Dresden, Nazi-Free: The New Politics of German Civil Disobedience

Dresden, Nazi-Free: The New Politics of German Civil Disobedience

In the last few years, Dresden became the site of an intense political struggle over how to adequately respond to thousands of neo-Nazis marching annually in the streets. It also became the site of an ongoing authoritarian-conservative backlash against social movements.

Photo by gruene sachsen, 2011, via Flickr creative commons

This year the anti-fascist alliance Dresden Nazifrei (Dresden Without Nazis) can look back on three years of successful campaigning against the largest annual Nazi demonstration in all of Europe. In these years, the eastern German city and capital of Saxony became the site of an intense political struggle over civil disobedience and how to adequately respond to thousands of neo-Nazis marching annually in the streets. It also became the site of an ongoing authoritarian-conservative backlash against social movements and against the national discourse about Germany’s National-Socialist past.

Turning the Tide

February 13 marks the date of the 1945 Allied bombings of Dresden. In their demonstrations on the weekend following the anniversary, Nazis would “mourn” the loss of “innocent lives” among the population of a cultural city—the “Florence at the Elbe River,” as Dresden is sometimes called. This provided them with an opportunity not only to establish a positive connection with the population of Dresden in the 1940s and affirm the National-Socialist identity of neo-Nazis (stopping the infighting in the fascist scene for a day), but also to engage in some historical revisionism and relativize the Holocaust. To wit, Juergen Gansel, representative of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), proclaimed in 2005 that the Allied bombing of Dresden was not only unnecessary and a war crime, but a “bombing holocaust.”

The first march in Dresden around February 13 was organized by the Junge Landsmannschaft Ostdeutschland (Youth Corps of East Germany) in 1999 and was attended by 150 local neo-Nazis. From 2008 on, local neo-Nazis organized a second, locally mobilized march on the evening of February 13. By 2009, the march had become Europe’s biggest gathering of Nazis, with delegations of far-right parties from other European countries attending the national rally on the weekend after February 13.

At its peak in 2009, up to 7,000 surviving Nazis and neo-Nazis dressed in black and gray coats filed in tight formation through the wintry streets of Dresden’s beautiful historical center, holding flags and burning torches in the half-light of the late afternoon, making their march a silent demonstration of power. Later in the evening of February 14, neo-Nazis attacked several counter-protesters while traveling home, including a forty-two-year-old union member who was brought to the hospital with a skull fracture after being kicked repeatedly. In those days, Dresden presented the world with an old, ugly Germany that some had hoped was gone forever.

On February 18, 2012, the situation was reversed. More than 10,000 anti-fascist demonstrators proclaimed that “Europe’s biggest Nazi march has become history” and called for an “anti-fascist consensus” instead of repression against anti-fascist activism. “One of the biggest anti-fascist demonstrations since the Red Army entered Dresden in 1945,” a number of happy demonstrators joked. The Nazis had called off their national march on this day in fear of massive protest and blockades.

The activists built off their success during this year’s attempted local Nazi march. “The Dresden Nazi march lies in ruins, good work antifa,” commented a Twitter user on the Wednesday evening when it was done: when “only” 500 neo-Nazi activists, who barely made it to their assembly point, gathered in February in Dresden; when their efforts to organize a militaristic and parade-like demonstration drowned in the noise of 4,000 counter-protesters who had encircled the Nazis and blocked the roads with their bodies; and when the infamous Saxon police forces only half-heartedly tried to evict the street blockades. How had Dresden Nazifrei achieved its goal?

The Myth of Dresden

That Europe’s biggest Nazi march developed in Dresden was no accident. During the middle of the last decade, the February rallies in Dresden gained importance in the Nazi scene as other big Nazi demonstrations were either blocked by anti-fascist counter-protest or forbidden by the courts.

The local view of the past was conducive to the fascist march. Nazis built upon what historians have called the “Myth of Dresden,” and on the fact that the official remembering of the war was only different from theirs in degree. While the bourgeois Dresden firmly rejected the term “bombing holocaust,” many Dresdenites saw the city’s former residents as victims of an unprovoked catastrophe. The national discourse, meanwhile, had come to reflect an acceptance of German guilt and the support and involvement of ordinary citizens in the National-Socialist regime. In other cities that were bombed to the same or an even greater extent than Dresden during the Second World War, the anniversaries of bombings were days like any other.

