“Be sure to take your mobile phone with you when you go out at night, otherwise you might get stabbed.”
“Learn martial arts so you can defend yourself.”
“If someone attacks you, throw them to the ground. It’s best to hit them right in the face.”
The advice comes from five young people explaining how those afraid of foreigners should defend themselves.
Their fear represents one side of the asylum-seeker issue that has polarized attitudes among the residents of Tröglitz, a town of 2,700 people, near Leipzig, in eastern Germany.
Last week there was an arson attack on a planned center for refugees that many fear was a politically motivated crime.
Tröglitz was already in the headlines one month ago after the town’s volunteer mayor, Markus Nierth, resigned after threats from members of the extremist right wing NPD party. Mr. Nierth had been campaigning for greater tolerance of refugees and asylum seekers.
Mr. Nierth launched his campaign as the town prepared to take on refugees as the number of people applying for asylum has increased due to conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and other parts of the world.
People coming to Germany seeking asylum struggle to attain legal status and in the meantime are housed by the government in centers. There is not enough accommodation for the number of refugees and many stay in temporary shelter in churches, empty schools and unused buildings.
The arson attack in Tröglitz has led to fears of a resurgence of right wing attacks on asylum seekers after a series of attacks on people from abroad in the region during the 1990s.
“I’m alone the whole week here. If 40 men moved in across the street, I’d be scared – wouldn’t you?”
In Tröglitz, many residents are reserved about the issue.The young people, who prefer not to be named, given the size of the town, say they have never been attacked by foreigners. But they have heard rumors, that foreigners deal drugs, are criminals and have assaulted German girls.
As mayor, Mr. Nierth tried to oppose these views, strengthened by his religious faith. But he was the focus of hostility from right wing extremists and these days, following death threats, his house is guarded by the police and he rarely goes outside.
When it was announced in January that 40 refugees would come to Tröglitz, a few locals began to protest. A functionary from the far-right NPD party started to organize the protest, calling them “strolls” on Sunday evenings.
Up to 100 people came along. The mood continued to deteriorate and the protests and comments on Facebook “got more and more racist,” says Mr. Nierth. He set up an info booth and wrote open letters to answer questions. He tried to ensure that the refugees would be families and from war zones, as they were the only kind of people the village’s far-right residents would even consider accepting.
Mr. Nierth said Tröglitz’s short history was partly to blame for the region’s widespread extremist sentiment. The village was built in 1937 on the edge of a brown coal mine pit. “There are no civic structures here,” says Mr. Nierth.
After March, one of the “strolls” was intended to pass by his house, but no one wanted to protect him. Mr. Nierth resigned.
Afterward at a community meeting, one resident said: “A lot of money is spent of foreigners. We get nothing.” Another man said: “We only have one doctor, she’s already too busy.” A woman asked: “Who’s going to guarantee our safety? Will there be more police?”
Carmen Schneider lives across from the house that was set on fire last week. She woke up after hearing a crackling sound and saw the smoke. Two people were living in the top floor and nearly died in the blaze.
Mrs. Schneider, who participated in the protest walks, said, “If it were families, nobody would say anything, last of all me. I’m just against those coming with an open hand.”
Despite the fact that she has never met any asylum seekers, she’s still afraid. “I’m alone the whole week here. If 40 men moved in across the street, I’d be scared – wouldn’t you?”
Asylum-seekers in Germany are distributed according to population and tax revenues. The economically depressed state of Saxony-Anhalt has to take in 2.85 percent of the total refugees and the Burgenland region, where Tröglitz is, is responsible for 9.1 percent of that figure. Up till now, the refugees were staying at large housing complex in Zeitz, but the number of people seeking asylum in Germany is growing. In 2013 there were just 284 refugees in the county of Burgenland, this year it will likely top 650.
“Safe? I don’t feel safe here.”
There are residents in Tröglitz, who fear the village will be left completely to the far-right extremists following the news reports of the arson. The only hotel here, the Elsterblick, has already had a celebration cancelled. Many here fear the arson attack will burn the name Tröglitz into Germany’s public consciousness alongside other notorious sites of violence against asylum-seekers, such as Hoyerswerda and Mölln.
According to asylum group Pro Asyl and the anti-extremism Amadeu Antonio Foundation, there have been 25 attacks on refugee housing in Germany since January. Many of them occurred in eastern Germany. Tröglitz is the third arson attack on asylum-seeker accommodation this year. There have also been 22 instances of vandalism, and 22 cases of physical assault on refugees. And those are just the reported incidents.
Two kilometers from the burned out house, sits Lothar Czoßek. The 86-year-old is fighting against forgetting the darker chapters of Germany’s past. Here in Rehmsdorf lie the ruins of an outpost of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. Mr. Czoßek was just 15 when it was built. On his own, he has set up a small museum.
Camp survivors still occasionally visit him. Mr. Czoßek says there is “frightening ignorance” about what really happened during the Third Reich. He also receives letters from far-right extremists. One read: “You disgusting man! Five million German soldiers lost their lives in the Bolshevik terror, that’s what you should worry about!”
After the fire in Tröglitz, some German politicians said things still weren’t as bad as back in the 1990s, a time of widespread far-right attacks. But something important has changed since the 1990s, slowly and largely unnoticed: The neo-Nazis have infiltrated town structures and started civic initiatives. In Tröglitz, the only institution that offered any resistance to them was the church, in the form of Markus Nierth and his friend the pastor.
Where are the public authorities in all this? Manfred Meißner is Tröglitz’s current mayor. He has made one public appearance, at a village meeting at the end of March, where he mumbled something about the refugees being a matter for the county officials, nothing more. He says he doesn’t want to speak to the media. “I’m not available for that,” he said, before hanging up the phone.
