A spate of arson attacks are hitting refugee shelters in Germany, in a wave of xenophobic violence being driven by anti-immigrant, pro-Kremlin sentiment within the far-right and conspiracy movements, experts say.
Experts say the attacks are reminiscent of the wave of violence that erupted in the wake of the so-called European migration crisis of 2015, when Germany’s decision to admit asylum seekers sparked a surge of attacks against refugees and their left-wing supporters. They say they fear the situation could have the potential to escalate to the level of violence of that time, in which there were nearly 10 attacks on migrants every day in Germany in 2016, according to government figures.
“We are worried that the situation we had back then could repeat itself,” said Bruno Rössel, treasurer of the left-wing Die Linke party in Bautzen, a town of 40,000 people in the eastern state of Saxony where a hotel earmarked to host refugees was targeted in an arson attack on Friday.
“The fear is that there could be more violent attacks, that people will get hurt.”
What’s different this time is that the current wave of violence is being stoked in large part by far-right agitators whipping up hostility towards Ukrainian refugees within the overlapping far-right and radical conspiracy theorist scenes, where there are strong pro-Kremlin sympathies. Experts say far-right groups have also been playing upon the struggles of ordinary Germans to pay their bills amid the energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to further stir up hostility to Ukrainians and refugees more generally.
“They’re playing upon the fears of ordinary people that they can’t pay their energy bills to fuel this mood,” Rössel told VICE World News.
The parallels with the previous wave of violence are so strong that, in some cases, the targets of attacks have already been hit before. Friday’s attack on the Spreehotel in Bautzen, in which unknown assailants broke windows and started a fire in the building, which contained four sleeping staff members who escaped injury, was the second on the venue in recent years.
The Spreehotel, which had been due to begin hosting the first of 200 refugees this week, from countries including Syria, North Macedonia, Turkey, and Afghanistan, was previously targeted in an attempted arson attack in December 2016, when it was home to 230 refugees. Earlier that year, in February 2016, another Bautzen hotel serving as refugee accommodation, the Husarenhof, was burned to the ground in an arson attack, as drunks stood in front of the building cheering and clapping.
“It’s impossible not to feel reminded of the surge of anti-migrant violence from 2015,” Nicholas Potter, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin, told VICE World News.
He said the current uptick in violence was the “most significant flare-up of attacks” since that time.
“It’s no coincidence that recent attacks have occurred in some of the same places where violence against refugees was prevalent in 2015 and 2016.”
In the latest attacks, as in 2016, far-right parties and street protest movements are being blamed for whipping up anti-migrant tensions that have spilled over into actual violence. On Tuesday, just three days before the attack in Bautzen, the far-right, anti-immigration AfD (Alternative for Germany) party held a demonstration in front of the hotel protesting the imminent arrival of asylum seekers and what it described as an ““uncontrolled wave of migration.” Known neo-Nazis were present at the rally, according to Rössel.
Saxony, the state in which Bautzen is located, is a stronghold for the far-right party, which since 2015 has campaigned on a staunchly anti-immigration platform. The party denied any culpability for the attack, saying it condemned violence and that the demonstration was an expression of the democratic right to protest.
But political opponents say they bear some responsibility. “Anyone who spreads hate is complicit!” tweeted Silvio Lang, district chairman for Die Linke in Bautzen in the wake of the attack. Rössel said that whipping up dangerous anxieties over immigration had long been a baked-in part of the AfD’s modus operandi.
“I think that’s their job,” he said.
Alongside the AfD, radical anti-democratic and anti-migrant sentiment has also been stirred up by the Querdenken (“Lateral Thinkers”) scene, the volatile conspiracy theorist street movement that sprang up opposing lockdowns and vaccinations during the pandemic, and has since emerged as a significant domestic security threat.
Querdenkers hold regular demonstrations throughout Germany; on Monday, three days after the arson attack in Bautzen, they held one of their regular marches through the town.
Rössel said that the Querdenken marches regularly feature a strong far-right element, with known right-wing extremists in their ranks. Rössel said he saw the volatile, anti-democratic Querdenken movement as a kind of continuation of the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) movement – the Islamophobic street protest movement, founded in Saxony in 2014, which played a key role in drumming up xenophobic hatred during the 2015 migration crisis. Online, Querdenken activists are scathingly referred to as “QUERGIDA.”
While the xenophobic rhetoric of 2015-16 had a strongly Islamophobic character, railing against migration from the Muslim world, experts say that the current climate has a strongly pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian flavour – reflecting the receptive audience that Kremlin propaganda had found among far-right groups and conspiracist scenes worldwide.
Experts said that agitators in the overlapping far-right and conspiracist scenes were amplifying pro-Kremlin sentiment within these groups, and exploiting anxieties over the impacts of the energy crisis on ordinary Germans, to harden attitudes against Ukrainian refugees. At a demo in Bautzen two days after the attack, protesters held an AfD banner reading: “If we freeze, the government must shiver.”
“At recent demos in parts of East Germany, there’s been a growing resentment at Russia’s war in Ukraine, where Ukraine, Germany or NATO and its allies are given the blame, not just for the war, but for rising energy prices at home,” said Potter. “This anti-West, pro-Putin rhetoric leads to a hate-filled climate which now appears to be resulting in very real violence against refugees not just from Ukraine, but other countries too.”
The Bautzen incident was only one of a spate of recent attacks. On Monday night, unknown attackers threw incendiary devices at a former school building being used to house Ukrainian refugees in the Saxon town of Neukieritzsch. The attack, which caused no damage or injuries, was the second time the building had been targeted, after a similar attack in 2015 after it was announced the building would be used as refugee accommodation.
The latest attacks came just weeks after a hostel for Ukrainian refugees was burned down in an arson attack in Gross Strömkendorf in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on October the 19th. The arson occurred just days after a swastika was scrawled on the entrance to the building.
Two months earlier, on the 19th of August, a hostel for refugees in the east German city of Leipzig was targeted in an arson attack, which caused minor property damage. Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung said it was no coincidence that the attack occurred as Germany observed the 30th anniversary of an infamous xenophobic pogrom that saw several hundred neo-Nazis besiege a tower block housing Vietnamese migrant workers and Roma asylum seekers for several days in the city of Rostock.
Potter said that the anti-Ukrainian character of the recent attacks underlined the broad spectrum nature of far-right xenophobia.
“The recent attacks on refugee homes meant to house Ukrainians shows that the racists of the far right ultimately do not discriminate between different ‘kinds’ of refugee,” he said. “Anyone can be a target of their hateful ideology.”