Monday 17 May 2021
In the East German city of Chemnitz, political extremists aren’t just present – they’re organised. And they’re trying to spread their creed from ramshackle buildings to the rest of the country
Basia Cummings: This is the story of a house. It’s near the center of the German city of Chemnitz, in the East, near the Czech border. And, on the face of it, it’s a totally ordinary, old house on a plain-looking street. But it’s not an ordinary house, because within its walls it holds more than a century of German history.
Built in the 1800s, when Germany was ruled by a Kaiser, an emperor, it survived the First and Second World Wars, even as Hitler’s army marched across Europe and Allied bombing destroyed nearly half of the city. And it remained standing as the East of Germany became the GDR and was walled off and run as a socialist state.
It remained standing as Chemnitz was renamed to honor Karl Marx and became Karl-Marx-Stadt. And, in the 1950s, the city and its residents were celebrated as being at the vanguard of a new era in German politics. The people who live here do not look back, the president said at the time, but look forward to a new and better future.
And perhaps that remains true – just not quite in the way that you’d expect. Because Chemnitz is now reckoning with the return of a dark force, one that has deep links to the darkest period in German history, but which is now reformulating, reshaping itself, and reshaping not only itself but the whole of German politics.
Because, for over a decade now, the city has been home to a far-right extremist movement, a movement that saw 2015 – the year that the chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed over a million migrants to Germany with the words “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”) – as a tipping point. Because from this derelict old house a group of neo-Nazis are organising. In 2018, 8,000 supporters gathered here and marched on the city. And, as elections loom in September, the residents of this house could be the torchbearers of a newly popular and newly powerful far-right movement in Germany.
So the question is: what should be done with them and what should be done with this house?
I’m Basia Cummings and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast. With reporter Sean Williams, I’m going to tell you the story of the Nazis next door.
So let’s start off. Sean, why don’t you describe the house to me?
Sean Williams: Yeah, it’s only a five minute walk from Chemnitz city centre, past the shopping mall, over some tram tracks, to the building at Brauhausstraße No.6, which is Brewery Street 6. It’s a nice enough old place. It’s 19th-century, brown bricks, pretty faded facades…
But it sits in a pretty odd spot: it’s detached, separated on all sides, by green, from these cream-coloured housing blocks that popped up across the city in the 1950s to rebuild the city from ruin. Those balconies now look on to the house. They’re like box seats at a theatre, but they can’t see much. Its windows are mirrored and shut, and there’s barely any noise.
The Chinese called places like this nail houses, homes whose owners refuse to make way for the new and wind up alone, sticking out awkwardly like a stray nail.
I went there on a hot, sticky afternoon. And the only sound was kids playing football nearby. Some folks were smoking cigarettes on their balconies, and they were staring at me as I walked up to the house, pressed the button marked “lawyer”, and I got buzzed into one of the country’s most controversial homes.
Basia: Take me inside the house. What’s it like?
Sean: Well, the first thing you notice is that there’s not a lot of stuff in it. The floors are bare. The steps, the stairs that you walk up, they’re bare concrete as well. There’s plastic sheeting all over whatever there is in the house. Nothing to indicate that this place is somewhere that’s lived in. In fact, it looks a bit like an empty squat.
And the only real room that’s got any decoration or furnishing is a pretty small office on the second floor, with a desk in the middle, and, on the desk, all of these legal documents, strewn everywhere, very haphazardly.
To the side, there’s another tiny room, out of which pops a guy called Michael Brook. He’s the first guy I see. And he’s this big, gym-bunny neo-Nazi from the western city of Dortmund, who was alleged to have moved to Chemnitz.
And I’m here because I want to find out what the place is, which is a house at the heart of a storm, in the middle of a city, which has become the epicentre of an extreme right movement that is in danger of enveloping Germany.
Basia: And so you’re making your way through this notorious house. You’ve already come across a pretty well-known neo-Nazi called Michael Brook.
