CHEMNITZ, Germany — Days after a street killing sparked violent anti-migrant protests, the mayor of Chemnitz sought Friday to reassure foreign visitors, students and investors that the eastern German city is safe, even as authorities prepared for further demonstrations at the weekend.
Images of neo-Nazis shouting “foreigners out” and performing the stiff-armed ‘Hitler salute’ during a protest Monday made headlines far beyond Germany, prompting concern among businesses and the city’s University of Technology, which has a large share of students from abroad.
“At the moment there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear on various sides,” Chemnitz’s mayor, Barbara Ludwig, told reporters on the city’s cobble-stone market square. “We’re going to make clear in the coming weeks and months that foreign students and foreign investors do indeed have their place in this city and will be safe here.”
Switzerland’s foreign ministry has already updated advice for its citizens traveling to Germany in the wake of the protests. It didn’t single out Chemnitz but said that “there may be demonstrations in big cities” and cautioned that “rioting is possible.”
The protests followed the fatal stabbing early Sunday morning of a 35-year-old German man, Daniel Hillig. Two men, a 22-year-old Iraqi and a 23-year-old Syrian, have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.
The killing and the unrest that followed have reignited the simmering debate over German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision three years ago to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country, straining its resources and hospitality beyond what some Germans considered acceptable.
Anti-migrant sentiment has been particularly strong in Saxony, the state where Chemnitz is located. The nearby state capital of Dresden is home to the group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party received almost a quarter of the vote in Saxony last year.
The party, known by its acronym AfD, publicly sided with the anti-migrant protesters in Chemnitz and is organizing a demonstration of its own in the city on Saturday.
The strategy appears to be paying off. A poll published Friday by public broadcaster ZDF put the party’s rating nationwide at 17 percent, up from 13 percent in last year’s elections.
The same poll found that 65 percent of the party’s voters don’t believe far-right extremists are a threat to democracy. The telephone survey of 1,216 randomly selected respondents, carried out from Aug. 28-30, found that supporters of all other parties overwhelmingly consider far-right extremists a threat to democracy.
Officials in Saxony have requested help from federal police and are drawing together all available officers to police the weekend protest. The move has resulted in the rare cancellation of a 2nd league soccer match Saturday in Dresden, for lack of available police.
Such short-term effects could pale in comparison to the medium-term impact that the spike in anti-migrant sentiment could have for the region, according to experts.
Chip maker Globalfoundries told business daily Handelsblatt that Saxony’s reputation has made it difficult to attract skilled foreign workers to the state.
“It’s not easy to convince an engineer from abroad to move to Saxony and bring his family,” spokesman Jens Drews told the newspaper. “We need to explain to him that the Dresden region is safe, that his children can go alone to school and one won’t be marginalized for wearing a head scarf.”
On Friday, a 31-year-old German was convicted of attempted murder, using explosives and attempted arson for a 2016 attack on a Dresden mosque. Nino K., whose last name wasn’t given in line with privacy laws, was sentenced to nine years and eight months in prison.
During his trial, experts testified that it was only by luck that the imam’s family wasn’t injured in the attack.
Chemnitz itself, a city of some 250,000 people, desperately needs skilled foreign workers for its industry. The city’s renowned University of Technology, which has one of the highest rates of international students in Germany, issued a statement following the protest expressing dismay at the killing and the “subsequent unjustifiable xenophobic and racist attacks, excesses and riots.”
Frank Asbrock, a professor of social psychology there who researches the causes and effects of extremist ideologies, said neo-Nazis appeared to have used social media to tap into a broader feeling of unease and fear felt by Germans toward migrants, swelling numbers at the protest beyond what authorities had expected.
Asbrock said mainstream politicians would do well to present voters who feel they’re not being given a chance to express their concerns an opportunity to do so. “We mustn’t leave these people to the right-wing populist parties,” he said.
Rebal Alkholdy, who came to Germany from Syria as a teenager three years ago, said he felt hostility from some in Chemnitz and decided to stay at home during Monday’s protest.
“We were a little bit afraid that some people wanted to do us harm,” he said.
His father Eeemad Alkholdy, who runs a confectionary store in the city center, said he wasn’t scared of the far right.
“We escaped way more difficult situations in our country, during the war,” he said. “One should be cautious, especially because we are considered ‘new’ in the country, and we’re the foreigners. So, the foreigner should make sure that he is calm and respects the laws of their country.”