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“Heil Hitler”: Germany’s frightening neo-Nazi riots, explained

Police attempt to quell neo-Nazi riots at a refugee center in Heidenau, Germany.
Police attempt to quell neo-Nazi riots at a refugee center in Heidenau, Germany.
  • Neo-Nazi protests against a new refugee center in the small German town of Heidenau turned violent over the weekend. At least 31 police officers were injured in riots that broke out on Friday and continued over the weekend. Although the situation was calm on Monday, it is not yet clear whether police have gotten it completely under control.
  • Right-wing rioters shouted "heil Hitler," "foreigners out," and right-wing slogans like "here's the national resistance" as they attacked police with firecrackers, rocks, and other objects.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the riots as "disgusting," and said that "neo-Nazis are trying to spread their messages of hate around a refugee camp."
  • Xenophobic extremism appears to be on the rise in Germany as the country grapples with the largest influx of refugees it has experienced since World War II. There has been a string of violent incidents targeting asylum seekers, including a series of arson attacks against refugee centers.

Xenophobic violence against refugees is on the rise in Germany

Police face off against xenophobic rioters in Heidenau, Germany

(ARNO BURGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Police face off against rioters in Heidenau. (ARNO BURGI/AFP/Getty Images)

The rioting began on Friday when demonstrators attempted to seal off the road to a new refugee shelter being constructed in a former hardware store in Heidenau, a town of 16,000 people near Dresden in eastern Germany.

The shelter is designed to hold up to 600 people, and the violence broke out when asylum seekers started to arrive. However, the rioters were not able to prevent the center from opening: The police established a protection zone around it on Saturday, and approximately 200 people are now living in the center, according to German public broadcaster MDR.

This weekend's riots were just the latest incident in a string of violent attacks against asylum seekers in Germany. In July, arsonists burned down a building outside Munich that was supposed to house 67 refugees. In April, there was an attack on a building in the city of Tröglitz. Before that, Der Spiegel reports, there were similar attacks in and around Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, and Sanitz. Right-wing groups committed more than 500 violent xenophobic attacks last year.

One neo-Nazi group created a searchable online map called "no refugee center in my backyard" that shows refugees' homes as well as other refugee facilities. In the context of the other arson attacks, the map was clearly threatening, and Google eventually took it down.

However, the level of sustained violence in Heidenau was unprecedented, raising national concerns about neo-Nazi violence. Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the incident as "disgusting," while Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel traveled to the town on Monday to meet with residents in an attempt to calm the situation.

Sympathy for neo-Nazi beliefs is rising, although neo-Nazism remains a fringe political movement

Neo-Nazism remains a fringe political movement in Germany, and these attacks should not be taken as a sign that it is becoming part of the mainstream. But the events in Heidenau are a disturbing reminder that neo-Nazi groups' message of xenophobia and hate seems to be finding an increasingly receptive audience among ordinary Germans.

The protests that turned into the Heidenau riots were reportedly organized by the local branch of the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), whose members regularly use symbols from the Third Reich, glorify Adolf Hitler, and deny the Holocaust. But ordinary citizens also took part in the Heidenau protests, including families with children — a worrying sign of mainstream support for the right-wing-organized protests. And anti-refugee sentiment is rising sharply across Germany: In June, 38 percent of Germans said that the country should take in fewer refugees, a 17 percent rise since January.

Germany is experiencing a record-high influx of refugees

Germany is currently facing its largest influx of refugees since World War II. Civil wars in Syria and North Africa as well as the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea have all contributed to the massive increase in refugee numbers. Last year, 202,000 people applied for asylum in Germany, but this year the German government expects to receive applications from up to 800,000 asylum seekers.

That would be nearly double the previous high in 1992, when the country received approximately 440,000 asylum applications, primarily from people fleeing the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The refugee influx in the early 1990s also triggered a wave of right-wing violence, including the pogrom-like 1992 Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots, in which right-wing extremists set an asylum center on fire with more than 100 people still inside.

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