Testimony from a Frenchwoman in Dresden: Neo-Nazis parading in my city - what do I do?

Article published on March 1, 2011
community published
Article published on March 1, 2011
by Elise Haddad I wrote this text ten days ago - it is a unique testimony and an analysis of the situation in Dresden, Germany, concerning the yearly event of February, 13th: anniversary of Dresden's bombing and destruction by the allies, and how it is distorted by Neonazis.
In the light of how it turned out, in the context of different types of demonstrations for democracy in the diverse world, in the disturbing comparison of how States and polices deal with them... though at very different scales... it suddenly becomes urgent to share that example at large. Come and observe how misunderstanding and fear spoil even the most consensual motto. A story overlooked by the press, who did not take the time to be there, amongst Dresdner, and listen to them not only on the day, but on the days before.

aaFascism: never again! War: never again! (Image: (cc) dielinke_sachsen/ Flickr)

Die Zeit, public discussion forum, in Dresden's City Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 9th 2011

For more than a decade now, Dresden, East Germany, has been home to a yearly demonstration of neo-Nazis from the whole Europe. They take advantage of a very sad anniversary: the destruction of Dresden on February 13th, 1945, under Allies' bombs. They use this fact, a war crime, to celebrate the German People and the Nazi State of the time as a victim of cruel enemies - "not one camp more inhuman than the other", they try to signify. Each year, they parade in the city on February 13th, whatever day of the week it is, and then in greater proportions on the following Saturday. Then, buses of European neo-Nazis spill on the city, as well as those of protesters who refuse to let neo-Nazis use the commemoration to their own advantage. And it wreaks havoc. In the city, nearly anybody would rejoice at not having the Nazis there - they did rejoice, in 2010, when Right-wings extremists got blocked at their departure point, and were prevented to parade by a massive mobilization of contra-demonstrators. Opinions diverge, though, as of the path of action that should be taken for this purpose. And as a young European living in Dresden, you can't help wondering: "Resistance against neo-Nazis: what is legitimate?"; the question was voiced by a nationwide German newspaper (Die Zeit), in its "public discussion forum" in Dresden's City Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 9th 2011.

Dresden's sad anniversary - where things got out of hand...

I live in Dresden. I have been there for a year, only just a year: it is my first Feb. 13th here. Which is more, I may not be in-town for the Saturday following the commemoration, when the huge demonstrations, the huge symbolic battle takes place. Still, I hear house-mates, I hear colleagues wondering: the whole youth of Dresden is buzzing with questions. Difficult to say how many of them will be in the streets when time comes, and, which is more, where they will be and to which purpose - but half of them have made it a central discussion topic. Should we be part of the "human chain", supported by nearly all parties and groups? Should we sit and block the street on the way of the foreseen Nazi demonstration, in the hope of forcing the police to cancel the demonstration? This is what happened in 2010. But it is forbidden, and the police later got blamed from Dresden's Administrative Court for not managing to ensure Nazi's constitutional right to demonstrate that day.

As a matter of fact, neo-Nazis are allowed to demonstrate in the city; there is no way around that, as it belongs to Germany's constitutive demonstration freedom. As much as one loathes an ideology, there is no forbidding its expression. And, I must say, I hardly heard anything against this as a principle, from any of my German friends, whatever their position on the matter. Still, other German cities, respecting the same rules and constitution, had to face the same kind of problems and managed to discourage neo-Nazis from demonstrating: Leipzig did it, Iena also, whose Mayor nowadays takes a day of vacation each year to come as a private citizen to Dresden, accompanied by two buses of prominent people, and to take part in the blockade. Of course, if a country chooses to allow manifestations regardless of the ideology behind it, one has to ask why the actual realization of this march should be impeded, be it by a massive amount of citizens? I have no answer. I am not sure anyone does. And still, everywhere else, neo-Nazis demonstrations receded. And in Dresden, they got bigger, until they became the most important in Europe, attracting participants from the whole continent.

Still, this year, February 13th falls on a Sunday, and on this day, neo-Nazis will parade at daydusk, at the very symbolical and emotional hour where churches' bells ring in commemoration of the beginning of the bombing that thoroughly destroyed the city, they will bear torches and signs calling Dresden a "bombing holocaust", through the very central area of the "old town". And it will be only a rehearsal of the huge europeanwide demonstration of the following Saturday. Furthermore, about a week before the event, nothing yet is organized and allowed on that day for anti-Nazis demonstrators. People in Dresden are outraged. What is so complicated?

On this February 9th, I sit amongst about 500 persons, in Dresden's theatre. Tonight, the newspaper Die Zeit organizes a debate on the topic: resistance to neo-Nazism what is legitimate? Gerhart Baum, NPD politician (right-wing), Ingo Schultze, writer, Christian Demuth, representant of a civil association who organizes resistance in Dresden that day, and Detlef Sittel, representing the municipality of Dresden, will debate, and answer questions from the theatre full of very attentive citizens. I am here because friends of mine wonder, too, and wanted to come. I am here, over all, to understand what is so complicated. As a naïve foreigner, I would think everything is straightforward: if the German People want to ensure the right to demonstrate for all, which is a tough but sensible measure, then they have to live with it. And if Dresdners want to make sure that everyone knows they are massively opposed to neo-Nazi ideology, then a massive human-chain and gigantic assembly during the whole day in the rest of the city should do the trick - it does for foreign media. Never, in France, have I heard any polemic about the "hows and whos" of the protest.

