By Sarah Marsh and Kate Abnett

 

The black-clad attackers beat up Matthias Ecke so badly as he put up posters in Dresden that he needed surgery. In Nordhorn, a man threw eggs at a lawmaker then punched him in the face. In Berlin, a pensioner hit a senator on the head with a bag.

Just three of the assaults that German politicians have suffered over the past week as campaigns get underway for European Parliament and district council elections.

Tensions have always risen ahead of votes. But something has shifted, say parties and analysts. Assaults causing physical injury have surged – 22 on politicians so far in 2024, compared with 27 for all of 2023, the Federal Criminal Police Office said this week.

The atmosphere has also changed, coarsened by the all-out shouting matches stoked by social media and the divisions and rhetoric of populist politics.

“We are observing an affective polarisation. When dissenters become ‘enemies’,” said Stefan Marschall, a political scientist at the University of Duesseldorf.

Reuters spoke to a dozen politicians who described physical and verbal attacks. One of the main risks, most said, was that the hostile climate would scare off candidates or campaigners and ultimately skew the outcome of elections.

“It makes you feel you are not wanted here and should disappear,” said Michael Mueller, a candidate for the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in district elections in the eastern state of Thuringia.

Attackers set his house on fire after he organised a protest against extremism in February.

“Giving up is now an option, although I would have never have thought it before.”

SURGING ATTACKS

Overall, verbal and physical attacks on politicians in Germany have more than doubled since 2019, according to government data.

The party that has come off the worst is the Greens, the junior partner in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition. Its members reported 1,219 incidents last year, up sevenfold from 2019.

Second on that count is the resurgent far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party with 478 incidents, then Scholz’s SPD on 420.

Members of the SPD, the Greens and other parties closer to the centre of the political spectrum blamed the overall souring of the mood and rise in confrontations on AfD rhetoric.

“If you have politicians that officially (say) ‘let’s hunt them down’ … words shape actions,” said Niklas Nienass, a member of the European Parliament for the Greens. In a 2017 speech, former AfD leader Alexander Gauland said the party would hunt down then Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Nowadays, three men shouting at me that I’m a paedophile or a criminal or ‘we will see where the future leads us’ or we all belong in front of a wall, is almost I would say business as usual,” Nienass added.

The AfD has rejected such accusations outright. Co-leader Alice Weidel said last week that attempts to use the news of attacks for political gains were “vile and irresponsible”, and that AfD politicians and members were themselves frequently attacked.

PRECAUTIONS

Politicians for the Greens said many of the insults directed at them increasingly had Nazi inflections.

“People will say: go to Buchenwald, for example, or when we get into power we will deal with you,” said Max Reschke, head of the Greens in Thuringia.

One of four people investigated after the assault on the SPD’s European Parliament member Matthias Ecke in Dresden on Friday had right-wing material in his home, police said.

The gang that assaulted him, damaging his cheekbone and eye socket, had earlier attacked another Greens campaigner who was also putting up posters.

“It reminded me of the stormtroopers of the 1930s,” said Anne-Katrin Haubold, a second Greens campaigner who witnessed the attack, referring to the original paramilitary wing of the Nazis.

Some said they were avoiding publicising campaign events ahead of time and had stopped branding their vehicles to avoid being targeted.

“It’s not good because our party members feel insecure if we tell them we now need a police protection in order to do political rallies,” said German Green MEP Michael Bloss.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said this week she wanted to increase legal penalties for attacks on politicians and activists and have more police protection for campaigners.

But the police are already struggling with their current workload, said the head of Germany’s largest police union Jochen Kopelke.

Politicians on the campaign trail in eastern Germany said they were taking their own precautions and holding more security workshops.

“We say we have to have at least three people manning information stands,” said Luis Schaefer, head of the Greens in the eastern town of Gera.

“And if you see someone damaging posters, then don’t put yourself at risk trying to save them.”