The small eastern German town of Heidenau made headlines, as several hundred supporters of the far-right National Democratic Party shouted "Heil Hitler" and clashed with police at anti-refugee riots last weekend. It also highlighted a continuing divide between Germany's east and west.
Once a typical, industrial town in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), where machine plants went bankrupt after the reunification, Heidenau has now become a symbol of the recent wave of neo-Nazi hatred and violence sweeping Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Heidenau on Wednesday to condemn the violence and was greeted with boos as she stepped out of her car. One protester held a poster reading “Traitor” that was directed at the chancellor. Others shouted, “We are the scum,” referring to the words of Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who had called the neo-Nazis in Heidenau “scum.”
The rioting in Heidenau has been among the biggest protests so far in Germany with more than 30 police officers wounded, but it is not exceptional. Europe is dealing with the biggest influx of refugees since World War II, and Germany accepts more of them than any of its neighbors. The government made it easier for people from Syria to stay in the country and promised additional financial help for states and municipalities dealing with refugees. Many volunteers across the country are helping the immigrants. But there are also xenophobic protests and violence. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation that collects data on attacks and assaults against refugees and their accommodations counted 345 cases as of Aug. 25, a major increase compared to the previous year.
Our graphic shows that these incidents are not distributed evenly across the country. Though there are many arson attacks in west Germany, especially in Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, it is the former communist east that has the most anti-refugee incidents. The state of Saxony, where Heidenau is located, has the highest rate of assaults and attacks on refugees’ accommodations.
"We have the most cases of violence in regions with already existing and established far-right structures," Robert Luedecke, the speaker of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, explained. "Cities are not the problem, most attacks happen in the countryside." The higher level of anti-refugee violence corresponds to the higher acceptance of xenophobic ideas in the former GDR. "The far-right tendencies are stronger in the east," Luedecke says. "People were disorientated after the reunification, a certain vacuum appeared, and the National Democratic Party was there to fill it."
A study conducted since 2002 by the Leipzig University has found more support in the east for the National Democratic Party and expressions of xenophobic statements like "When there are not enough jobs, we have to send foreigners back to their home countries."
Elmar Braehler, one of the authors of the study, said the east-west divide is the result of a complex mixture of education and employment levels and contact with foreigners.
"There was a brain drain in the East with better educated people going away in search for jobs," he said. He sees a correlation with the education and the unemployment levels. According to the study, the acceptance of the xenophobic statements was on rise in the east between 2002 and 2012 and started to fall between 2014 with improvements in employment.
The lack of contact with foreigners in the communist GDR was also a contributing factor in attitudes toward refugees. But even in today's Germany, the majority of foreigners live in West Germany, with just 10.5 percent in East Germany. In the current migrant crisis most refugees are accommodated in the West, not in East. According to a map in the German weekly Die Zeit from June, Saxony had the lowest ratio of refugees to the population with one refugee per 238 residents compared, for example, to Bremen in the west where the ratio is one refugee per 56 residents.
The violence in Heidenau prompted comments in the German media about the lingering divide between east and west. "Is there time for Saxit?” asked Stefan Schirmer, a commentator from the weekly newspaper Die Zeit Stefan Schirmer, referring to the Grexit (for Greece's debated exit from the euro zone) and wondering if the state of Saxony and its right-wing values still belong to Germany.
"We need your help in Saxony," wrote another commentator from the same newspaper. "We have not only to integrate refugees in our society, but also many residents of Saxony in democracy."
The tabloid newspaper Bild recalled in an English-language commentary how people from the former GDR fled to the west in 1989.
"That hatred towards refugees today is playing out where a few years ago becoming a refugee was the only hope people had left. Even though Heidenau is only a small piece of Germany, it has become a disgrace to our country," it read.