A Dance of Interpretation, Part IV: Extremist Snow Day

"Prayer for Peace". A movement for world peace which inspired many gatherings across Germany.

By Bryce Bower, Staff Writer

During my stay in Germany, the university I studied at invited all of the students to attend a “Friedensgebet”, or “prayer for peace”, a couple towns over.  It was a cold and frosty day, and every surface was covered in a few centimeters of snow. We gathered outside of a church with many different social and religious groups from the area, and our meeting was one of many across Germany that day. We sang songs and enjoyed hot cider while we stood in a group of a couple hundred people.  Some who had lived under Soviet control in former East Germany gave speeches. They implored listeners to never let segregation, exclusion, and animosity run rampant as it had in the German Democratic Republic. Eloquent speakers explained why Germany needed to welcome the Syrian refugees with open arms. In my entire time in Germany, I don’t think I had ever heard as many German words that described emotion and feeling as I did that day.

A small pocket of antifascist demonstrators started assembling near the police blockade. Photo courtesy of Samira Bettendorf.

What the organizers of this peaceful gathering didn’t expect was the arrival of a large extreme-left group. The “anti-fascists” had heard people were organizing to promote asylum for the incoming refugees, and they were thrilled at the prospect of open borders.  Dressed in all black, this new group sidled up to us with their anti-neonazi signs, acting as if they were long lost relatives. They saw us as the enemy of their enemy, and as they heard the speakers discourage a nationalist mindset, these communists thought they had found kindred spirits.  However, most of the original group — students and residents — were rather put off by the new arrivals.

The “German Jack”, flag of Germany from 1871 to 1918. Photo by Patriotic Flags

We heard new shouting from several blocks away, and as we glanced down the street, the picture became much clearer.  Walking towards us, holding WWI-era German flags and wielding signs letting people know what they thought about immigrants, came a group roughly 100 strong. I was surprised by how “normal” this group dressed compared to the first group; then I realized it must be a lot safer to be recognized as anti-fascist than pro-fascist, and that this particular group probably wished to remain as anonymous as a public protest would allow.  As they grew closer, we were able to make out what they were saying, and I noticed that the signs they carried had many of the same slogans I had seen spray painted around Burg’s train station.

The first chant, “Kriminelle Ausländer”, (foreigners are criminals) instantly brought to my mind the mass sexual assaults committed on New Year’s Eve of 2015.  During that night in many major German cities, over 1200 women reported that they had been sexually assaulted by men from “Arab or North African” backgrounds.  As it was discovered that some of the attackers were refugees — and most of them were immigrants — the event became a huge rhetorical weapon wielded by those who wished to see Germany’s borders closed. However, the backlash from the event wasn’t only verbal: in 2016 an average of 10 attacks per day were carried out against refugees and shelters in Germany.

The second chant that I remember, “Stop die Flut im Süden”, (stop the flood in the south), was a call to close the country’s borders, and referred to the unregulated entrance of many refugees through the southern border of Germany. Some refugees who had ended their journey in other European countries, but wished to travel to Germany, had taken advantage of the fairly open borders and had come over by train or by foot — until passport checkpoints were set up in many train stations.

Police officers unloaded from vans and prepared to equip themselves with riot gear. Photo courtesy of Samira Bettendorf.

The police showed up shortly after the anti-fascists, and thankfully before the fascist group had made their way down the long street.  They had set up several vans as a barricade between the communists and the main road, which was being cordoned off to allow the fascists to march. Officers began donning full riot gear — which made them look even more intimidating and imposing. As the shouts became more personal and snowballs were thrown over the barrier, the officers lined up. The police were there to make sure that the two groups didn’t meet, and they did an impressive job of preventing the situation from getting out of control. I was encouraged by my German friends to get away from the area, and their grim faces told me how serious this clash could become. They also told me it was against the law to take pictures of the police in riot gear, and much to my disappointment we had to put away anything that could take a picture by the time the far-right group appeared.

As I bring this series to a close, I want to say that there is very little in this world that is black and white. The Syrian people have suffered so much, and Germany has generously offered them a new home and many opportunities. I also wish to assure the reader that the German people, despite their stereotype of being as cold as their weather, are in fact very nice (after you let them thaw a little). When I told one of my German friends that I was going to write this series, she was concerned. She didn’t want the actions of the fascist or anti-fascist groups to be perceived as the overall measure of the German people. The Germans have been working very hard to rise above their dark past of the 1930s-40s, and even mentioning the word “Nazi” makes most of my German friends uncomfortable. Unjustifiable crimes have been committed by both individuals both refugee and German, but I entreat you to not let the actions of a few tarnish the name of the rest.

I would like to think that this snowy day in Germany sums up the current social and political climate well. Vocal extremists clash and raise hell, while the average German citizen is just trying to drink cider, sing, and talk about peace.

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