As a local lawmaker in the east German city of Magdeburg who regularly speaks out against the far right, Soeren Herbst has endured years of animosity. But the sight that greeted him outside his home last week made the Green Party politician realize that the abuse had reached a new level.
Someone had sprayed a gallows on the front of his house, along with Herbst’s name and the word “Volksverraeter” — traitor to the German people.
“Now we indeed have a new situation,” Herbst said in a telephone interview the day after the incident. “You start worrying about your safety and that of your family.”
The incident reflects a growing public tension in Germany, where far-right groups were quick to seize on the Paris terror attack as evidence of a need to curb immigration. While it’s the extremists on the far right who are grabbing most of the headlines, mainstream Germans are increasingly being drawn into inflammatory rhetoric — and at times anti-foreigner sentiment. The country’s normally staid — some might say dull — political debates have in particular become inflamed with vitriol amid the influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in recent months.
Nazi comparisons, once considered beyond the pale of polite political discussion in a country still grappling with its genocidal past, have become a common slur. The co-founder of anti-Islam group PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, last week likened Germany’s justice minister to Nazi demagogue Joseph Goebbels; in response, a senior official in Justice Minister Heiko Maas’ party labeled Bachmann a “crazy fascist.”
“The situation that we have at the moment is leading to a split in society where people are drifting apart,” said Joachim Trebbe, a communications researcher at Berlin’s Free University.
Just a few months ago newspapers were full of reports about refugees being warmly received at German train stations, he noted. Now the tone has changed to one where migrants are automatically linked to the word “crisis” as authorities struggle to cope with tens of thousands of arrivals each month.
Social media and the immediacy of modern communications have become an easy vent for popular anger. And this week, police raided 10 buildings in Berlin as part of a crackdown on far-right hate speech in social media networks.
“Nowadays everybody has the opportunity to directly criticize politicians without having to write a letter to the newspaper, which might not get printed,” said Trebbe.
Authorities have already begun working with Facebook to crack down on the most extreme hate speech, which is illegal in Germany but doesn’t fall afoul of the social networking site’s community rules.
Commentators have coined a term to describe the often middle-aged, middle-class Germans venting their anger in online forums and at PEGIDA protests: “Wutbuerger” — literally “angry citizens.”
Some of those attending PEGIDA rallies have told The Associated Press that they aren’t xenophobes, but rather ordinary people who simply feel frustrated that the government isn’t listening to their concerns. Sensitive to the growing misgivings among many Germans about how their country is meant to cope with the sheer number of immigrants, the government has agreed on measures intended to quickly process those who stand little chance of getting asylum, vetting more people at the border, and distributing migrants across Europe.
Read more: Time