How a German District Confronted Its Own Xenophobia

Letter From Görlitz

Görlitz, Germany. Fritz Schumann

On a Thursday night in March last year, roughly 900 people gathered in the town hall in Boxberg, a German town in Saxony’s Görlitz district close to the Czech and Polish borders. Not everyone found a place. Some hundred people were standing, pressed uncomfortably to the walls or lining up outside, trying to listen to the debate between the town council and members of the local government on the arrival of 200 Syrian refugees. The loudspeakers failed constantly.

The atmosphere was heated. Broad-chested men, looking 50 years or older, shouted their concerns about public security and how refugees would worsen the already poor medical care in the area. The majority remained silent. Werner Genau, magistrate of the local district, took the stage. “Human dignity is inviolable,” he said, quoting the first line of the German constitution. “The people are coming. There is no way around it. We have to take care of them.”

The crowd sneered at him, as they had done when he had spoken earlier, but this time more hesitantly. In the end, despite the sometimes raucous outbursts, the meeting was productive. It was a way not merely to announce the refugees’ arrival but to listen to some of the town’s concerns and to reach a compromise: it was decided only 150 refugees would be sheltered in Boxberg. Some residents even approached Genau after the meeting and asked how they could help.

In other parts of Germany, similar decisions were made by the local government, but often without including or asking for the public’s input. And a year since Germany agreed to accept a million refugees from Syria, the German public still remains divided on this policy. Right-wing attacks are on the rise, especially in the eastern parts of the country, such as in Saxony, a German state known for its violent, neo-Nazi groups and the success of its right-wing National Democratic Party and, more recently, the self-proclaimed Alternative for Germany, which received 9.7 percent of state legislature seats in

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