In one of the largest street demonstrations ever in post-World War II Germany, well over 300,000 people holding candles, lanterns and flashlights formed a chain of light through the Bavarian capital of Munich on Sunday evening in a protest against right-wing extremism.
The chain wound its way for more than 25 miles through the city, police said.
The demonstration was the latest in a series of mass protests that collectively have brought well over 1 million people into the streets of German towns and cities during the past month to register their opposition to the wave of hate-driven political violence directed mainly against foreigners.
The number of participants was three times what organizers had predicted.
Unlike several previous demonstrations, there was neither heckling nor fringe violence Sunday in Munich.
“We haven’t had one incident related to the protest tonight,” said Munich city police officer Paul Schruecke three hours after the chain broke up. “The only problem has been a couple of small fires where protesters were careless in throwing away candles.”
Several previous protests have been disrupted by clashes between anarchists of the extreme left and rightist youths.
In Berlin four weeks ago, left-wing extremists attacked President Richard von Weizsaecker with eggs, rocks and fruit as he tried to address a rally, also estimated at around 300,000.
One possible reason for the lack of trouble in Munich was that the protest had no political affiliation.
Unlike many previous demonstrations, the Munich protest was a grass-roots affair, organized by four young Germans who specifically rejected the backing of political parties, trade unions and associations with links to the political left that have been heavily involved in previous events.
One of the four, a reporter for the Munich newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung named Giovanni di Lorenzo, called it “not an action organized by political parties or associations, but by people who find it high time that a sign of human dignity, human decency, tolerance and openness be shown in this country.”
When they asked for help from nonpolitical groups, the organizers said they were swamped by local businesses, sports clubs, schools and prominent show-business personalities offering to back the event, which ran under the motto, “A City Says No.”
The response reflects a larger mood shift visible in many parts of Germany during the past few weeks in which a growing number of people never before politically active have begun to take action of some kind against rightist extremism.
Speaking on national television after the rally, Di Lorenzo said he believes Sunday’s protest will have an impact.
“I think it’s very good that (right-wing extremists) notice that the silent majority isn’t just dumb and xenophobic as so often claimed but that there’s an awful lot of people who say, ‘We’re not going to put up with this anymore,’ ” he said.
In a formal statement issued before Sunday’s demonstration, the four organizers said they believed it “especially important” that such a grass-roots protest be held in Munich, “a city that was once ‘capital of the (Nazi) movement’ and in which important power-brokers of the radical right live today.”
Adolf Hitler built his political base in Munich and, today, the extreme right-wing Republikaner party is based in the city.
Some opinion polls suggest that the Republikaner would score up to 20% of the vote in Bavaria if an election where held there today.
Despite the large public protests against xenophobia, however, the attacks against foreigners in Germany continued Sunday.
In the southeastern town of Jaenschwalde, an arson attack on an apartment building housing foreigners, apparently carried out by right-wing extremists, claimed the life of a Croatian refugee.
In the western town of Koenigslutter a hostel filled with foreigners was firebombed, but there were no injuries because residents quickly extinguished the flames.
In a related development, leaders of the country’s main political parties late Sunday reached agreement on a plan for stricter asylum rules for refugees entering Germany.
Under the plan, immigration officials would decide whether refugees entered Germany for political or for economic reasons. Those deemed economic refugees would be sent back to their countries of origin.