"Why are you here?"
German Chancellor Angela Merkel wasn’t given much time to settle in during a two-hour event organized by a local newspaper in Chemnitz on Friday. While some of the 120 attendees greeted Merkel with applause, others sat with their arms tightly folded as the chancellor entered the renovated factory space.
Even before her arrival, the chancellor's visit had been criticized as "too late." Three months ago, far-right violence, demonstrations and counterprotests put Chemnitz in the headlines around the world.
"Now it’s about seeing what can be done at a federal level, so that the city isn’t always portrayed in a bad light," she said.
Defending her decision to not visit the city in the former East Germany directly after the violent events in August, Merkel said she wanted to avoid further polarization with her presence.
Anger on the streets
The fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old German, allegedly by two asylum-seekers, sparked demonstrations that quickly escalated into riots. Among the protesters were known far-right extremists. Video footage emerged showing the rioters targeting people they deemed as foreign in appearance. Since August, a Jewish, Persian and Turkish restaurant have all been attacked and the far-right terror group "Revolution Chemnitz" has also been uncovered.
The chancellor appealed to residents not to let extremists set the agenda.
"There are people who are worried that perhaps there are too many refugees here," she said. "There are also people who have open prejudices against people who simply look different. You have to draw a line between these two."
Thousands of locals did reject the violence, and are active in counter initiatives.
"This is a good sign," Merkel said. "It’s these people who need to make their voices heard — because they are the majority," she added.
East German legacy
Drawing on her experience growing up in the former East Germany, Merkel called on eastern Germans to be more confident. "You have every reason to be proud of what you did," Merkel said, referring to the Peaceful Revolution of 1989, which led to the reunification of Germany a year later.
Since then, however, a vicious cycle of historical, political, economic and cultural factors has left many former East Germans feeling left behind.
"I decided for myself, you don't have to go to the Stasi to have a career, however bad the system is," Merkel said. "And you also don't need to persecute people because you've got a political gripe."
"I was one of the losers of reunification," one participant, who wanted to be identified as Frau (Mrs.) Hausmann, told DW at the event. "Too much of this evening’s discussion is about migration. The pains and the feeling of being left behind was there long before 2015."
"But that’s still no reason to march alongside these far-right demonstrators," she added.
Outside the venue, some 500 anti-Merkel demonstrators, organized by the right-wing group "Pro Chemnitz," had gathered to protest.
Surrounded by a beefed up police presence, their deep chant, "Merkel muss weg!" ("Merkel out!") condensed in the biting winter air, unheard by the chancellor inside.
The chant has followed the chancellor relentlessly — particularly since her 2015 decision to accept some 1 million asylum-seekers. She announced earlier in November that she won’t run again in the 2021 election, but that clearly isn’t soon enough for her loudest critics.
Meanwhile, during the discussion, one member of the audience who was handed the microphone for a question used his moment in the spotlight to call on others to join the demonstrators outside. The chancellor just waited calmly, straightening out her notepad and pen at the podium where she now stood alone.
'We can do this'
Migration continued to dominate the debate, with even Merkel admitting that mistakes had been made over Germany's refugee policy. But the mistake wasn't in helping asylum-seekers at short notice, she said.
Instead, too little had been done to help resolve the reasons people were fleeing their home countries.
Again, Merkel was also questioned over the sense of her famous "Wir schaffen das" ("We can do this") comment at the height of the 2015 migrant crisis.
"What kind of chancellor would I have been to not have said that?" Merkel asked rhetorically.
"Das Schaffen [the work]," she insisted, "it’s not over yet."