillusioned conservative voters, but which clearly rejects right-wing extremism? There is room within Germany's democratic system for such a party, even if their messages would likely be difficult to listen to. Or does the AfD want to act as an amplifier for the racist, savage horde that rampaged through the streets of Chemnitz?