People take part in an Aug. 5 demonstration by the right-wing organization Initiative Heimatschutz against the German asylum law and asylum-seekers in Meissen in eastern Germany. (Jens Meyer/Associated Press)

In a gesture of German goodwill, the administration in this medieval city leased a newly renovated apartment building here to humanely — even comfortably — house dozens of desperate ­asylum-seekers. The newcomers from Syria and other war-
ravaged nations would enjoy freshly redone floors, cute balconies and shiny, modern appliances in a cheerful building near a timber-framed pub.

Then Meissen’s goodwill went up in smoke.

On a cool night six weeks ago, suspected right-wing arsonists struck the building, scorching its interior and rendering it uninhabitable days before the ­asylum-seekers were to move in. The attack added Meissen, a gothic castle town of 30,000 on the Elbe River, to a string of German cities caught up in an escalating rash of violence against refugees.

The acts include an ugly spate of arson targeting refugee centers as well as physical attacks on refugees themselves, marking the return of what critics say is an unnerving brand of xenophobia to Western Europe’s most populous nation.

German news anchor Claus Kleber of ZDF television welled up as he told the story of a Bavarian bus driver who welcomed 15 refugees on his bus with this announcement: "I have an important message for people from the whole world in this bus: Welcome!" (The Washington Post)

The attacks are undercutting Germany’s image as the country leading the effort to aid a record flow of refugees into Europe, highlighting the rising social tensions in the region amid the avalanche of asylum-seekers. At the same time, the violence has ignited a heated national debate over what pundits here say is a rise in overt racism and intolerance — in a nation highly sensitive to both because of Nazi-era atrocities.

All this is happening as Germany takes in more asylum-
seekers than any other nation in Europe — a number set to reach an estimated 500,000 this year alone — while quickly running out of places to house them. As a result, the national government in Berlin is turning to insular and almost wholly white enclaves to take in the newcomers, who are mostly from the Middle East and Africa.

In communities such as Meissen, in Germany’s formerly communist east, that has been a recipe for friction.

“In east Germany, we have had 25 years of very powerful influence by neo-Nazi culture. Few immigrants were going there out of fear of being threatened,” said Anetta Kahane, chairwoman of the pro-refugee Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin. “Now you see these asylum-seekers placed in cities in the east, a part of the country that is completely white. Sometimes the response is pure racism.”

A surge in aggression

The arson in Meissen, for instance, immediately exposed a fierce strain of opposition to the new refugee center. A new local anti-refugee group — the Homeland Defense Initiative — drew as many as 650 supporters to a rally last week, far more than pro-refugee groups have managed to muster. Many neighbors who live near the burned refugee center are blaming not the arsonists but the building’s owner — local developer Ingolf Brumm — for having agreed to turn it into a shelter.

After Brumm publicly denounced the fire, he and his family received death threats and were viciously harassed online. To protect him, police began patrolling his nearby home office. Recently arrived refugees already living in Meissen have also become targets. One Syrian dentist who was assigned to live in Meissen and arrived Aug. 1 said he has had stones thrown at his apartment door, glue put in his lock and obscenities hurled at him from the street.

“After the fire, the neighbors yelled out at me, saying ‘Good,’ and ‘It’s about time someone did something to stop this,’ ” Brumm said as he surveyed the damage to his building last week. “I thought I knew the citizens of Meissen, but I was wrong. There are good people here but also people with hate in their hearts.”

One neighbor shedding no tears over the torching is Wolfgang Hempel, 65, a retired electrician who lives adjacent to the attacked building. Referring to Brumm, Hempel said he “hates his guts” for leasing the building to the city for a refugee center.

“Germany is turning black,” Hempel said, citing the massive influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. “Soon only dark-skinned people will be living here. It can’t go on like this. . . . And these days, everybody puts you in a Nazi corner just for voicing your opinion.”

Aggression against the mounting number of refugees coming into Europe has surfaced in France, Greece and other nations in the region. And the German public overall remains relatively more tolerant than the populations of many other European nations. Unlike France and Holland, for instance, anti-
immigrant nationalists in Germany are still struggling at the polls.

The incidents in Germany include at least six cases of arson and the beating of a 23-year-old African refu­gee by five Germans that left him with serious injuries. But the attacks are not as severe as the wave of anti-
foreigner violence that swept Germany in the early and mid-1990s. In one infamous 1993 attack, for instance, neo-Nazis set ablaze the home of Turkish immigrants in the rust belt region of North Rhine-Westphalia, killing five people and injuring 14 others.

Nonetheless, the number of acts of aggression against refugee homes in Germany is rapidly rising — reaching 202 so far this year, compared with 198 during all of 2014. Last month, a group of right-wing protesters attacked Red Cross workers in the eastern German city of Dresden as they sought to set up a tent compound for refugees.

‘Let the hag burn’

The attacks have put Germany on edge, igniting a social media firestorm while raising lofty questions about what modern Germany stands for. In one high-profile commentary this month, German anchorwoman Anja ­Reschke issued a blistering on-air critique of the attacks and the verbal vitriol circulating against refugees on German social media. Rather than anonymous comments, many are now being openly signed, indicating, she said, that hate has become more socially acceptable.

She suggested that those Germans who remain quiet are also guilty.

“If you’re not of the opinion that all refugees are spongers who should be hunted down, burned or gassed, then you should make that known very clearly,” she said in her commentary. The spot — viewed more than 15 million times online — provoked an outpouring of support, she said. But it also produced a flood of even more foul comments aimed at her.

“I received e-mails saying ‘Let the hag burn’ and calling me a ‘negro-gypsy-whore,’ ” Reschke, a white ethnic German, said in a telephone interview. “And then there were the people who said, ‘Look, I’m afraid our race is getting polluted by all those evil people from the whole of Africa, but no, I’m not a Nazi.’ ”

Although the attacks have been scattered nationwide, some of the worst have been in the former communist east where diversity levels are extremely low. While one major anti-refugee movement that launched last year — known as PEGIDA — has begun to fade, it has been replaced by several splinter groups and wholly different anti-refugee and far-right groups that have sparked alarm among German politicians.

In Meissen, pro-refugee activists, including the Rev. Bernd Oehler, 55, have led an effort to counter the naysayers and welcome the newcomers, staging food and clothing drives and organizing rallies and choir celebrations to show their support.

But Oehler conceded that a vocal minority of strong opposition remains across the former East Germany, where economic development still lags behind the wealthier west.

“We have a problem with the middle of society,” he said. “They are afraid. They don’t know about their futures, and now there’s a new issue for them to worry about with the refugees. They were looking for a scapegoat, and they found one.”

Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world