Not so in Dresden. While only a few people participated in events to remember the liberation of Auschwitz, half the city was on its feet to mourn the approximately 25,000 Dresdenites who lost their lives during the Allied bombings. Even after the memorial ceremony was modernized around a decade ago in response to criticism by historians and leftists, politicians would only make perfunctory mention of the political context of the bombings and then return to the “unimaginable loss” that Dresden had suffered. Remembering focused on what the historian Henning Fischer calls the “identity of Dresdenites as victims.” In a formal ceremony each February, political parties, including the NPD, and religious congregations, including the Jewish congregation of Dresden, would place wreaths on a circular monument in Dresden’s Heidefriedhof cemetery, where most of the victims of the bombing had been laid to rest. The monument is dedicated against “Fascism and War” and consists of fourteen steles that carry the names of concentration camps and cities destroyed by the German Wehrmacht—but also the name of Dresden, thus implying equivalence.

The city has built several new memorials to remember the victims of the bombing in recent years, but proposals to rename streets after Guernica and Marwa Ali El-Sherbini, an Egyptian immigrant stabbed to death by a racist in 2009, were rejected by the head of Dresden’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Georg Böhme-Korn, who claimed that leftists wanted to “cover Dresden with a network of shame.”

Saxon Conservatism

The political culture in Dresden and Saxony departed from the rest of Germany in other ways too. Unlike other eastern German states, which have been governed by various coalitions that often included the Party of Democratic Socialism (the former East German Communist Party, now renamed and reconstituted as Die Linke or “the Left”), Saxony has been governed by the CDU since reunification. Unlike in other German states and at the national level, where the Christian Democrats modernized their party, the Saxon CDU has remained solidly right wing and stuck in Cold War–era anti-Communism.

The Saxon CDU and the conservative establishment of the state were not prissy with critics. In the so called “Saxony mire” affair in the 1990s, conservative politicians, high-ranking members of the state’s justice system, and intelligence services were allegedly involved in prostitution, dubious real estate deals, and other mafia-like criminal activity. Opposition politicians and journalists who tried to report about the affair were bullied and prosecuted. On the streets, this style of conservatism manifested itself in ignorance of neo-Nazi violence against immigrants and alternative youth, which was depoliticized and trivialized as “fights among youth.”

Dresden did not need “demonstration tourism” but a “silent remembering,” argued an enraged Lars Rohwer (a CDU politican) in 2009. He was only the most visible of a group of local politicians that opposed any external criticism or protests against neo-Nazism in Dresden. Instead of encouraging demonstrations against them, as has become more common in larger Germany cities since former chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced the “Uprising of the Decent” in response to Nazi attacks that shocked the nation in 2000, politicians and intelligence officials in Dresden called the 2009 anti-fascist mobilization an “invasion of extremists.”

An Anti-Fascist Intervention

Nevertheless, activists from all over the country took up the challenge in 2009 to stop the Nazi march. Members of the “Interventionist Left,” a nationwide association of non-parliamentary leftist groups that had organized successful street blockades like those against the G8 summit in 2007,  decided to bring their political experience to Saxony—not previously known as a hotbed of leftist activism. They formed the alliance No Pasaran, which united anti-fascist groups from all over Germany in a national campaign. Liberal parties, think tanks, and unions also organized against neo-Nazis, forming the Geh Denken (Go Think) alliance.

On February 14, 2009, 4,000 anti-fascists gathered in a demonstration in Dresden led by a black bloc. They were closely monitored by security forces, and attacked by riot police when they tried to unite with the protesters of Geh Denken and break through police lines to block the route of the Nazi march. About 12,000 people participated in three Geh Denken rallies, but the Nazis marched undisturbed. Later that day, both No Pasaran and Geh Denken acknowledged their failure to stop the Nazis, and Geh Denken dissolved itself.

The formation of Dresden Nazifrei at the end of 2009 was a response to a strategic dilemma that had been most visible in the failed protests in 2009 but was representative of a more general problem that had preoccupied the German Left for years. Around the year 2000, the radical Left (echoing its tactics and strengths in the 1980s) was trying to stick to its concept of mass militancy, but there were fewer instances when masses of people acted militantly and more events in which radical-left politics was characterized by ritualistic rioting without real impact. More moderate liberal parties and unions sought to distance themselves from “leftist extremists.”

But politicians and youth organizations increasingly realized that the division between “militant autonomous” (bad) and “peaceful liberal” (good) demonstrators was not helpful in the fight against the growing presence of neo-Nazis on German streets, where more than 100 people have been killed by neo-Nazis since reunification. On the other side, radical anti-fascist groups made the pragmatic shift necessary to allow the formation of Dresden Nazifrei. This alliance, proposed by the activists from the Interventionist Left and No Pasaran, managed to bring radical-left groups, liberal parties, unions, and civil society organizations under a single umbrella. Dresden Nazifrei, with its tech-savvy mobilization and professionally designed merchandise, was an up-to-date version of the Popular Front of the 1930s: it unified all the forces willing to take meaningful action against fascism.

