A month or so ago, Felix, my lovely friend and sometime tute partner came to visit for the weekend. We decided to spend Saturday in Dresden. Dresden is about an hour and a half away from Leipzig. It sits rather majestically on the banks of the Elbe, a collection of palatial buildings gathered around big open squares. If you didn’t know that it was completely and utterly gutted during the Second World War, you certainly wouldn’t guess. Even having been told, you still might not believe it. The magnificent Frauenkirche and the Semperoper (and all sorts of others), buildings that seem to exude age and grandeur, are only reconstructions of their former selves. It’s amazing, incredible, unthinkable, that a city could be so ravaged, and yet recover with such finesse.
We did come back from our day in Dresden feeling quite amazed. But it wasn’t the feeling of architecturally-inspired awe I’d been expecting. Our arrival in Dresden coincided with that of a far more controversial visitor. Our coach was held up by a police blockade, and when we finally made it into the open air, there were policemen – well built, staunch, severe – on every corner. Dresden was preparing itself for a huge demonstration by Pegida – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (*shudder*) – and this particular event was to be headlined by Tommy Robinson, (vile) frontman of the (even viler) EDL. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people – the police declined to give an official estimate – turned up in support of the demonstration, listening willingly to Robinson’s Nazi-esque drivel, as he likened the migrant crisis to the crusades and warned of the chaos and destruction that refugees would bring to Germany. All of this against a somewhat ironic backdrop of the Semperoper, a building which ought to be a reminder of the horror and destruction of the Second World War and, by association, the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, my trip to Dresden wasn’t my first encounter with far-right protest groups in East Germany. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every single Monday, central Leipzig descends into a rather un-Germanic chaos as Legida – I think the ‘L’ is just to signify that this is the Leipzig splinter group – takes to the streets to spout the same poisonous message. And every single Monday, trams are diverted, police vans line the streets, and areas are barred off, in an attempt to keep things in order. Every single Monday.
This Monday was November the 9th, a poignant day in German History. On November 9th, 1938, Nazi police stormed and terrorised Jewish businesses and homes across Germany and Austria, on what would come to be known as Kristallknacht. Exactly fifty-one years later, on November 9th, 1989, the communist East finally opened its borders to the West. Legida chose to exploit this symbolic day to host a demonstration far bigger than any of its usual Monday displays. Sinister, threatening warnings appeared on posters around the city. Shops closed early. Trams were at best delayed, at worst completely cancelled. From my office I could hear distant voices booming through megaphones, although not clearly enough to hear whether these were the hate-filled messages of the right, or the incensed responses of the anti-Legida protesters.
I didn’t go to the demonstration, mostly out of fear of what it might descend into, but also because I had an invitation to a cosy evening of pizza and a film elsewhere. But even just from walking the short distance from my office to the tram stop, the mood of tension and discomfort, I realised, was palpable.
It’s really scary, in my opinion, that far-right beliefs still exist at all, or that they ever did. It’s much, much scarier, though, that they’re alive and thriving here, in the same country that fuelled the Holocaust, less than a century ago. It’s so easy to forget, spending my life as I do, almost solely in the company of liberals, that although Germany may have officially welcomed refugees in large number, their reception here may be something far less welcoming. From my seat at the back of the tram late last night, after the crowds had left the centre, I watched a young man get on. He sported a skinhead, he was dressed in a denim shorts, Doc Marten boots, and his black sweatshirt was emblazoned with the Norwegian flag (a symbol used by far-right groups in reference to the “superior” Nordic heritage). As soon as he entered the tram, a panic-stricken woman wearing a hijab scurried, as if trying not to be seen, towards the furthest door, and left at the next stop.
Refugees might officially be welcome here, but racism is, horribly, very much alive.