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Exactly what happened in Chemnitz after the fatal stabbing of the carpenter Daniel Hillig on August 26 remains a matter of dispute. First reports had it that the murder of Hillig — who had sought to mediate an argument of some sort — was followed by spontaneous protests staged by groups of right-wing radicals, facing off with small groups of left-wing counter-protesters, alongside much larger demonstrations of concerned citizens. Violence between extremists ensued, with social media suggesting that football hooligans and right-wing radicals were hunting down foreigners in the city.

Subsequently, local authorities determined that extremist violence on Left and Right was anything but spontaneous: the groups were well-networked, prepared and strategic. Neo-Nazi groups, which outnumbered their left-wing counterparts by two or three to one, had planned in advance to use larger groups of ordinary citizens in demonstrations as scenery to project images of large neofascist crowds. Such was the state of play as the dust began to settle.

But then came the strange intervention of Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. Maassen gave an interview to the mass circulation daily Bild in which he claimed there was no evidence of foreigners being “hunted” in Chemnitz and — without offering explanation — suggested that some manipulation and fabrication may have been at play. Maassen’s remarks provoked a mainstream media outcry and a rebuke from the Chancellor — yet praise from locals in Chemnitz who decry the image of their city as an out-of- control site for neo-Nazi terror. Maassen has now been removed from his job and reassigned to the post of deputy interior minister.

Indeed, much of the mainstream media have painted Chemnitz as having come under the spell of right-wing radicals, just as many national news outlets have broad-brushed eastern Germany for several years now — singling out the state of Saxony for special attention — as a hotbed of fascist ferment. Der Spiegel ran a story recently with the word Sachsen (Saxony) in brown letters. “It’s all outrageous,” says Antje Hermenau, a former Green Bundestag member from Leipzig who now lives in Dresden and who joined me for meetings in Chemnitz. I’ve heard the same indignation from a teacher, a businessman, a judge and a local reporter, three of the four — like Hermenau — women. Hermenau left the Greens several years ago over disagreement on how and whether to engage disaffected voters drifting to the Right. She is regarded throughout the region as a persistent advocate for dialogue and building bridges.
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