Seventy years before neo-Nazis chased the mayor from office and torched a renovated shelter for foreign war refugees in Troeglitz, Germany, Allied bombers reduced much of the 1,000-year-old village to rubble.
Local historians and refugee advocates find “a great irony” in this, because the people who crawled from the rubble needed and received an enormous amount of help to put their lives back together. That help came from the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the very people who’d every right to see the population of Nazi Germany as representing the worst humanity had to offer.
But the aid came, and it helped locals rebuild their lives.
Now, Troeglitz has become a symbol of another stark European reality: As thousands of would-be refugees, fleeing wars and privation in the Middle East and Africa, are boarding boats in desperate efforts to reach Europe, Europeans aren’t embracing their arrival even as hundreds perish in the effort to get here.
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Like many smaller German communities, Troeglitz was under instructions to prepare to host a few dozen asylum-seeking war refugees. But as has been the case in several other places, the National Democratic Party of Germany, or the NPD, considered the heirs to the German National Socialism Party, or Nazis, began organizing anti-refugee marches. The crowds grew.
In March, the mayor, Markus Nierth, citing the rising anti-immigrant tide, resigned. He said he’d been receiving threats that made continuing in the job impossible.
Then on April 4, the building being renovated to house the refugees, which had been the focus of the protests, was destroyed by fire. Police quickly determined that the fire was arson and blamed supporters of the NPD. The NPD slogan for the town was simple: “No Asylum in Troeglitz.”
Matthias Keilholz, a local Lutheran pastor and founder of a pro-refugee support group, found the developments disheartening.
“At the end of that war,” he said, referring to World War II, “officially 20 percent of the local population were counted as war refugees. And yet now, when others need this same help, many here not only turn their backs, but threaten others who offer help.”
Of course, it’s not just in Troeglitz, in what used to be East Germany, about halfway between Leipzig and Weimar, where there’s opposition to incoming refugees. Germany took in more refugees than any other European nation in 2014, about 173,000, but a recent opinion poll by German public television showed that just less than half the nation opposes taking in more.
Across Europe, where the numbers of refugees accepted in 2014 was considerably lower, political parties in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom are building support by opposing refugees.
In comparison, the German anti-immigrant movement, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West, known by its German acronym as PEGEIDA, has had far less success attracting supporters.
Which makes Troeglitz stand out even more. “We have a pro-refugee community here,” Keilholz said. “But the truth is right now the NPD has more supporters.”
The animosity comes in spite of the fact that local businesses have been very positive about the potential from an influx of new workers in the area. One local administrator made the point that Germany’s low birth rate, and the area’s high rate of young people who’ve fled for Berlin and Munich, have left the region needing people. At meetings, a few locals have said the risks and costs of the journey to Europe indicate the refugees are both courageous and come from means, and therefore education.
For many, the events in Troeglitz also connect the deaths at sea with the other big story in Germany these days, the trial of the 93-year-old so-called “accountant of Auschwitz,” which is expected to be one of the last Nazi war crimes trial. The defendant in that case, Oskar Groening, faces 300,000 counts of accessory to murder for his role in collecting and keeping the foreign currency taken from more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews at the death camp.
Area historian Lothar Czossek, 86, fears that the arson attack – as well as the threats that frightened the Troeglitz mayor from office – reflect a dangerous problem that was also seen in the public attitude toward the trial of Groening.
“Too many Germans are saying enough is enough, and they want to forget our shared history,” he said. “The ignorance of this history is alarming for an area that had a concentration camp, had mass graves and used slave labor.”
Czossek remembers how in January 1944, after Allied bombs flattened much of his village, 15 slave laborers in striped pajamas were assigned from the nearby concentration camp, a branch of the Buchenwald camp in Weimar, to help his family dig out. He was 14 at the time. The laborers dug his grandparents out from the wreckage of his home.
Years later, when he took over a small museum dedicated to collecting the records on Buchenwald, a former inmate reminded him they’d once had lunch together, when the former inmate was helping to clear the rubble of his family home and Czossek had shared his potato and bacon.
“There was no real de-Nazification,” he said. “The Groening trial shows that. The top officials were pursued, the others returned to normal lives. The problem with that is now, when things get a little tight, too many people think it’s acceptable to blame others for their problems. They don’t remember the cost of such thinking.”
In this part of the world, 5,871 inmates from Buchenwald, a labor camp, not a death camp, were killed or died of disease.
A local resident who gave her name as Rosemarie Neumann, 76, is among those who think the problem is not the anti-refugee attitude, but the attention given to it. She said she lives close to the fire and that it was a shame, and a shock. But enough is enough.
“We’ve always had a good life here,” she said. “It’s time the rest of the world left us alone again.”