They call themselves ‘concerned Germans’, ‘German nationalists’ and ‘patriots’; to everyone else they are Nazis, neo-Nazis, fascists. In recent months Germany has seen a huge rise in right-wing extremism, objecting to German immigration policies. PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes) (Patriot Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) regularly hold demonstrations in Dresden and have spawned many offshoot movements throughout Germany. The laws in Germany concerning freedom of speech and freedom of assembly mean everybody has the right to publicly demonstrate even if this is not a view shared by the majority or is seen to be hateful.
I recently joked that as a rite of passage to becoming to real German, you must demonstrate about something. It’s not that far from the truth because with the surge of right-wing extremist activity, the left have answered in even bigger numbers.
On October 3rd 2015, I took part in an anti-Nazi demo in Jena, Thuringia. A student city, Jena is home to a large left-wing populous, and neo-Nazi demonstrations are always met with fierce protestations. A branch of ‘Die Rechte’ (The Right) party intended to walk through the city. The role of the anti-fascist demonstrator is to stop them, to anticipate their intended route and get in their way by literally blocking the route. It was intended to be a peaceful protest but I was slightly alarmed when my boyfriend recommended I wear flat shoes suitable for running, and that I wear my glasses, not contact lenses, in case I got pepper- sprayed.
A large group of anti-fascists protestors met up in a car park close to Jena city centre at 8am. It was a cold but bright morning, and while I was tired, I couldn’t help but be affected the atmosphere and anticipation of what was ahead. People stood in small groups, while German rap was pumped from speakers attached to a car roof. This car would later lead our procession to the city centre accompanied by police also there at that time. It struck me for a moment as farcical to be standing in the cold at 8am while German rap thumped into my head. I really wanted a coffee.
We soon set off, walking at a slow pace behind the music-blasting car, after hearing instructions as to where to go, and what to do.
We gathered at another point in the city centre where the neo-Nazi walk was expected to pass. After standing there for about forty minutes with no sign of them, our group branched off in different directions to try and intercept another part of their route. There was a commotion when some of our group tried to escape through a police barrier. They were trying to make a run for where the neo-Nazis were, finding the quickest way possible. I suddenly felt as though I needed to sneeze. The feeling in my nose became sharp and I felt a choking sensation in my throat. This, I was told, was pepper spray that the police had just used. It had floated through the air to me and I uncomfortably wondered what it felt like to get a full direct hit.
The ‘guidelines’ are to take part in as much or as little of the events as you wish. If you don’t feel comfortable trying to break through a barricade, then you shouldn’t and that’s ok. Parents had also brought their children along so a sense of solidarity was more prevalent than that of intent for violence.
The co-ordinators of our group knew exactly what route the neo-Nazis would take. There was a quick discussion as to where to go. You have to consider how quickly you can get there, and how many other people will also be there, as numbers matter. The neo-Nazis were apparently at the main train station in Jena. My boyfriend grabbed my hand and we ran, less a romantic gesture I imagine and more his fear I would get trampled on or get lost. But my heart was pumping, and not just from the running. It was genuinely uplifting to be sprinting through the city centre streets in the middle of a crowd. I congratulated myself on having just recently bought some comfortable flat boots that were now having their initiation. You really do need a basic level of fitness before taking part in a demonstration.
When we arrived at the train station, we could see the neo-Nazis already standing on a platform. However we moved on again after a short while as there was no sign of them moving. When we reached another point in Jena where the neo-Nazis were expected, we formed a road blockade. In other locations in the city, similar things were happening as the initial larger group had splintered off and more demonstrators had joined. We were now about 50 or 60 people sitting on the tarmac on a narrow residential road. Motorists tried to pass and as we moved out of the way for them, any slight guilt I felt at having inconvenienced them disappeared when I realised that they were completely unperturbed, clearly something they are used to in their home town.
Our group broke up again; some to stay where we were, some to move further uphill. I was reticent about moving, I had managed to find a comfy position for my bottom on the tarmac and an uphill walk, or more likely run, in the afternoon heat did not appeal. But fifteen minutes later we found ourselves on a leafy, quiet residential road on a hill over-looking Jena.
The neo-Nazis intended to drive their van through an intersection of the road so we took positions to block their path. On one side of the intersection stood the neo-Nazis and our group on the other side, with police standing in between. As every person in Germany has the right to demonstrate, the neo-Nazis therefore had the legal right to be there, and it was us, the anti-Nazi demonstrators, that were being legally and physically obstructive. The police were there to intercept any violence and to allow the Nazi walk to continue. Simply put, the police wanted us out of the way and we were asked, or advised, over loudspeaker to leave. An organiser of our group then addressed us over loudspeaker: we would be staying put, until we were moved by the police or until the Nazi van diverted its route. For a couple of hours we sat peacefully in the sun with accompaniment from a small brass band to keep us occupied. People were chatting, music was playing, we even enjoyed snacks and coffee in the sun. It felt like a street party, if you could ignore the close distance of police and neo-Nazis. It was pleasant and peaceful.
The peace was suddenly disturbed by a group of far-left activists who, from the back of our group, threw glass bottles across the tops of the heads of those sitting on the ground, in an attempt to reach the police on the other side. With children, babies and elderly people there, this behaviour was especially not accepted and the culprits were berated. Most of them had their heads and faces covered and I saw a girl, after having thrown something, visibly shaking from adrenalin or maybe fear. This small group were herded out and disappeared. Violence is absolutely not accepted. It is impossible to always stop this happening but when there’s a strategy in place, violent action is unwanted and unnecessary.
The police gave warnings that we should leave or we would be removed, and I wondered what exactly ‘being removed’ would entail. A representative of Jena City Council responsible for city demonstrations arrived to decide whether we were being unlawful and, unsurprisingly, we were.
At this point, the police were entitled to remove us. I now know that this could have been carried out by simply walking towards us in an effort to disperse us, or running towards us with batons, and using them. But it never got to that point. The numbers of police present were no match to the amount of anti-Nazi protestors. The neo-Nazis were forced to abandon their route. Our peaceful obstruction had worked.
With a few jeers to the neo-Nazi van as it drove away, we quietly dispersed. When we reached the city centre, there was a party atmosphere where everybody gathered to celebrate our success. What we had achieved was obstructing the neo-Nazi route and forcing them to abandon it.
I had never taken part in any kind of demonstration before this, and going into the day, I was curious what it would be like. On one hand I wanted to see some action, on the other I didn’t. I didn’t know the protocols. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I didn’t know if anything was expected of me. There was a lot of waiting around and at times I was bored, tired, or wanted coffee. I wondered whether I, one person, being there, actually made any difference. But the Nazis’ plan was foiled, and it was numbers that won. It was every, single, human body there that caused this to happen, that made me see what I, what we, had done.