The political heart of the alliance was an “action consensus,” an idea developed in earlier German demonstrations held by broad left coalitions. “We engage in civil disobedience against the Nazi demonstration,” Dresden Nazifrei declared. “We will not escalate conflicts. Our mass blockades consist of people. We are in solidarity with all those who share with us the goal of preventing the Nazi demonstration.” The action consensus made concessions to both sides. It avoided using the notion of “non-violence,” which the radical Left dismissed as self-defeating and submissive to structural state violence. And it accounted for concerns of liberal parties and organizations by stating clearly the aim of non-escalation; rioting was not part of the agenda. A spokesperson of the alliance repeatedly stated, “Our target is not the police, but we will not let the police stop us.”

A National Mobilization Against the Nazi March

The action consensus proved effective. The alliance distributed thousands of posters across the country, local and national politicians, parliamentarians and artists declared their support, and more than 2,000 people signed the call for action. The reaction from the Saxon security forces and courts was massive. In January 2010, alliance posters were confiscated in a raid in two stores in Berlin and Dresden, parliamentarians who put posters up were arrested, and Saxon criminal police shut down the website of the alliance with a court order.

These moves backfired. On the early morning of February 19, 2010, 120 buses carried thousands of protesters from all over Germany and neighboring European countries to Dresden. The activists circumnavigated and trickled through police lines and set up four large and several smaller human blockades on the snowy streets around Dresden’s Neustadt train station, the gathering point of the planned Nazi demonstration. The surprised police force tried to remove the blockades, but the 5,700 deployed officers were unable to clear the streets for the 6,000 Nazis, who were blocked in front of the station.

The Saxon judges continued their repressive course of action against the civil disobedience of Dresden Nazifrei. The immunity granted to parliamentarians of the Left Party who had been present at the protest in 2010, some of whom were at the frontlines of the blockades, was lifted. Weeks before the planned 2011 demonstration, judges ruled that police efforts to clear blockades the previous year were insufficient, and that they must ensure the “constitutionally guaranteed” right of the Nazis to demonstrate. Whereas “protest in audible and visible range” of Nazi demonstrations was possible in other cities in Germany, the Dresden administration announced the strict enforcement of a wide separation between the two political camps, using the Elbe River as a natural border. At the same time, demonstrations announced by Dresden Nazifrei were forbidden by the courts.

A Political Showdown

The size of Dresden Nazifrei’s mobilization only increased in 2011, benefiting from the negative reaction to the city’s anti-activist strategy in the national press and among its followers. That year, 260 buses headed to Dresden in large “antifascist-super convoys.”

The police stopped the buses at the border of the city, so the thousands of protesters walked miles into Dresden. The 4,500 police on the ground used pepper spray and pepper-ball guns, chased protesters with water cannons on a day with freezing temperatures, and deployed surveillance drones and police helicopters and tanks. But the protesters not only circumnavigated but overran police lines, leading to heated street fighting between autonomous anti-fascists and the police near Dresden Nazifrei’s blockades. About 20,000 protestors, for the most part peaceful, ended up blocking the streets of Dresden’s Südvorstadt neighborhood, forcing the police to call off the Nazi march for a second year in a row.

Wolfgang Thierse, a Social Democratic politician and head of the German parliament who briefly participated in one of the blockades, summed up his feelings on the actions of state authorities that day: “This is Saxon Democracy.” But it was only the beginning. That evening,  German special forces stormed the press center and offices of a lawyer supportive of Dresden Nazifrei. Officials would later open a case against the people arrested in the raid (which was ruled unconstitutional) and other anti-fascist activists for belonging to a terrorist organization (a case that was dropped). In the following months, hundreds of protesters were prosecuted for violations of laws concerning public assembly and peace, property damage, and assault.

In the summer of 2011, evidence surfaced that Saxon security and intelligence forces had monitored every cell phone call (and the personal data of the people making those calls) that came through the Südvorstadt neighborhood the day of the rally, in an effort to track the actions of a supposedly “terrorist” group of anti-fascist activists. But the authorities most brazen act was to send a squad of Saxon police to the neighboring state of Thuringia (without notifying the local authorities) to raid the house of Lothar König, a reform priest from Jena who had engaged in civil disobedience against the old East German government and also participated in the 2011 protests, days after he had criticized the Saxon authorities in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. At this point, Thierse’s ironic claim about “Saxon democracy” had become an anti-fascist slogan. Following König’s arrest, internet activists and civil rights groups joined in the mobilization to protect freedom of expression and assembly—and not only for Nazis.

Weeks before the planned February 2012 march, under the threat of another blockade and weakened by infighting, the Nazis called off their demonstration.

