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Far-Right protesters face riot police in Chemnitz the day after a man was stabbed to death in an incident with a Syrian and an Iraqi (©SEBASTIAN WILLNOW/AFP/Getty Images)

Recently, I sat in my hotel a few steps away from the Gedächtniskirche — West Berlin’s iconic “church of remembrance,” left in ruin at the end of World War II to remind Germans of the horror of their aggression — preparing for a meeting with Reiner Haseloff, minister president of the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The 64-year-old Haseloff is a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Like the Chancellor, Haseloff grew up on the country’s communist side, in the so-called German Democratic Republic. He, too, was trained as a scientist. Merkel holds a PhD in quantum chemistry; Haseloff’s doctorate is in physics.

I wanted to speak with Haseloff about the growing tensions between East and West Germans, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall; about the country’s shifting political landscape, about social cohesion and security, and Germany’s migration policies, the last being a subject where Haseloff and Merkel part ways. Haseloff has distanced himself from the Chancellor’s liberal migration policy; in 2015, Germany permitted some one million refugees from mostly Muslim majority countries to enter the country.

At the last minute my meeting with Haseloff was cancelled. The minister president was on his way to Köthen where a fight at a playground between two young Afghan men and a 22-year-old German man resulted in the German suffering a fatal heart attack. In Köthen, the mood was tense. Two weeks earlier, on August 26, violent protests had erupted in the east German city of Chemnitz where a 35-year-old German man was stabbed to death at a festival celebrating the city’s founding. A 22-year-old Iraqi and a 23-year-old Syrian were arrested for murder. If that were not enough, the same Sunday afternoon of the death in Köthen, September 9, a killing occurred in Neukölln, a Berlin neighbourhood where Turks and hipsters rub shoulder. In this case, a 36-year-old Lebanese-born man was shot to death, with five men fleeing the scene by car. Authorities suspect a clan dispute. Police estimate that  20 large families of foreign extraction in Berlin are involved in drug running, prostitution, and other organised crime. After Neukölln, Chemnitz, and Köthen a senior Berlin official said to me, with resignation, “People will have to accept some of this violence as the new normal.”

That’s a lot to swallow. And Germany’s confused public discussion about migrants, refugees and the rising Right makes none of this palatable, or easier to manage.

Start with Chemnitz. I’ve come here, my second visit in six months, to try to sort some of this out in my own mind. I started with the details of September’s disturbances. Chemnitz is an industrial town in the state of Saxony — to the south-east of Haseloff’s Saxony-Anhalt — which was called Karl-Marx-Stadt in communist times. Chemnitz and region are known for left-wing politics. The precursor to Germany’s Social Democratic Party was founded in nearby Leipzig in the 19th century; Chemnitz’s mayor today is an SPD politician, Barbara Ludwig. Today, though, Chemnitz has become reviled for its neo-Nazi scene, its reputation being further damaged by allegations that the population is swinging hard to the Right. This is in part due to the city’s recent social unrest.
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