Is it right to speak with neo-Nazis? Maybe that’s what’s necessary to find out what’s behind the faint echo heard in the streets of Tröglitz.
Steffen Thiel picks a pizzeria in Zeitz as a place to meet. Mr. Thiel, who sits on the county board for the far-right NPD party, organized the protests against the refugees. At 8:30am on Easter Monday, a man in his late 30s entered the restaurant. The surprisingly harmless-looking man said he has been a vegetarian for the past two years because of the conditions in the meat industry.
Mr. Thiel ordered a vegetarian pizza and then proceeded to rage against Berlin’s immigrant district Neukölln, where shops allegedly only list their wares in Turkish. “That is no longer Germany,” he said. “They’re bringing their culture with them! They’re not leaving it at the border!”
They – that would be the asylum-seekers, the refugees. Mr. Thiel quickly became tangled in the definition of a refugee. Accepting war refugees might be okay, but not economic refugees “only wanting welfare.” Plus he gets to decide which war – “Maybe Syria?” Male refugees coming without their families don’t qualify as war refugees for him. “No man leaves his family behind in a war,” he surmised.
Mr. Thiel comes from Tröglitz. He’s on umemployment benefit, profiting from a system he despises. He joined the NPD because it was supposedly the only political party caring for “proper families.” Though he doesn’t have a proper one himself, as he lives separated from his 14-year-old daughter and her mother.
He is careful in how he exposes people to his far-right ideology. He declared the anti-refugee protests were “strolls” and registered them under his name and not via his NPD party: “I’m not stupid.” He proudly displays a rainbow flag he used at the marches, saying: “You don’t recognize it as coming from the right.”
He’s brought notes on piece of paper with dashes marking those he considers likely to benefit from the arson attack: The landlord, for insurance compensation. Ex-mayor Mr. Nierth, because he can now rent out his own property. Those politicians, who now have a new argument for attempting to ban the NPD. Below that he lists those likely to suffer from the incident: The NPD, because there will once again be a discussion of banning the neo-Nazi party. The residents of Tröglitz, whose reputation is ruined even thought the asylum-seekers will still come.
When Die Zeit went to press, Tröglitz was supposed to receive only ten refugees instead of the 40 originally planned.
During recent anti-Muslim demonstrations in Dresden by the xenophobic group Pegida and even now after the firebombing in Tröglitz, German politicians have repeatedly said people’s worries must be taken seriously. But is anyone asking the refugees about their worries?
Just a quarter of an hour away from Tröglitz in Hohenmölsen, Rasak O. is sitting in front of his accommodation in the afternoon sun. Someone told him to go to Germany. It’s safe in Germany, they respect human rights there. Rasak O. is from Benin, where he was persecuted because he is an observant Muslim. He arrived in Germany with burns on his entire body, spending eight days in a hospital in Halberstadt. He says people had tried to kill him.
When he walks down the street in Hohenmölsen, he says that cars honk at him and the passengers give him the finger. Some people even lurked out front of the asylum-seeker house just to tell him: “Get lost!” “Safe? I don’t feel safe here,” Rasak O. says.
The mayor of Hohenmölsen, Andy Haugk, said, “I never would have thought that people wouldn’t just use explosive words, but would also take up a gasoline canister – it makes me fear for my own city.”
Mr Haugk believes the potential for conflict shouldn’t be downplayed and that there could be another attack there.
And the more reports there are that everything in Hohenmölsen is fine, said Mr. Haugk, the more likely there will be a growing feeling that something needs to be destroyed. Maybe that’s why he’s so honest in admitting that not everything is fine here.
Before the refugees arrived, he invited the Hohenmölsen residents to an open house at their accommodation “so they could convince themselves that it’s anything but luxurious.” They had the same questions as the people in Tröglitz:
How long will they stay?
Are they even coming from a war zone?
How much money will they receive?
Do they want to work?
Mr. Haugk got emails that asked: “What are you actually doing for the real Germans?” But there was also initiative founded to put together welcome packets for the refugees.
The social worker Katja Lehmann works with the refugees every day. She says that she carefully considered whether she was up to “working with different religions and cultures as a young woman.” Mrs. Lehmann is 26 years old with long brown hair. She wears jeans and sneakers. She even sought counsel from a 28-year-old female colleague in Naumburg about how it was to work with male refugees. “She said: Absolutely no problem.” And that has also been her experience, as she listens to the first questions from the asylum-seekers, makes doctor’s appointments for them and explains how they can ride the bus to their hearings.
Götz Ulrich, the councilman for Burgenland county, is responsible for Tröglitz and Hohenmölsen. He represents the German state here. He only came to a citizens’ meeting about the refugees in Tröglitz at the end of March. Far too late, many here believe. Mr. Ulrich patiently recited figures to counter claims that the government was taking better care of the refugees than ordinary Tröglitz residents. The county spends €273 million each year on Germans, including €14 million to better integrate the long-term unemployed. Just €100,000 will be spent on integrating asylum-seekers and the refugees will cost the county €11 million in total.
Mr. Ulrich then got up to leave, to go meet the state interior minister in Magdeburg. Is he really convinced that refugees are safe here? “No,” he says. “I cannot guarantee that.” His shoulders slope, as he looks on helplessly. “What would you do?” he asks.
Rasak O. has the answer: “On the street I’m afraid. I’m locked up. Why don’t they put us in a big city?” Refugees just want to live in peace and safety.
“But then the right-wing extremists have won,” says councilman Ulrich.
The people in Tröglitz use one word more than any other: “Order.”
But it’s the words of the early 20th-century author Robert Musil that come to mind when leaving Tröglitz: “Order somehow turns into the need for manslaughter.”
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org