But you’re really there to meet one guy who maybe matters more than most of them, a guy called Martin. Tell me about him.
Sean: Martin has been there since 2009, so he’s been there quite some time. He’s slim. He’s got a little paunch. He’s got a wispy, grey-black beard. And he looks quite diminutive, but his views are anything but.
Martin Kohlmann: Yeah, I was born here in Chemnitz when it still was Karl-Marx-Stadt. And… our family was opposition in communist times, so I was no member of the Communist Youth Organisation.
I learned very early not to be afraid that the big majority has another opinion than me. I learned… doesn’t mean they are right.
Sean: He’s a Chemnitz city councillor and a convicted Holocaust denier. He leads a small party called Free Saxony. And here he is singing a traditional folk song to some of his followers.
[Clip: Martin Kohlmann leads German singing.]
Some people see Martin as a bulwark against what they feel is a government that doesn’t listen to them, that is imposing things on them. Other people see him as something far more sinister. And many people just outright call him a neo-Nazi.
But that isn’t quite how he sees himself.
Martin: It’s for me, personally, not such a big problem – as far as I know, that’s not true. I think as one who says we need… less police. And I think even that Saxony should depart a bit from Germany. I would have been imprisoned, as the first, in Nazi Germany. So it’s a joke to call me Nazi.
But, yeah, that’s the discussing culture in Germany that has died. If someone has a [criticism of] the situation, okay, maybe you should discuss with him. But if you don’t want to discuss, you just say “Oh, he’s a Nazi!” so discussing is over
Sean: What goes on behind the house’s doors is still a bit of a mystery. Martin definitely runs his lawyer’s office out of there. He’s tried to turn it into a clubhouse, a bar, but he’s been fought through the courts by people on the left-wing who’ve managed to convince city authorities that they shouldn’t allow him to get an alcohol license, for example, and other things like that.
It’s definitely true that they’ve also attacked the house with paint, graffiti. They’ve smashed the windows. They’ve protested loudly outside.
So, at the moment, maybe one of the reasons why it does look so bare-bones and it does look so squat-like is that, actually, there’s been a big fight over what it can be.
It’s definitely true that far-right figures are coming and going through the house. I saw this guy, Michael Brook, who was sort of alleged to be in Chemnitz and he was the first guy I saw. So it’s pretty clear that this house has become an epicentre for extreme-right politics in the city.
But it’s not the only Nazi house in Chemnitz. I actually took a drive around with a guy called Johannes, who’s a local journalist who tracks the far right. Johannes isn’t his real name, by the way: he hides it to protect his safety.
One of the houses that we visited on our tour was a regular pre-war building, similar to the one at Brauhausstraße. And, from the outset, you’d never know that this place was the home of a pretty feared, right-wing biker gang.
But take a little look around, and it becomes a little clearer. So we popped our heads around the back garden, and then there’s a plywood clubhouse made out of… just bits of wood, pretty prefab stuff. Then, on the postbox, there’s a sign saying “Germania”, which was Hitler’s name for his post-war German racial utopia.
Across the street is a car with the number 88 in the back window, which neo-Nazis use as HH, or Heil Hitler. So there might not be swastikas hanging in banners from the windows, but it’s there and it’s very real. And signs like this are all over the city.
Basia: So how does a man like Martin, a city councillor, end up in this derelict squat-like house in the middle of Chemnitz? What is it about this place?
Sean: Well, to understand that question fully, you need to go all the way back to the times of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, the communist state that broke off after the Second World War. And, during that time, for almost half a century, there was no free speech, political dissent was squashed. And that lasted all the way up until the end of the 1980s, when protestors gathered outside the government’s office in the main square of Chemnitz.
[Clip: Anti-government protests in 1980s Chemnitz.]
Gabi Engelhardt was a young woman at a time at the protest. And she gathered around that politburo building in the middle of town – just a hop and a skip away from Martin’s office and house – to help bring down communism in East Germany.
