Two competing demonstrations in Chemnitz were very much a clash of two Germanys. No police presence could obscure the fundamental conflict, indeed naked hatred, between these two sets of people.
Police in the eastern city of Chemnitz said Saturday they had ordered the organizers of an anti-migrant protest to call off their march.
The rally, which drew about 4,500 participants, surpassed its authorized time limit, leading to concerns about public safety, officials said. They added that some 3,500 counterdemonstrators had attempted to interfere with the march by blocking its planned route.
As night fell, protesters from both sides were refusing to leave the area, prompting police to bring in water cannon, the DPA news agency reported.
“Our units were at times forced to use direct force,” police said on Twitter. “We repeat our call, continue to refrain from violence.”
DW reporter Jefferson Chase, who was in Chemnitz, said angry right-wing demonstrators accused the police of failing to protect them.
More than 1,200 police officers were deployed to Chemnitz ahead of Saturday’s protests, which came one week after a 35-year-old German man was fatally stabbed in the city. Two men from Syria and Iraq have been arrested over the death.
Saturday’s right-wing rally was led by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the populist PEGIDA movement. Organizers called it a “mourning march,” with many participants holding German flags and pictures of alleged victims of migrant violence.
Large crowds, including hundreds of rival demonstrators, also turned out for a rally opposing xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment.
Read more: Violence in Chemnitz: A timeline of events
A clash of two Germanys
The two competing demonstrations in Chemnitz were very much a clash of two Germanys — limited only by a massive police presence. Keen to avoid last week’s scenes of protesters seeming to run amok in the streets, authorities were careful to sort right-wing from counterdemonstrators right at Chemnitz’s main train station, shunting them in different directions.
The atmosphere at the pro-refugee “Herz statt Hetze” (Show a Heart Not Hatred) demonstration was carnivalesque, with the largely young crowd listening to rock bands and chanting anti-Nazi slogans in a number of languages.
The mood in the opposite camp was much darker. AfD supporters refrained from displaying party symbols, and most heeded organizers’ calls to stay silent as a sign of mourning for those killed.
But when the two sides came into proximity, the air immediately turned quite tense. Counterprotesters repeatedly bypassed cordon lines to provoke the right-wing marchers, causing some minor scuffles, injuries and damage. And the AfD and PEGIDA supporters made no secret of their displeasure when told disperse.
Some made obscene gestures and bellowed “Our taxes pay your salaries.” And a crowd of around 100 protesters who initially refused to disperse chanted “Wir sind das Volk,” (We are the people) — the rallying cry of anti-Communist protesters before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The majority of those lining the streets of the march route sympathized with the right-wing demonstrators and complained that the counterprotesters had been given preferential treatment. Whatever the truth of those complaints, the police strategy did succeed in keeping the two sides apart despite the highly volatile situation. But no police presence could obscure the fundamental conflict, indeed naked hatred, between these two sets of people.
Rage over immigration
Many on the right are angry with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of mainly Middle Eastern asylum-seekers to Germany in 2015. The influx led to a backlash in some parts of the country that resulted in the AfD winning seats in parliament for the first time.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who himself favors a stricter immigration policy, acknowledged Saturday that people “are upset about the brutal killing” of a German citizen, but said that was “no excuse for violence.”
“We need a strong state and we have to do everything politically to overcome the polarization and division of our society,” the Funke Media Group quoted him as saying.