One morning last summer, the former East German city of Chemnitz awoke to discover that history had returned. In the aftermath of the annual festival to celebrate Chemnitz’s founding, a fight broke out that left three people stabbed—one of them fatally. Two Kurdish refugees of Iraqi and Syrian origins were taken into custody close to the scene of the crime. Later that day, the right-wing political party Alternative für Deutschland held a protest that drew about 100 people. But this was only the beginning. That evening there were mass demonstrations against racial and ethnic minorities. What followed was a roving mob of extreme-right militants associated with the football hooligan group Kaotic Chemnitz searching out foreigners and people who looked “non-German.” White Germans were photographed chasing Arab men down the street.
As vile as these evocations of a disturbing past were, the most arresting incident occurred on the sidelines of the protest. A group of about a dozen people, faces covered, wearing black, hurled rocks, bottles, and metal pipes at a well-known kosher restaurant named Schalom. As reported on the news website Die Welt am Sonntag, the assailants entered the restaurant shouting “Judensau, hau ab aus Deutschland!”—“Get out of Germany, you Jewish pigs!” Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Battle against Anti-Semitism, was suitably shocked by the new level of anti-Semitic violence, which, he said, “brings up the memories of the 1930s.”
Miniscule in comparison to those of France and Britain, Germany’s Jewish community seemed unsurprised that it had become a target during a protest against refugees and migrants hailing largely from Muslim-majority countries. The restaurant Schalom had in fact been attacked several times since it opened in 2000. Previous attacks had left the establishment with swastikas painted on its walls, shattered windows, and a severed pig’s head at its door.
But if the most recent attack came as no surprise to the Jews of Chemnitz, the connection between anti-immigration militancy and anti-Semitism is not exactly linear, even if it has historical antecedents. Indeed, xenophobia and anti-Semitism share a long, ugly history in Germany. From expulsions to violent pogroms, Germany repeatedly turns against its native Jewish community at times of political and social upheaval, particularly when many Germans feel exposed to external threats. In the late Middle Ages, Jews were regularly ascribed diabolical powers, often being represented with the horns of a goat. Martin Luther’s tirade against the Jews drew on such demonological characterizations. It is unsurprising that Luther’s delivered his invective just as the Ottoman Empire was threatening the Holy Roman Empire’s eastern borders. Europe is again experiencing a “threat” from the east, even if it has been exaggerated by certain European populists, and in the United States anti-Islamic and anti-immigration sentiments increasingly serve as masks for anti-Semitism.