The village of Clausnitz in Saxony became shorthand for the ugly, xenophobic side of Germany after residents threatened a bus full of refugees. We spent a month in the town in an attempt to find out what happened.
The bus to Clausnitz drives between rapeseed fields, past trout ponds and over asphalt covered with pollen from the surrounding spruce trees. On the trip from Dresden, the bus reaches a straight, ascending road leading to a hilltop, after which the road descends steeply. Those driving the road could be forgiven for thinking the world ends after this knoll.
Clausnitz lies in the valley below; the fragrant smell of apple blossoms hangs in the air.
On February 18, a bus carrying 20 refugees followed this route to Clausnitz. The passengers were to move into apartments in three different buildings in town.
When the bus rolled in, Michael Funke, the mayor of Clausnitz, was sitting down for an evening meal. Later that evening, he learned that residents of Clausnitz had gathered and unfurled sheets daubed with slogans. One read: “Resistance”.
Thomas Hetze, the hostel director, was waiting in his office in one of the three buildings for the refugees to finally arrive. At the time, hardly anyone was interested in the fact that he is a member of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party with an anti-refugee message that has been gaining ground recently in polls and elections. Later, he would hear local residents shout, “We are the people!” a term used in protests against the East German regime in the run-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In the village below, Ronny was just opening a bottle of Radeberger beer when a text message arrived on his mobile phone. “It’s starting.” Oh my god, Ronny thought to himself before driving up the hill to the upper village. Later, he watched as a police officer pulled a refugee out of the bus using a chokehold.
That evening, a woman in a blue compact blocked the bus just a few meters from the accommodations. A few Clausnitz residents unfurled a sheet on a tractor with the words “Our Country, Our Religion, Home, Freedom, Tradition” scrawled across it. The police report stated that 100 Germans stood around the bus and the refugees refused to get off. Someone filmed the ordeal, and the video wound up on the Internet, ensuring notoriety for Clausnitz. The video became symbolic of what some people in Germany think of the refugees and how they treat them.
But memories also remain of the word Reisegenuss, or “pleasant journey” on the digital sign in the windshield of the bus in which these passengers were traveling — passengers whose fear could be seen on their faces. The bus company was called Reisegenuss — but the image became emblematic of cynicism.
Memories likewise remain of the moment in which a German police officer grabbed a young refugee by the neck and forced him to leave the bus.
And memories remain of just how loud and aggressive the men were as they shouted, “We are the people!”
A Month in Clausnitz
Was it hatred? Is Clausnitz a Nazi village? Is the situation more complex than that? And if yes, how? What kind of people live in this part of Germany, in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region of the eastern state of Saxony? How do they see things? What drove them to block a bus carrying refugees?
On the search for answers to such questins, I spent a month living in Clausnitz. I rented a guest room on a farm for eight euros a night.
One of the first village residents to speak with me was a refugee. Sitting on a bench in front of his home, he told me his story. He comes from a place full of forests and lakes, he said. Before the war, his father had worked at a paper factory, but he then went to the front and died there.
His mother fled with her son – making parts of the journey on foot and others in a horsecart. His mother carefully preserved a paper cornet as they fled that she had filled with a mixture of oatmeal and chocolate. She gave her son three spoonfuls of it each day.
His mother had no money to give to smugglers to ensure they would be taken to safety, so she gave them her wedding ring.
When the boy grew weak, she said to him: “We have to make it to Clausnitz.”
Today, that boy is 76 years old. He hasn’t set eyes on his home village of Hammermühle in Pomerania (in today’s Poland) since he fled 70 years ago. Hans-Peter Neitzke is a tall, upright man with a fisherman’s cap and blue overalls. He rented me my room.
When people learned one year ago that Syrian refugees would be coming to a village next to Clausnitz, his phone rang and a man told him he was collecting signatures against the refugees, Nietzke explains. “But I’m a refugee myself,” he told the man.
Clausnitz is home to 844 residents. That means that around 750 of those residents were not standing in front of that bus on Feb. 18. Hans-Peter Neitzke was among those who stayed home. He first learned about the incident on the television and he was ashamed when he saw the images. He says that after World War II, at least half the residents of Clausnitz were refugees, Germans who had been forced to flee regions lost in the war, including Silesia, Pomerania, East Prussia and Sudetenland. There were also people from Dresden whose homes had burned to the ground.
It’s a day in mid-May and Mr. Neitzke is wearing a nicer shirt than normal – light blue and freshly ironed. He wants to take his wife to a tea dance. He’s fond of dancing the quick step. Before going dancing, he stops by a local event taking place behind the Clausnitz village history museum. A special party has been organized to give locals a chance to meet and learn more about refugees. The event takes place in the middle of the village on the grounds of the local primary school.
The village itself looks like so many other typical German hamlets. The hedges are precisely trimmed, the sidewalks are clean, the streets are lined with half-timbered buildings and the tulips are in bloom. The village used to be home to a copper mine and the street names recall that past. Clausnitz is still home to a butcher and a bakery. Women push around strollers at the meet-and-greet and there’s one man missing a leg. The organizers are also there.
Three sausages are burning on the barbeque and a woman gives a speech in front of a large tent. There are a few children playing in a nearby playground but no one is sitting inside and listening except for me.
A little while later, a few more adults arrive; in the end, 45 bratwursts are sold. But the turnout was small. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the villagers are xenophobic. But one could say that the foreigners aren’t very important to them. Or that they really weren’t interested in celebrating their encounters with the refugees in the form of a party. Or that they had something better to do. Neitzke himself only stays a short time at the party — he wants to continue on as fast as possible to his quick step.
On the playground, a man is standing next to his son, looking at a seven dwarves puzzle. The blacksmith has an eyetooth of gold and a back built like an ox. His name is Thomas Hetze and he asks if we can find somewhere quieter to talk.
Hetze, 48, was one of the most sought-after man in the country for a few days this spring. That’s when news emerged that he was the head of a hostel for asylum seekers, and also a member of AfD.