By Payam Younesipour
September 12, 2019
Neo-Nazis can be found in most cities across Germany and Austria, but they are more prevalent in some cities and provinces. One of them is the state of Saxony in eastern Germany. On August 26, 2018, a 35-year-old German known by the name Daniel H. was stabbed to death, allegedly by two Arab asylum seekers in the city of Chemnitz. The incident led to anti-immigrant protests and Saxony turned into a fertile ground for neo-Nazis.
The recent rebirth of racist and anti-immigrant movements in Germany and Austria goes back to 2015, but since 2017, these movements have been boosted by the increase in the number of Arab, Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers. The murder of Daniel H. turned Saxon cities including Chemnitz, Dresden, Leipzig, Zwickau and Freiberg into living hells for some foreigners, refugees and asylum seekers, who have faced insults and attacks from racist groups. Some of the victims left after being attacked, but many stayed, despite mistreatment and a hostile environment.
Masoud Hashemi, a political refugee from Iran, owns the Persian restaurant Safran in Chemnitz. He was a cinematographer for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) but ran afoul of the authorities and was sentenced to prison. In 2012 he escaped Iran and asked Germany for political asylum. And in 2018 he opened the first Persian restaurant in the city.
Then, on the night of October 12, 2018, neo-Nazis attacked his restaurant. “Every Friday we had demonstrations in the city and they harassed people,” says Hashemi. “They attacked my restaurant and a Jewish restaurant. They broke the windows and they drew swastikas on the doors and on the walls. In just one night they beat up three foreigners and I was one of them. My head was injured badly and even after a year my back hurts.”
After spending eight days in the hospital, he was released. Then on March 3 of this year, the door to his restaurant opened unexpectedly and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel walked in, accompanied by Michael Kretschmer, Minister President of Saxony. “We never expected this,” says Hashemi. “After attacks by the racists, Ms. Merkel came to our city and delivered a speech. I was invited, too, but I never expected to see Ms. Merkel in my restaurant, unannounced.”
Impressed by Angela Merkel’s Manners
He says he was impressed by the wonderful manners of the German chancellor. “There was no sign of the usual ceremonies. Ms. Merkel entered, radiating kindness and respect, embraced me and apologized for what had happened.”
Merkel stayed for dinner. Earlier, for lunch, she had gone to Schalom, a restaurant owned by a Jewish German. While in Schalom, she said she was deeply sorry that an Iranian had been attacked in her country but she said nothing about visiting Hashemi in his restaurant.
“We hosted Ms. Merkel for about three hours,” he says. “She inquired about my health and said that she knew that I had been hospitalized after the attack by the neo-Nazis. But I tried to talk more about cultural issues and what must be done. ‘Ms. Merkel,’ I told her, ‘we live in cultural poverty here and it is the cultural poverty that has given rise to racism.’”
Until 28 years ago Saxony was under a communist regime and Hashemi pointed this out to the chancellor. “’You’re well aware of the shadow of communism hanging over this city and this state,’ I told Ms. Merkel, ‘and that is why you are rebuilding the city with new buildings, new streets and new roads. But that is not what this city needs. What it needs is cultural renovation.’”
Hashemi, who has now lived in Germany for six years, believes that the atmosphere in Germany changed after Arab refugees started arriving. “After they opened the doors and Syrian refugees came, some German people reacted negatively. I believe that the German government did the right thing: when somebody is killed in the middle of the street, you must open the door to your home and give shelter to people. There might be a criminal among them but you cannot treat them all alike.”
Hashemi told Merkel that the problem goes beyond Arab refugees or the racists. “I said that once a Syrian refugee committed robbery in this city. The police arrested him at night but released him the day after. This is what the neo-Nazis used as a reason to protest. I told Ms. Merkel, ‘you should reform the police and the judicial system. It is not right if the police force does not do its duty and we have to pay the price.’”
The German chancellor responded by nominating Chemnitz to be European Capital of Culture in 2025. Other cities in Germany, including Nuremberg, are also hoping to win this accolade. “I told Ms. Merkel, ‘please hurry up,’” says Hashemi. “’Do everything you can because, as you know, Nazism is a cancer that can grow and take over the whole body. It was the Nazis who were responsible for WWII and killed millions. If they achieve power again, the world will be destroyed.’”
Unlike many immigrants who left Chemnitz after facing pressure from neo-Nazis, Hashemi is determined to stay. “I tell everybody who wants to leave this city, ‘you are surrendering and this is exactly what they want. Stay and fight.’”
Angela Merkel could not promise that Chemnitz would be selected as the cultural capital of Europe, but apparently she enjoyed tasting a variety of Persian dishes. According to Hashemi, she especially enjoyed the appetizer platter and the Shiraz wine.