War of words escalates as German migration tensions intensify

War of words escalates as German migration tensions intensifyTensions over migration in Germany have reached a fever pitch as a speaker at a rightwing rally expressed regret at the closure of the country’s concentration camps, drawing a forceful condemnation from political leaders increasingly worried about extremist violence.

The heated exchanges emerged from an evening of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on Monday that displayed the nation’s competing impulses over an issue that is increasingly engulfing the government of chancellor Angela Merkel.

They also reflected the growing concern among German officials that the migrant crisis is becoming a magnet for rightwing rhetoric and extremist violence.

Germany has suffered hundreds of attacks on refugee hostels in recent months. In a frightening escalation, a mayoral candidate in Cologne sympathetic to refugees was stabbed on Saturday by an extremist alleged to have made comments against foreigners.

In the aftermath, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, the interior minister, warned that the migration issue was becoming “radicalised”.

Later he wrote in a newspaper column: “The hate against refugees, the hate against responsible politicians, the hate against people who think differently has reached an unbearable level in the internet and on the streets.”

The latest flashpoint was a demonstration in a historic Dresden square to mark the one-year anniversary of Pegida, the country’s populist anti-immigration movement.

The organisers claimed to have drawn crowds of up to 39,000, fuelled by popular anger about the country’s unprecedented wave of immigration.

Independent estimates put the number at 15,000 — 20,000 — the same as for a pro-refugee counter-demonstration under the Hearts not Hate-speech umbrella organisation, which attracted bigger crowds than forecast.

The Pegida event’s most radical speech came from Akif Pirinçci, a popular Turkish-born German writer turned rightwing activist, who attacked both immigrants and mainstream politicians in comments laced with xenophobia and expletives.

“Of course, there would be other alternatives, but the concentration camps are sadly currently out of action,” he said. He called government leaders “Gauleiter” — a Nazi party title.

The Dresden public prosecutor opened an incitement probe against Mr Pirinçci, and top politicians rushed to condemn him and Pegida.

“Pegida has become a rightwing populist and in parts extreme right protest movement, Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor, said in a newspaper interview. “Without doubt, there is in Germany extreme rightwing violence. And there is a rhetoric based on fear, which reaches far into the [political] centre, which gives courage to the rightwing extremists.”

Heiko Maas, justice minister, told national television it was time to oppose racism and extremism, saying: “Now is the time to resist.”

The international Auschwitz committee, a survivors’ group, criticised Mr Pirinçci’s remarks as “a vile signal of shamelessness”.

The stabbing victim, Henriette Reker, has been running local refugee services in Cologne. She went on to win Sunday’s poll by an overwhelming margin.

There have been 500 attacks on refugee accommodation so far this year, more than double the total for 2014. While almost all have targeted empty buildings, arsonists have also sporadically set fire to occupied homes, raising fears that sooner or later people might be killed.

With the big exception of Mr Pirinçci, Pegida speakers mostly avoided racist language and concentrated instead on praising the crowds for their support over the past year. The crowds responded with repeated anti-Merkel and anti-immigrant chanting, including “Merkel must go”, “Deportation” and “We are the people”.

Timo Lochocki, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank, said Pegida had not become more radical but the radicals had come to the fore.

This could yet divide Pegida’s followers. Mr Pirinçci’s diatribe was cheered by some demonstrators but had others turning away in disgust. “No hate-talk,” said one man.

Mr Lochocki said there was a “clear divide” between rightwing extremists and much larger numbers of mainstream conservatives who have turned against Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU over immigration but could still be won back by tougher government policies.

However, Katja Kipping, co-head of the far-left Linke party, accused the Bavaria-based CSU, which is harder on immigration than its CDU partner, and the immigration-sceptical Alternative fur Deutschland, of blurring the lines and helping Pegida by making rightwing language “respectable”.

She was scoring political points. But Mr Pirinçci’s words show Pegida speakers are willing to resort to rhetoric they would not have used a few months ago.

Stefan Wagstyl, Financial Times
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