But, with it, came this potent wave of neo-Nazi fascism that found a home in the city. And Gabi blames these German leaders.
Gabi Engelhardt: I would argue, and I think many people agree with me, that it was also the structural racism in the GDR.
And also that East Germany, or the government, claimed to be… GDR was claimed to be an antifascist state. And we have to say that anti-Na suffocation was much better, but it was not deep enough. And so we had many former Nazis who could join the ruling party, who could join the army and forces of the state.
There was no open discussion about fascism or racism. It was just declared that we are in an antifascist and antiracists state. And there was no discussion about what our fathers and grandfathers did during the Nazi regime, as it was in West Germany in the 68 and 69 movement.
We didn’t have this discussion. And so, whenever Nazis attacked someone or racists attack someone, it was not just said that it is stupid boys who did this, or it’s just a single person who did this, but, under the veneer, there was a movement that developed and an ideology that was kept alive for the whole time.
Basia: So, when Germany reunified, it sounds like there was this bubbling corner of far-right sentiments, even fascist sentiment, that was just sort of swept under the carpet and ignored.
Sean: Yeah, and within too long, it became fatal. The National Socialist Underground, this neo-Nazi terror group responsible for the murders of ten people in the early 2000s… they actually hid out in a post-war Chemnitz apartment block until they were arrested
[News clips: The National Socialist Underground.]
Gabi: The authorities, of course, they ignored – again – the danger of the right-wing developments. This is where… they could start to infiltrate society. They tried to mobilise in the big towns, Chemnitz, Leipzig, Dresden, but that was not so successful, so they started to get into the small communities around Chemnitz.
They took part in the normal life: the fire brigade and sports clubs and everywhere, and tried to establish themselves as nice people. And they also bought houses. And we can see that today, that there are so many Nazi buildings here or buildings owned by Nazis.
Sean: So in the aftermath of reunification, as Gabi says, the government allowed a growing Nazi movement to bubble up. It was blind in the right eye, as Germans say. And that allowed houses like Martin’s nail house to grow and provide a place to spread their influence
Basia: So you’ve painted this pretty remarkable picture of this derelict old building, standing alone; the past and the present almost physically facing off against each other.
So what is it that Martin is fighting against? And how much power does he wield?
Sean: Well, what he’s been fighting against has changed over the years.
Martin: Then was the change, the peaceful revolution – how is it called? – in ‘89. And it was a big political awakening for me. And I was very excited and we thought, oh, that’s [every]thing we ever wanted. Then after some years we noticed, oh, no, maybe it’s not.
Sean: He began shifting his views when Germany got the Euro. And then again when the migrants arrived in 2015. He thought these things were undemocratic, something he shares with right-wing populists across Europe, including the Alternative für Deutschland, the AfD, which is a major political force in the city and all over Germany.
After 2015, there was a backlash from the German right wing, and no more so was there a backlash than in Chemnitz – and, among those people, Martin was one of the most active in decrying Angela Merkel’s “open doors” policy.
Martin: That’s one of the differences with the AfD. They say we should close the frontiers and control… We say, no, no, we don’t need to close. I don’t want closed frontiers, because I had closed frontiers when I lived in GDR. I couldn’t go anywhere except the Czech Republic, so we were prisoners in this country.
I don’t want this again, not in this direction or in this direction. We say, okay, just give people who come here… they could have a shelter and they could have some meal if they are really refugees. They will be glad about…
But if they came for adventure, or for getting money for doing nothing, they will very quickly understand that they are wrong here. And I think that will solve the problems, and not closed frontiers.
Sean: So, in your opinion, the majority of people who came here a few years ago, they came here for economic reasons?
Martin: Yes, of course, of course.
Sean: Even from Syria and Afghanistan?
Martin: Yes, because… it’s very far away from Afghanistan here. The most refugees, for example, from Afghanistan, they go to Pakistan, they go to Iran, and they even find jobs in Iran. S if you just want to save your life, there’s no reason for the big journey from Afghanistan up to Germany.
