A failed welcome? Civil society’s struggle to support refugees and integration policies in an Eastern German town
By Yann Rees (Bielefeld University & Münster University) and Sebastian Kurtenbach (Münster University)
During the so called ‘summer of migration’ from 2015–2017 Germany made a name for itself as a welcoming nation becoming a home for about 1 Mio refugees from various countries around the world. Crowds applauding arriving refugees at train stations in major German cities made national and international headlines just as much as chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous phrase “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”). During that period, the term ‘welcome culture’ was often used to describe seemingly widely shared positive attitudes toward newly arriving refugees and migrants.
However, rather soon it became quite clear that vast parts of German society did not agree with this welcoming view. In fact, anti-immigrant protest as well as hate crimes targeting refugees in all German federated states, but especially in the five Eastern German states of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), became a pressing issue reaching a peak of more than 3000 hate crimes officially reported in 2016 (c.f. Rees et al. 2019). Additionally, right-wing populist and openly anti-immigrant party AfD (Alternative for Germany) gained strong electoral support and popularity all over Germany, but even more so in Eastern German states.
Various studies dived deeper into exploring social and socio-structural aspects of the enormous rise in hate crime targeting refugees (e.g. Wagner et al. 2020, Rees et al. 2019). These studies indicate that a combination of various factors seem to contribute to hostility and hate crime targeting refugees. For one, hate crimes occur more often in regions which are characterized by strong electoral support for AfD on the one as well as low proportions of foreigners on the other hand, thus limiting chances for intergroup contact severely (Rees et al. 2019). Moreover, these regions are mainly located in Eastern German states. These characteristics contribute to creating a socio-political “climate” (Rees et al. 2019, Kurtenbach 2018) in these regions targeting refugees and those who support them, such as civil society actors and politicians.
Among the regions described is our empirical case, the mid-sized town of Bautzen (~ 40.000 inhabitants) in the Eastern German state of Saxony, close to both, the Polish and Czech border. All in all, between 2015 and 2017, 522 right-wing hate crimes have been registered in Bautzen, with 51 specifically targeting refugees. In the 2017 German federal election, AfD gained 32.8 %, marking the party’s second highest electoral support in all German constituencies. With less than 2 % of foreigners before the 2015/16 refugee migration, Bautzen is way below the national average of about 10 % per municipality. Bautzen made news headlines because of aggressive anti-refugee protest and violent clashes between Bautzen residents and refugees (cf. Kurtenbach 2018). Despite all this and more often than not confronted with overt hateful and hostile reactions from Bautzen locals, various individuals and groups from both politics and civil society in Bautzen helped to organize refugee accommodation and integration which we investigated in a two-month field work.
The map shows the number of hate crimes targeting refugees per 100.000 inhabitants on the level of German municipalities. The arrow indicates the location of our case, Bautzen. Source: Rees at al. 2019
We conducted 49 in-depth interviews with local politicians and representatives of Bautzen civil society focusing on experienced hostility by Bautzen residents due to being involved in integration policy and volunteer work with refugees in Bautzen. The given exemplars from our interviews were translated into English.