Civil Disobedience in Dresden and Germany

Dresden Nazifrei’s mobilization has been accompanied by a heated debate about civil disobedience in Germany. Earlier this year, intellectuals, politicians, and high-ranking judges gathered in Dresden to debate the legitimacy and legality of blockades. The former federal attorney Monika Harms and other justice personnel stuck to the legalistic liberal position that freedom of speech and assembly should be given even to “dissenters.” Dresden Nazifrei claimed that this position was too abstract in face of the threatening Nazi presence on the streets. They also pointed out that conservative politicians defended the freedom of the Nazis to demonstrate—a judge in Dresden had called them a “minority that needs protection”—while aggressively persecuting protest from the left. Johannes Lichdi, a lawyer and Green Party MP, emphasized that other German federal state courts had ruled that blockades were legitimate assemblies “protected by assembly law,” or at least only prosecuted them as misdemeanors (Saxon judges treated them as felonies). Against Eckhard Jesse, a professor of political science who had called the blockades a “defeat for the rule of law” in 2010, and the interior minister of Saxony, Martin Ulbig, who had claimed that “anti-fascism is not the solution but democracy,” Dresden Nazifrei insisted that a mature democracy must permit civil disobedience, as Jürgen Habermas had argued decades ago.

Dresden Nazifrei released an analysis that argued, “The success of anti-fascist interventions is determined to a high degree by the political conditions we can form in advance.” The alliance lived up to its words, aggressively pushing to legitimize its action. It held numerous blockade trainings to educate followers about tactics and legal consequences, but it also used them to penetrate public discourse and opinion. While the city administration and courts repeatedly tried to ban public civil disobedience trainings, a poll showed last year that 73 percent of Dresdenites approved of peaceful blockades.

After its first successful protests in 2010, Dresden Nazifrei served as a model for other cities in Germany, like the little eastern German town of Bernau where 200 citizens blocked local neo-Nazis from marching. The protests in Dresden are now extraordinary only in their scale and in the fierce repression they provoked. They are at the center of an emerging “conjuncture of civil disobedience” in Germany, according to a conference that took place in Dresden last year.

In its fierce criticism of the Saxon authorities and in its aim of actively preventing Nazis from marching, Dresden Nazifrei expanded upon the liberal tradition of civil disobedience—a tradition seen in the American civil rights movement and theorized by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. The Dresden blockades and other recent acts of civil disobedience in Germany seem to follow what American political scientist Daniel Markovits calls “democratic disobedience”—political action aimed not just at laws that violate basic rights, as traditional civil disobedience did, but at policies that are legitimate in the liberal sense of the law but suffer from a “democratic deficit” in the way they were created. This kind of civil disobedience is increasingly a normal feature of Germany’s political culture, even in Dresden.

Continuities and Change

A little over a month ago, the thirty-six-year-old Tim H. was sentenced to twenty-two months in jail for being a “ringleader” in the 2011 protests in Dresden, which the court alleges caused a “severe breach of public peace.” During the trial, Dresden’s state prosecutor presented a video in which a tall man of similar stature to Tim H. waved a megaphone and shouted “come to the front” minutes before anti-fascists broke through police lines. The witness in the case declared that he could not identify Tim H. The judge nevertheless convicted the man, who works on staff for the Left Party, justifying his decision with the following words: “What others have done, you must take credit for.” Wolfgang Thierse reacted to the case with head-shaking disbelief. The same week, members of the local neo-Nazi group Sturm 34, which had terrorized and beaten up people for months, were given probation and fines. This month the trial of the priest from Jena will start.

But even if the Saxon judiciary sticks to its conservatism, some politicians and top officials in Dresden seem to have learned from recent events. In 2011, Saxon officials banned an educational walk planned by Dresden Nazifrei that would debunk, in a very concrete way, the “Myth of Dresden.” After the ban drew criticism from historians and Auschwitz survivors, authorities lifted it in 2012. In February 3,000 Dresdenites attended the walk, reflecting the growing number of events in the last two years in which Dresden’s citizens have debated the role of the city under National-Socialism. The city has also changed the protocols for the official memorial ceremony held each February so that NPD members can no longer attend.

In 2010 Dresden officials organized for the first time a human chain both to remember the bombings and to protest against “violence and extremism.” Last year a working group set up by Dresden’s mayor, Helma Orosz (CDU), went even further and advocated for protest in “audible and visible range” of the Nazi march. Days before this year’s protests, Dresden’s police chief said that his forces “would not fight for Nazis,” and that if 3,000 people blocked the streets it would be impossible to evict them. There are even rumors that Orosz and Saxon president Stanislaw Tillich participated in a spontaneous demonstration of people who joined in Dresden Nazifrei’s street blockades after joining the human chain organized by the city.

All this made possible the scene at the February 2013 Dresden rally: a few hundred Nazis encircled by police and bombarded for hours by snowballs from thousands of protesters behind police lines.

The author has written on social movements and urban politics for the German daily taz, die Tageszeitung and the leftist weekly Jungle World.