I think I would understand if there would be a big problem in Poland. I don’t know what… of course, they would come here because it’s a neighboring country. But it’s no reason to come from Afghanistan to Germany.
Sean: To use the Chechen comparison, then, why don’t you go to Georgia or Armenia?
Martin: Yeah, of course, that’s the same reasons, of course. But the difference is… I have to tell it’s just for Chemnitz that they behave very good because they have a very patriarchal structure.
Sean: So that suppression of this racism bubbling beneath the surface that’s gone on through communism, throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, erupted.
And at the heart of it was Martin Kohlmann.
[News clips: Far-right demonstrations in Chemnitz in 2018.]
Sean: So, in 2018, there’s a festival in the centre of Chemnitz. In fact, there’s a festival on the square, right under the nose of the Karl Marx bust. And, during this festival, there’s a lot of drinking. There’s some violent outbreaks. And, during the violence, a young Cuban-German man is stabbed to death.
His two assailants are identified as Kurdish men who are recent arrivals to the country. And, off the back of that, protests erupt in the city – led by Martin and a few other far-right figures. 8,000 people come to the square, screaming, chanting, cheering slogans, saying things like “ausländer aus” – which means “foreigners out” – and really pointing the finger of blame at the open-doors policy and the foreigners who have just arrived in Germany.
Many immigrants in the city are scared. Lots of people in the neighborhood by the house, for example, refuse to speak to me; they were too scared to speak. But Kohlmann, he actually said that the 2018 protests were peaceful.
Martin: It was a bit of wild, but not too much. It was peaceful at most, but even when this March took place, there were some immigrants that provoked very much, and came close to people, and making films with cell phones, and so on.
And, yeah, then it was one situation that became known as the “Chemnitz people hunt” or… it was just such a situation that… they provoked it very much, and then just some guys came and made them run away. That was all.
And one took a video of this and it was shown worldwide. “Oh, in Chemnitz, immigrants are hunted through the city!” – but that was actually not [what] really happened. That some immigrants had to run for some short distance… that was a “bad thing”… and “Nazi riots”.
Sean: And here he’s actually hopping on the comments of the former head of domestic intelligence in Germany, a guy called Hans-Georg Maaßen who said that he thought phone footage of right-wing violence was faked – without any evidence to back that claim.
Maaßen got demoted soon after. Of course, to folks like Martin, that was free speech being muzzled all over again.
Maaßen has been in the news this week, by the way, rallying against so-called “globalists”. So his political views are pretty clear.
Basia: But this gets to the heart of why we’re telling the story of this house, doesn’t it? It’s this question of why are these places – these assembly points for the far right, where, arguably, protests that tip into violence are being organised – why are they allowed to stay open?
Sean: Well, there’s a couple of answers to that. One would be that Germany has an extremely zealous view of free speech – apart from Holocaust denial, which Martin has been convicted of.
Germany is a country that’s lived through the Gestapo and the Stasi, the East German secret police, and free speech has always been curtailed in those times. And you could argue that democracy in East Germany, especially, is an extremely new experiment. So the idea of free speech in a democracy is sacrosanct.
So views, ideas, groups, even… that that might not be tolerated in other countries have found a way to eke out an existence in Germany.
And there’s also a simpler reason, as well, which is that by separating themselves and decanting these different groups into houses across the city, they’re keeping the groups small and they’re keeping the attention of the authorities divided between different places. So there’s no one or authority that can say, okay, this is where Chemnitz Nazis are hanging out.
There are a few different places that all act as the heads of different, small groups that deliberately stay so, so that they don’t get picked up by the government.
Basia: And when we say “Chemnitz Nazis”… I mean, when you say the term Nazi to me, I think of guys waving swastikas, praising Hitler, probably with shaved heads. Is that what we’re talking about here?
