Troglitz: The German village standing up to the neo-Nazis' flames of hatred after refugee hostel arson and beheading threats

Tony Paterson reports from the front line of Germany's ideological battle

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The Independent Online

The fire-blackened timbers and gash in the roof of the neat, daffodil-yellow building at No 30 Ernst Thälmann Strasse have become a mark of Cain for Tröglitz, a sleepy village of 2,800 inhabitants in eastern Germany, just a couple of hours south of multicultural Berlin.

Early on Easter Saturday, suspected neo-Nazis got into the three-storey block, which was destined to become a hostel for 40 of Germany’s growing influx of refugees, and set fire to it. No one was hurt, but the next day the local MP and the former mayor received anonymous death threats because they backed the hostel. The MP, Götz Ulrich, was threatened with “beheading”. The other threat read: “Hermann Göring has written to me and told me to shoot you.”

Mr Ulrich is now under 24-hour police protection. So is Markus Nierth, the ex-mayor who resigned last March in the face of alleged neo-Nazi intimidation. “It is a disgrace for Tröglitz. The Nazis must not be allowed to win,” Mr Nierth said after the fire. So far however, it is difficult not to conclude that they have.

Edda, an elderly woman who lives opposite No 30 in a one-storey house, preferred not to reveal her last name. Like almost everyone in Tröglitz, she deplored the act of arson last weekend. Yet she said she was not so sure about opening up her village to asylum-seekers, especially if they were single men. “Nobody would complain if families were going to move in there,” she said. “But if there were 40 men on their own, I would be afraid.”

Such views can be heard all over Germany. They go some way towards explaining what happened in Tröglitz.

In January, when it became known that even tiny Tröglitz was expected to take in 40 asylum-seekers, a few villagers began to organise protests. They were instantly noticed by Steffen Thiel, a local member of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). At the time, Germany’s Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamification of the West) movement was holding large demonstrations in the nearby city of Dresden against what it called the rising numbers of “bogus asylum-seekers” Germany was taking in.

Mr Thiel, a NPD district councillor in his late 30s, is widely believed to have copied Pegida and organised Sunday evening protest “strolls” against the planned Tröglitz hostel. He did not reveal that the NPD was involved. “I am not stupid,” he told Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper this week. He said he had designed a rainbow-coloured banner for the marches. “You don’t notice that this is made by the far right,” he boasted.

The Sunday “strolls” became increasingly well-attended, not least because of apparent support provided by NPD members. When the protesters threatened to hold rallies outside Mr Nierth’s home, the 46-year-old mayor resigned, saying that he feared for his family’s safety.

His resignation hit headlines throughout Germany. The local authorities responsible for Tröglitz responded by holding a public meeting in the village to explain the hostel project. More than 500 people attended but, according to most reports, the meeting was dominated by the views of some 30 NPD supporters.

“Why do we spend so much money on asylum-seekers?” one participant was quoted as saying by Der Speigel.

Theories abound as to why right-wing ideology has such a foothold in Tröglitz. The old part of the village is a collection of timbered farm houses surrounding a 200-year-old church. But the other half consists of rows of workers’ houses thrown up during the Nazi era to accommodate miners.

“During the Nazi era, people were told they belonged to the better race; under Communism they were told they lived in a better society. If a culture of debasing others is propagated for decades, it is bound to fall on fertile soil,” concluded the region’s Protestant Bishop Johann Schneider. “I felt an atmosphere of hate in Tröglitz.”

The village pledged this week to take in between 10 and 12 of the 40 refugees it has been assigned. Many of them will be put up by Mr Nierth. “Just who decides how many refugees Tröglitz can take in – the state or the NPD?” asked Die Zeit on Thursday.

Matthias Kleinholz, the vicar of Tröglitz, is desperate to minimise the damage. “The sooner we can begin taking in refugees, the quicker we will be able to show that things will be alright,” he said.

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