BERLIN (Reuters) - A popular German television presenter has prompted a heated public debate about a large influx of refugees into the country by making a prime-time appeal to Germans to stand up to racists who incite violence against the newcomers.
A record 450,000 refugees fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are expected to arrive in Germany this year, up from 200,000 in 2014, forcing the authorities and voluntary organizations to mount a large-scale humanitarian effort to feed and house them all.
ARD TV's Anja Reschke's comments urging Germans to challenge increasingly bold critics of official Germany's welcoming stance have struck a raw nerve in a country still haunted by memories of the Nazi persecution and murder of Jews and other minorities.
"Those spewing hatred have to realize that this society won't tolerate it any longer," Reschke said in her commentary on Wednesday night for ARD public broadcasting, referring to online attacks on Germany's refugee policy.
"Remarks like 'the filthy vermin should drown in the sea' are now getting encouragement and loads of 'likes' by online users," she said.
Reschke sounded alarmed that racist comments often appeared with users' real names, an indication of growing social acceptance. Germany has also witnessed a spate of arson attacks on refugee shelters.
There have been more than 20,000 comments on social media outlets to Reschke's commentary. While many support her, some have criticized her.
"It's all lies, you don't know what you're talking about," wrote Capulcu Albay on one social media outlet.
Michael Hoereth countered by asking: "Give me one good reason why this shouldn't be classified as 'inciting racial hatred' - a reference to a common charge in Germany used against racists and those who deny the Holocaust.
Reschke said she believed most Germans wanted to help refugees, and that sentiment was clearly on display in Berlin on Friday, where volunteers were busy finding water, food and shelter for the refugees.
In Hamburg, German soldiers were deployed for the first time in the crisis, erecting tents to help house the 300 refugees arriving each day in the city.
Mareike Geiling, of the non-profit group Refugees Welcome that finds accommodation for refugees, said Reschke's intervention was timely "because the tone is getting worse".
"We're getting more abuse from neo-Nazis," she said. "They say 'all refugees are criminals' and that we're 'do-gooders'."
Germany has a long tradition of welcoming refugees, in part a response to its Third Reich past when 500,000 Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis fled. They found shelter in more than 80 countries.
After World War Two, Germany took in some 13 million displaced persons and refugees fleeing west from Eastern Europe.
Another 1.8 million ethnic Germans from Russia and Kazakhstan have moved to Germany since 1990 as well.
Reporting by Josie Le Blond; editing by Erik Kirschbaum and Gareth Jones