I am to learn that evening why it is not possible. As a friend of mine will tell me later: "If we could just massively stand around the Nazi demonstration and hold signs stating our protest and refusal, I would do it. That would be even better. But as it is, the city administration will not allow it." He has been preparing to non-violent blockade for a few weeks already. Here is the central problem: on the narrow latitude between what is prescribed and what would be dangerous, the City administration does have to position its own decisions. And let me tell you, on February 9th, in the theatre, they were contested: what can be organized, and what gets forbidden, for security reasons?... Or frowned upon - "criminalized", as the writer Ingo Schultze accused that evening. The very bourgeois assembly of old ladies in neat suits, high brow men in their forties, booed the municipality representative - a poor guy without charisma, who did not, indeed, appear to have much to say - and contested it just as much as the lively student youth of the city. It was exhilarating and puzzling at the same time.

"Here, in Dresden", some say, "things happen that would be unthinkable in the rest of the country" - and I am barely beginning to understand why. Political sensibility is high. Maybe political interest is never too far away, either.

- FDP politicians (right), favour an official ceremony on the graves. Of course, they do not oppose a general movement of protest against the Nazi demonstration, but it has to be thoroughly legal - civil resistance is not favoured; and one can sense how loath they would be to stand side by side with Left Extremists, who they deem just as dangerous as neo-Nazis.

- CDU (center-right) politicians, amongst whom City Mayor Frau Orosz, encourage the "human chain" on February 13th, through which Dresdners are to show their refusal of Nazi ideology, in a symbol of enclosing and protecting part of their city from neo-Nazis. Being in charge of the organization, and following their ideas, they also make security an utmost priority on that day - even deciding that the human chain should not take place at the same time than the Nazi Demonstration. Of course, it robs the human chain from a large part of its symbolism - and it raised a scandal, when a right-extremists youth organization took advantage of that to call its member to participate in the human chain, too, before their own parade... transforming it in a mere remembrance ceremony of the destruction of the city, and cancelling the "anti-Nazi" protest meaning it should have had.

- SPD politicians (left-wing) still call inhabitants to participate in the human chain and blissfully rejoice at the unity of action on that front - or do they wish for it? Unofficially, I have heard many left-minded friends talking and wondering about the blockade, even deciding to go. So would kind looking and round-faced established writer Ingo Schultze, and he encourages people of Dresden to pacifically block the Nazis' way. People from outside Dresden, like the Iena mayor, come to the rescue and support the blockers. But they are accused of being "demonstration tourists" by the CDU city council of Dresden. Furthermore, a lot of people are afraid of being associated with the wrong party, if they go, because...

- "Antifas"- far-link organizations who historically combat fascism - criticize all this as hypocrisy, want "the brown pest out of their city" and will block them at any cost... even violence, some fear. To be totally fair, some civil organizations, like "Bürger Courage" on that one evening, do critic a form of hypocrisy too, and the difficulty of the common discussions that took place all year to prepare a united reaction, the petty difficulties, the last-minute changes to what had been agreed upon... Lots of organization saw their proposals rejected, too: the municipality is for example so afraid of security and legal difficulties that it forbade a historical tour of "Nazi places in Dresden" on Sat 13th in the morning, some 6 hours before the beginning of the demonstration. A lot of people - who, agreeably, are not in charge of maintaining order in the city that day - can simply not understand that kind of unmotivated decisions.

Politics, indeed. Not to their best.

- Why, one might ask, in 2010, when everybody rejoiced at the neo-Nazi demonstration not taking place, why was only the human chain credited for it in the press and official statements, falsely, and some blockers treated as troublemakers - their homes and computers investigated by the police, etc? One always come back to that point: do we want the demonstration blocked, or not? Rather not. But it feels so good when it happens. I don't think the city is at all clear with itself about that point.

Finally, I sit there and feel like this is all the story of an unnecessary failure. Most anti-Nazis projected demonstrations or events are forbidden. The police has and will again on that day prevent anti-Nazi protesters from getting to the human chain and other legal manifestation - probably for fear that they are rather heading for the illegal blockade. In the end, it very nearly feels like the municipality favours Nazis over anti-Nazis protesters. Although deeply, we all know it is in no way the case. But Nazis will hold the symbolical advantage on that day in a way that made FDP politician Gerhart Baum incredulous: "This is not possible.", he uttered. But we have to report, as the public answered in one voice, "yes, it is, and it will happen". And that is exactly what angers and pushes many pacific protesters to civil disobedience, to try and block the Nazi demonstration - while they could have been content, under another general climate, to manifest efficiently but legally their disagreement and sufferance. And all the time, neo-Nazis take advantage of it.

So, what should I do? What would you do?