BERLIN — Seeking to counter a rising tide of neo-Nazi rage in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to the eastern city of Heidenau on Wednesday to deliver what critics called a long-overdue public statement against a terrifying wave of attacks on asylum seekers.
In her first official visit to a refugee center in Germany, Merkel toured the site of a violent melee last weekend where anti-refugee protesters tried to block busloads of asylum seekers. Some hurled rocks and firecrackers at police and later clashed with left-wing counterdemonstrators. The mayhem left more than 30 police officers injured.
Germany is witnessing a severe increase in right-wing and neo-Nazi attacks, including a series of arsons targeting refugee centers. On Tuesday, fire struck a planned refugee center near Berlin in the latest case of suspected arson.
Merkel’s move to take a more public stand against the rash of xenophobic violence came after repeated calls from German politicians and commentators. In Germany, the Twitter hashtag #Merkelschweigt, which roughly translates as #MerkelStaysSilent, has been trending for days.
German Green Party politician Michael Kellner tweeted on Monday: “One cannot stay silent louder than Merkel #MerkelStaysSilent.”
Merkel now appears to be responding.
During her visit Wednesday to Heidenau, Merkel condemned last weekend’s violence as “shameful and appalling.” Anti-refugee activists heckled her, calling her a “traitor of the people,” according to Germany’s Spiegel online.
“We can have no tolerance toward those who are not willing to help,” Merkel told reporters. “The more that people make that clear, the stronger we will be.”
On Monday, the chancellor strongly condemned the riots in Heidenau at a joint news conference with French President François Hollande during his official visit to Berlin.
“It is repulsive how far-right extremists and neo-Nazis are trying to herald dumb messages of hate,” Merkel said. “At the same time, it is shameful how citizens, even families with kids, are supporting these things by tagging along. . . . Germany is a country which respects the dignity of every single individual. This is what it says in our constitution, and this applies to everyone staying in our country.”
As record numbers of refugees pour into Europe from Syria and other war-torn nations, Germany this year is set to take in more than 800,000 asylum seekers — four times the number last year, and more than any other nation in the region.
The refugee issue is fast becoming a political lightning rod here, with right-wing anger targeting not only asylum seekers, but also the politicians who defend them. After German Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel visited Heidenau on Tuesday and called far-right extremists “scum‚” the Berlin headquarters of his Social Democratic Party was flooded with hate mail. On Tuesday, the building was temporarily evacuated because of a bomb threat.
The surge of anti-refugee violence in Germany has shocked many observers and even prompted the conservative, irreverent tabloid Bild on Monday to run a rare commentary in English titled, “A German disgrace called Heidenau.” It argued that the police presence last weekend was too small, noting that soccer matches in Germany often command far more security.
“Even though Heidenau is only a small piece of Germany, it has become a disgrace to our country,” the editorial said. It continued, “What kind of state is this that sends in hundreds and hundreds of riot police to guard a football match but presents itself so weakly when its very identity is challenged by a violent mob?”