The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The man who set fire to a German refugee shelter turns out to be a politician

Police patrol at the entrance of the Christmas market in Strasbourg, eastern France. (Patrick Hertzog/AFP)

“The attack was meant to signal to refugees: You are not welcome here, we don't have space for you, you aren't safe here.”

That was the finding of German Judge Theodor Horstkötter, who this week sentenced Maik Schneider to eight years in jail. His crime? Lighting an arena rejiggered to accommodate refugees on fire. No one was hurt, but experts say the act  caused about $3.7 million in damage. (Schneider claimed he was trying to send a message but never intended to burn the building down. He also denied acting out of xenophobic motives.)

Schneider is a member of the NPD, a neo-Nazi party that has, of late, set fire to the car of a Polish citizen, bombed a supermarket and thrown paint at the office of a left-wing politician.

It's one particularly vicious example of a trend across Europe — a rise in violence by far-right groups against Muslims, Jews, nonwhite people and political opponents.

A recent report found that more than 3,000 crimes were committed against refugees in Germany last year, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office. About a third targeted asylum homes. The violence seems like a direct response to the influx of migrants (Germany has absorbed some 1.3 million since the beginning of 2015). In 2014, there were just 199 crimes against refugees.

Left-leaning German politicians are also receiving a new rash of attacks. In 2016, more German politicians were victims of harassment from far-right groups than ever. There were 142 attacks, including threatening emails, animal feces in mailboxes and vandalized offices.

Other countries have reported a similar spike. In the Czech Republic, attacks against Arabs have jumped in the past year.

“It is a reflection of media rhetoric and politicians who say that Islam is a threat,” said Marek Čaněk from the Multicultural Center in Prague.

In the United Kingdom, hate crimes against Jewish people are at record levels, a new report found. There were 1,309 incidents in 2016, up from 1,182 in 2014. Victims reported receiving hate mail, a rise in anti-Semitic graffiti, assaults and desecration of temples. “Racists, including anti-Semites, feel emboldened, feel encouraged, at this moment in time for a whole range of reasons, to come out with their hatred,” Mark Gardner, a co-author of the report, told the BBC. “They used to keep it under the ground. Now they're coming out. A lid has been lifted off.”

He attributes this in part to the Brexit vote, which brought a flood of racism and xenophobia into the public discourse.

In France last year, a mosque was burned to the ground in Corsica. A veiled woman was attacked with a knife. An Iraqi family found pigs' feet outside their home. Other mosques reported finding pigs' blood dabbed on their walls or pigs' heads left outside. Overall, though, the number of incidents against Muslims and Jews dropped sharply. Hate crimes against Christians were up about 18 percent. “The crimes may be down, but don’t underestimate the willingness of those who do harbor hatred for others to show their feelings at the ballot box, specifically by voting for the [far-right] National Front party,” Jean-Yves Camus, a respected researcher of the French far-right, told France 24.

Moshe Kantor, head of the European Jewish Congress, told Huffington Post UK that a dangerous trend is afoot. He compared the spate of violence to the “darkest days of the 1930s” and cautioned that the “awful lessons” of the Holocaust are being forgotten. “Only a small minority supported Hitler’s plan to kill all European Jews through mass extermination, a plan that was widely circulated years before,” he said. “But he was able to act because an undercurrent of hatred had seeped into everyday life.”

Today, he worries about the same “nationalism, xenophobia and strident anti-Semitism.”