Village 'paid for arson attack': A tranquil German hamlet is accused of fomenting violence against asylum-seekers

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The Independent Online
CHICKENS cluck in the grass under the oak and lime trees, and geese wander down towards the river. At the village shop, a thank-you note to the villagers is pinned up, for flowers and presents given for a recent silver wedding anniversary. Outside, a woman gives neighbours some of her freshly picked pears.

The village of Dolgenbrodt, set among the wooded lakes south-east of Berlin, is tranquil even by rural eastern German standards. There are 260 inhabitants, many retired. The bus calls here just twice a week.

But Dolgenbrodt has gained a new and sudden fame. The inhabitants were this week accused of organising an informal whip-round to pay for an arson attack carried out by right-wing extremists in November last year.

On Acacia Way, round the corner from a small ferry for foot-passengers, you can see the burnt-out shell of the building, where little has changed since the night it went up in flames 10 months ago. Beneath the charred and collapsed roof, bedsteads lie waiting for the foreign asylum-seekers who never came. Coils of rolled barbed wire, to protect the foreigners from the expected resentment, lie around the building ('like a prison', as one villager complained). In the event, the protection was not needed: the arson attack took place the night before the 85 asylum-seekers were due to arrive.

Most villagers are quick to deny that money - allegedly, around pounds 800 - could have changed hands. But nobody feigns regret at the fire itself. One typical remark was: 'Nobody wept when it happened, let's put it that way.' Even the former mayor, Ute Preissler, argued: 'We weren't very sad that the problem seemed to have been solved.'

Some villagers argued that it was fortunate that the building was burnt down so promptly. In the words of one man: 'It's good that human life didn't get hurt. After all, if the foreigners had already moved in, they'd be dead, wouldn't they?'

Villagers say that they felt threatened by the prospect of 80 Fremde - foreigners, strangers, aliens - arriving in the hamlet. When the plans were announced, villagers protested - and, they claim, got no response from the local authorities. A protest meeting was duly organised, which packed the hall; more than half the inhabitants attended. As one woman remembered: 'The mood was very angry. There has never been a meeting here that was so packed.' Another man complained: 'There was a skinhead there, who had some good opinions - but the people from the authorities wouldn't let him speak.'

Germany took more than 400,000 asylum-seekers last year alone (a change in the constitution, agreed earlier this year, may mean that the numbers will go down in future). Each Land, or regional state, is allotted some of the arrivals. The Land authorities in turn decide to which villages and towns the asylum-seekers shall go. On arrival, they are housed, fed and clothed by the authorities.

To gain a perspective on the violence, one needs to perform a what-if leap of the imagination. Suppose that Britain, instead of bolting all the doors, had allowed in hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers in the past few years; suppose that Little Snorings all over the country each had dozens and hundreds of asylum-seekers foisted upon them, in temporary buildings and village halls; suppose that this was happening at a time of extraordinary trauma because of unparalleled social and economic upheaval, such as German unification has been; and suppose, finally, that criticism of the policies was politically almost taboo, because of a desperate official desire to be perceived as generous to foreigners. How peaceful would all the Little Snorings remain?

Dolgenbrodt's readiness for violence may be explained. But that makes it no less worrying. The village acknowledges a handful of people who support the extreme right. But it is the angry and respectable majority who appear to have set the tone.

On the village noticeboard, an official circular announces a forthcoming 'Week of Foreign Fellow-citizens', including a meeting entitled 'Make peace - overcome violence', in a nearby town. It seems unlikely, however, that many of the villagers from Dolgenbrodt will attend.