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Thousands of Germans marched against the far right. But can they really stem its rise?

Protesters from across Germany marched through Berlin Oct. 13, standing against racism, xenophobia and the far right a day ahead of elections in Bavaria. (Video: Reuters)

This weekend, more than 100,000 people took to the streets of Berlin to protest the far right. It was an attendance figure that surprised even organizers, who expected about 40,000.

The march was called to support an “open and free society,” organizers said. “A dramatic political shift is taking place: racism and discrimination are becoming socially acceptable. What yesterday was considered unthinkable and unutterable has today become a reality,” they said in their manifesto. “Humanity and human rights, religious freedom, and the rule of law are being openly attacked.”

That message seemed to resonate with thousands of Germans, who worry about the rise of groups such as Alternative for Germany. The party won seats in the German Parliament for the first time last year, in large part by villainizing migrants. The organization’s popularity has continued to grow; a February poll found that it is supported by about 16 percent of Germans.

Alternative for Germany’s political success coincides with an increase in racism and racist incidents. A September poll found that about two-thirds of Germans now think racism is a big problem in their country.

That concern is being stoked by incidents such as the one in the city of Chemnitz a few weeks ago. There, a 35-year-old German man was stabbed, allegedly by a migrant. In the days that followed, right-wing activists and neo-Nazis pointed to what happened as evidence of a refugee policy run amok. They descended on the town, chasing civilians who appeared foreign, flashing Nazi salutes and harassing journalists.

In response, politicians called on the “silent majority” of Germans who oppose that behavior to come forward. They did, at a concert in Chemnitz that drew about 65,000. Friedrich Burschel, an expert in neo-Nazism at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin, told the Atlantic that he saw a shift. Chemnitz awakened, he said, a sense of “just how strong a hold right-wing extremism has taken on their country, how easily the far right can be mobilized, and how the shame associated with it is beginning to vanish.”

Since then, there has been an effort to build some kind of sustained movement to try to stem the tide of the far right. As the Atlantic put it: The Berlin march is “the first significant test of whether that opposition can be sustained."

“I believe that there still is a majority of what could be called constitutional patriots who are now deeply concerned by what is happening on the right,” Burschel said. But people must keeping come out, he warned. “Otherwise we lose again.”

On that count, perhaps Sunday’s election in Bavaria offers some hope.

Bavaria, in the country’s south, bore the brunt of the 2015 refugee crisis, when upward of 1 million asylum seekers crossed into Germany. At the height of the crisis, thousands poured in through the province each day.

That’s the kind of reality that Alternative for Germany has successfully mined in the past, campaigning on the idea that Germany was no longer for Germans. And this time, too, the majority party — the Christian Socialist Union, Bavarian sister to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which has held power in Bavaria for all but three of the past 70 years — was soundly defeated.

However, it was the pro-immigrant green party that garnered the second-most votes Sunday, about 18.5 percent. The party more than doubled its support from the last election. It’s a reminder, Yasmeen Serhan of the Atlantic wrote, that “divisive immigration politics need not always lead to far-right gains.”

Of course, it’s worth noting that Alternative for Germany is forecast to garner about 10 percent of the vote. It’s enough to give the group seats in Parliament for the first time.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of attendees rally organizers expected at last weekend’s Berlin event.

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