Hate and hostility experienced by our interview partners range massively in both, form and severity. Some interviewees describe rather subtle forms of everyday hate, as this exemplar illustrates:
„I accompanied one of our Syrian women to the doctor, and we were really gazed at by one man the whole time. Really the whole time, she is with a headscarf next to me. We have talked and stuff and we’re constantly starred at.“ Civil Society_32
The most commonly experienced form of hate and hostility reported by politicians and civil society actors was communicated either via the internet or anonymous letters, including explicit intimidation and even death threats, as these exemplars underline:
We received letters and E-Mails calling us ‚traitors to the German people‘ and stuff.“ Civil Society_34
„I received three anonymous letters signed with ‚Ku-Klux-Klan‘ depicting me at the gallows.“ Civil Society_30
Social media was particularly commonly used to disseminate hate speech and intimidation, especially targeting politicians involved in refugee politics in Bautzen. The following quotes even suggest that receiving hate speech via Facebook became somewhat commonplace for local politicians:
„I mean, it has just become quite usual, you know, to be insulted on Facebook, to be insulted during demonstrations“ Politican_5
„Don’t ask me what happened on Facebook! We just had to endure, I just endured it [hate speech]“ Poltician_15
„During the refugee migration we [politicians] really became targets for these people in a direct way“ Politician_14
In addition to anonymous hate speech and threats via the internet and social media, some politicians reported being verbally abused during demonstrations and several events where refugee politics was publicly debated, as this account of one prominent local politician underlines:
„So, hateful reactions I receive […] during personal discussions and during the public event on Kornmarkt [biggest public square in Bautzen] for nearly half an hour we were yelled at consistently“ Politician_3
The consequence of these explicit these forms of hate lead to civil society actors and even some politicians not wanting their commitment in refugee integration to become public or even known in their personal environment, as these two statements by members of a civil society group involved in refugee integration illustrate:
„If members of our group have to appear in public, there are a lot of people who say: ‘Well, I don’t know, I don’t want my picture or my phone number, E-Mail or private address to be published’. It is some sort of avoidance, not being on display in public.“ Civil Society_34
„So right now, at work or whatever, we had the case in our volunteer group that one woman told us that she keeps it a secret that she helps refugees.“ Civil Society_9
In addition to written and verbal abuse, some of our interviewees report several violent incidents and physical attacks due to their work, as these two personal accounts emphasize:
“Members of our youth wing are followed through the city and one member had his jaw fractured. Our office has been attacked several times, windows smashed and stuff. From official side there never was a signal, they just accept it.” Politician_1
“I got assaulted by some Nazi at a demonstration in front of the refugee home. They assaulted me during an NPD [Neo-Nazi-Party] demonstration.” Politician 10
So, what are factors that contributed to Bautzen civil society’s struggle to support refugees and integration policies? First, the socio-structural characteristics of Bautzen seem to play an important role. Few experiences in multiculturality and little possibilities for intergroup contact contributed to widespread and overt negative attitudes toward newly arriving refugees and those who were marked as their supporters. Secondly, deeply rooted and well-connected right-wing actors and organizations were able to dominate public discourse and implement a certain socio-political “climate of hate” targeted specifically at civil society actors as well as politicians who were involved in refugee integration. Thirdly, this climate contributed to a form of ‘normality’ of right-wing hate, including hate speech and even violence. To some extent, this sense of normality led to politicians and civil society actors retreating from public life and discourse due to fear of hateful reactions and violence leaving the arena open for right-wing extremists.
Still, various individuals and newly formed organizations significantly contributed to refugee accommodation and integration. Without their contribution the town would not have been able to deal with the issues at hand. These individuals withstood hate and some even violence, and underlined that civic engagement, especially in times of crisis, is essential for democratic processes. Additionally, as one of our interviewees put it, public positioning and a firm stand against anti-democratic activities are vital, especially in in a hateful socio-political climate:
“I think it is important, in this sense, that there is some form of public paragons, a town always looks toward public figures and looks at how they position themselves, where they stand and what they have to say” Politician_4
 E.g.: https://www.politico.eu/article/angela-merkel-drops-the-we-can-do-it-slogan-catchphrase-migration-refugees/
About the authors
Yann Rees is a researcher at the Institute for interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University.
Sebastian Kurtenbach is Professor for social policy at the Münster University of Applied Sciences.
About the ISPP & its Blog
The International Society of Political Psychology is an interdisciplinary organization representing all fields of inquiry concerned with exploring the relationships between political and psychological processes. If you are interested in contributing an article or have any questions about the blog, please email them or visit the ISPP Blog’s webpage.
Kurtenbach, S. (2018). Ausgrenzung Geflüchteter. Eine Empirische Untersuchung am Beispiel Bautzen. Wiesbaden: Springer.
Rees, J. H., Rees, Y. P. M., Hellmann, J. H., Zick, A. (2019). “Climate of Hate: Similar Correlates of Far Right Electoral Support and Right-Wing Hate Crimes in Germany.” Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2328).
Wagner, U., Tachtsoglou, S., Kotzur, P. F., Friehs, M.-T., Kemmesies, U. (2020). Proportion of Foreigners Negatively Predicts the Prevalence of Xenophobic Hate Crimes within German Districts. Social Psychology Quarterly 83. (2), 195–205.