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Germany's History Is Fueling Hatred, Goodwill, and Lots of Confusion Amid Refugee Crisis

Germany may have 1.5 million people applying for asylum by the end of the year, a crisis with which it must wrestle in light of the country's turbulent past.
Photo via Flickr

Seventy years after the end of World War II, expressing patriotism remains somewhat problematic in Germany. It's rare to see the flag being waved for reasons other than supporting the national soccer team; not even German Unity Day, on October 3, prompts many people to fly the Schwarz-Rot-Gold.

But as the refugee and migrant crisis continues to unfold, there's a new — but also sadly familiar — reason to see the German flag waving: the growing number of extremists who march the streets spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

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Pegida — short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident — is back on Germany's streets. The anti-Islam organization was founded in the fall of 2014 and peaked in popularity after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, then faded and seemingly disappeared. Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann was recently charged with incitement to racial hatred for his extremist rhetoric after repeatedly attacking refugees on Facebook last year, calling them "filth" and "cattle."

Related: In Photos: What Happens After a Syrian Refugee Makes It to Germany

Last week marked the first time in months that the group gathered for a demonstration in Dresden, and they were joined by an estimated 8,000 supporters. But unlike their protests in the past, there were no counter-demonstrations, which have typically been larger than the Pegida marches themselves

This year, Germany is celebrating 25 years of unity between the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the two countries into which Germany was split from 1949 to 1990. But a quarter century of unity has not changed some fundamental differences between the two regions, and the West remains far wealthier than the formerly Soviet-aligned East.

The September ARD-Deutschlandtrend, a media poll, showed that 48 percent of West Germans thought positively about the incoming Syrian refugees, compared to 34 percent in East Germany. At the time the poll was taken last month, the overall number of Germans who said they feared the high number of refugees had risen from 38 percent to 51 percent in the previous two weeks.

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"In East Germany there is less support for the [current] government, fewer churches, more dissidents toward the Western free-market economy," said Christian Bangel, founder of the blogs stoerungsmelder.org (German for "malfunction reporter") and Netz-Gegen-Nazis.de, both dedicated to uncovering and monitoring right-wing extremism. "The radical movements benefit from this."

The German media and public often refer to Pegida and other radical groups as Wutbürger, or angry citizens. The refugee crisis is providing these groups with plenty of fodder, but Christian Democratic Union (CDU) secretary general Michael Kretschmer called on his fellow politicians to avoid reflexively dismissing Germans who merely express concern with the refugee situation or who disagree with Merkel. (She is the leader of the CDU.)

"We have to overcome this speechlessness when encountering people who doubt whether an integration is really possible and whether the number of refugees coming to Germany is too high," Kretschmer said.

Watch the VICE News documentary Migrant Prisons of Libya: Europe or Die.

Merkel's positive public reaction to the influx of refugees was initially mirrored by many Germans, but she was soon pressured to re-establish border controls.

"If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to an emergency situation, then that's not my country," Merkel said of her decision to open Germany to refugees. But by the end of the year, 1.5 million people could be seeking asylum in the country, and Merkel is facing dropping approval ratings and pushback from her own cabinet.

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"It's not that easy," minister of the interior Thomas de Maizière said on German television when asked about Merkel's optimism. "We aren't capable of magic."

De Maizière and other CDU politician are in turn being criticized for speaking out by vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Green Party politicians.

According to a study by the watchdog organization apabiz, there was a marked increase in right-wing extremist attacks on refugee shelters in the second and third quarters of 2015. Even though Berlin, Brandenburg, and Saxony — all in the East — are known to be hubs for right-wing extremism, the majority of the attacks have occurred in Germany's Western states. In the past year, Pediga offshoots have developed in many West German cities.

Last month, Pegida founder Bachmann announced his plans to turn his organization into an official political party, and said that Pegida candidates would run for office during regional elections in March, as well as in the next countrywide Bundestag elections. At their demonstration last week, Pegida members carried a mock gallows with a noose "reserved for Angela 'Mutti' Merkel" and her vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel.

Pegida is not alone. The AfD (Alternative for Germany), a right-wing political party established in 2013, recently gained in the polls and is reportedly at 5 percent — the threshold that would get them a seat in the government. With its "fall offensive," the party announced it wanted to tackle what it called the "asylum chaos."

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Related: Razor Wire, Soldiers, and Mud: Hungary Is Sealing Itself off Europe's Migrant Route

Even Bavaria, a relatively wealthy state dominated by the CDU's sister Christian Social Union party, showed increased support for the AfD and right-wing extremism after a large number of refugees entered through its border.

But German media continues to celebrate diversity, and social media is flooded with hashtags like #refugeeswelcome. In commemoration of reunited Germany's 25th anniversary, the newspaper DIE ZEIT dedicated its front page to stories of migrants and refugees in a package titled "We Are the New Ones," a feature that the paper announced as having been "created with the help of the people whom so many welcome and some fear."

"It's critical to notice the public's overwhelming response to Pegida — its enthusiasm to help refugees," he said. "It sounds like a boring solution, but we would just have to preserve some of the people's open-mindedness and curiosity toward foreigners."

Follow Jenny Leonard on Twitter: @jendeben

Photo via Flickr