RIESA, Germany (Reuters) - While many Germans have welcomed the record numbers of refugees reaching their country, the new arrivals have unleashed fear and fury in small eastern German towns like Riesa, a center of far-right support in a country ashamed of its Nazi past.
In Riesa, a distinctly ordinary steelmaking town about 135 km south of Berlin, several hundred have marched down the cobbled streets at two radical right-wing protests in the last month to vent their anger at what they see as “foreign infiltration”.
Many people in the town, where the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) has 6.3 percent support - about five times as much as it got in the last national election - fear they will have to pay for the rising numbers of asylum seekers arriving here.
“Germans have earned this money by the sweat of their brow, be it at a desk or at the steelworks here in Riesa ... so that a distant and anti-grassroots government can hand out horns of plenty as if it’s the world’s social welfare office,” said Juergen Gansel, an NPD member of the town council.
The party sees the refugee crisis as an opportunity to broadcast its anti-immigrant message but the existence of less extreme right-wing groups and the continuing toxicity of the NPD brand mean it is struggling to win support outside its existing strongholds.
The sight of protesters in Riesa waving the black, red and gold national flag while chanting “Germany for the Germans. Kick asylum fraudsters out!” contrasts with the images beamed around the world of Germans applauding the arrival of refugees at train stations and giving them sweets.
With its relatively liberal asylum laws and generous benefits, Germany is the favored destination for many on the move in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The government expects 800,000 new arrivals this year and the strain is beginning to show - Germany has introduced border controls to stem the flow and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere says the willingness of ordinary Germans to help “must not be overstrained”.
The crisis is giving the far-right ammunition and a spate of attacks on refugee homes has put it in the media spotlight. In one of the most serious incidents, dozens of police were hurt in scuffles with right-wing protesters last month in the town of Heidenau, also in eastern Germany.
But beyond the headlines the NPD - which is ostracized in Germany and won just 1.3 percent of the vote in the 2013 national election - remains small.
Manfred Guellner, head of polling institute Forsa, said support for the NPD was well below 2 percent but the country still had some “brown spots that we can’t seem to erase” - a reference to the brown shirts worn by Nazi stormtroopers in the Sturmabteilung (SA).
The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has also taken a tough stance on immigration, is however benefiting from the refugee crisis - support for the party with seats in five state parliaments has hit 5.5 percent, its highest in nearly four months, an INSA poll showed on Tuesday.
And the anti-Islam PEGIDA group drew more than 5,000 to a march in the eastern city of Dresden on Monday - its biggest crowd in months, according to German media reports.
Political scientist Hajo Funke, an expert on the far right, said xenophobia in the east was a hangover from the early 1990s, when there were “pogrom-like” attacks on asylum seekers’ hostels.
He said politicians had for years trivialized the right-wing in Saxony - the state where Riesa is located - and the police response had often been weak. The right-wing is now trying to mobilize the remains of the anti-foreigner sentiment that developed after reunification, he said.
Anetta Kahane, head of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, said politicians were complicit in playing down the far-right threat in the 1990s. She singled out Angela Merkel, then a newly-minted minister for women and youth, for criticism, saying she had not been as forceful in standing up against far-right elements as she has been recently.
Unemployment is generally higher in the east than in the west and the feeling of having lost out when Germany was reunified is widespread. In Riesa, many expressed angst about newcomers diluting their culture and costing them money.
Alexander Neubert, a treasurer for the NPD’s Leipzig branch, said asylum seekers would need jobs and housing but many in the east did not want this.
“Look at east German citizens like me - we only got our freedom from dictatorship 25 years ago and now that freedom is being taken away from us bit by bit and we have to make room for all these other people without even being asked,” he said.
Karamba Diaby, a black MP for the eastern city of Halle, said anti-migrant sentiment was not confined to those on the fringes of society.
After writing a newspaper article saying there was no such thing as misuse of asylum, Diaby was bombarded with hate emails, including from a local councillor and a public health officer.
Nonetheless, the NPD seems likely to struggle to gain support due to the refugee crisis: “They’re getting some new members but it’s not a big influx. They represent the past and mass murder is not exactly a good advert,” said Bernd Wagner, head of Berlin’s ZDK Society (for a) Democratic Culture.
Even the NPD’s attempts to appeal to a wider audience do not seem to be helping. At the protest in Riesa, tattooed skinheads were few and most of those present wore nondescript clothes.
“People used to be scared when the NPD turned up because they wore jump boots and Nazi clothes but that doesn’t appeal to people so some of us look different nowadays,” said Neubert, wearing black jeans and a zip-up jumper that just about covered the NPD logo on his T-Shirt.
But the NPD’s views do reflect the fears of many in Riesa, the former home of a former NPD national chairman and the office of “Deutsche Stimme”, the NPD’s mouthpiece. Many are worried about a local politician’s forecast that the number of asylum seekers will double by the end of the year from around 270 now.
The asylum situation is a threat to people’s identity and has social and financial consequences, said Jens Baur, head of the NPD in Saxony.
“People are scared about that,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Berlin; Writing by Michelle Martin; Editing by Giles Elgood