Sean: We’re talking about something very similar, but we’re also talking about something newer; a bit more subtle and a bit more sinister. So Martin, as those legal documents strewn all over his desk show… he’s found a way to frame his far-right activism as a form of free speech, freedom-fighting, legal battles. And, in that way, he’s really the brains of what is, in a sense, just old school, skinhead neo-Nazism, dressed up in a new social media era.
Gabi: We would say he’s a Nazi. What he does is he wants to create a different kind of society and he wants to build from that on the streets… what he does… he uses racism and nationalism and chauvinism to divide society until he tries to establish forces in the street.
This is what they now do: they call themselves anti-fascists and they call us fascists.
He is an anti-Semite. And he also defends, as a lawyer, Holocaust denial. And… yes, yes, I would say that he’s a Nazi, a neo-Nazi.
Basia: And what is the relationship between Martin and Martin’s crowd and this neo-Nazi house, and the bigger movement in far-right politics in Germany more generally, with the AfD and how they’ve really shaken up the German political landscape in the last five years?
Sean: Well, it’s a bit like the butterfly effect. So you’ve got Martin and this kind of attempt to bring extreme-right and neo-Nazis over to Chemnitz, but to illustrate the point, I mean, he’s impossible because he kind of directs the entire city and the whole conversation to the right himself.
I’ll give you an example, right. So a prominent member of the local AfD, he’s been spotted in the Nazi houses with Kohlmann and others. There’s a far-right element of the AfD itself; it’s called Der Flügel, or The Wing, and that’s been getting increasingly popular in extreme… in some rare cases, the AFD has now gone into co-rule with the CDU, which is Angela Merkel’s centre-right party and Germany’s biggest, in parts of Germany. And now, to bring it all back around, who’s running for the CDU? Hans-Georg Maaßen, who’s the same intelligence guy who said Martin’s followers weren’t chasing migrants in 2018, after all. And the CDU leadership is terrified that he’s going to join hands with the AfD in his chosen constituency, which isn’t far from Chemnitz in the former East, too.
Basia: And that’s important because there are elections coming up in September. It’s the end of Angela Merkel’s 15-year leadership, so there’s really a role here for Martin and his followers to play in the political landscape. How successful do you think they’re going to be?
Sean Williams: Well, the AfD’s popularity has shrunk a little since its high in 2019. It really just hasn’t been able to back up its policies on immigration with anything else, but it’s still likely to do well in Saxony and especially in Chemnitz where, actually, over a fifth of the city voted for it before.
So to some people Martin might seem like a small-time rabble rouser, a fringe character, but what he really represents is a really important shifting of the political debate in Germany and a widening of the chasm between the political extremes.
So the CDU, the SPD – the centre-right and centre-left, respectively – they seem to be losing a bit of power. We could have a green chancellor at the next election. We could have increasing power of the AfD.
Either way, the far right is having a bit of a renaissance in the country. And people like Martin and cities like Chemnitz are going to become the battlegrounds in a changing and newer German political landscape in the near future.
There’s a feeling about Germany – I think in Britain and other countries around the world – that it’s stable, that it’s centric, that it’s straight down the line, and that it’s governed by rules, but that’s not the case, and history doesn’t bear this out. It’s lurched from left to right to violence, from autocracy to dictatorship to emperors, for its entire recent history.
I travelled to Chemnitz in the first place to find out more about this house and its importance in the city, and who this guy was that was holed away in this small office in the middle of it. In many ways, the story isn’t about Martin Kohlmann at all. It’s about the house.
This house that Martin has made an epicentre of Chemnitz’s far right… it’s a talisman of the extremism that’s actually baked into German history. It’s survived emperors. It’s seen the hopes of the Weimar Republic crumble. And the death and destruction of Hitler’s rule. A communist utopia emerged then died around it. And neo-fascists now call it home.
At each turn, extremism went unconfronted, without dialogue, spreading behind closed doors just like the ones I visited all over Chemnitz.
The nail houses are nothing new. And if Germany can’t confront them, it may be doomed to repeat the failures of its past – and the house will likely be standing when that happens.
Basia: Sean, thank you so much.