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Assaults on German Politicians Raise Election-Year Worries

A spate of attacks on German officials and politicians has brought fresh worries over political violence and a breakdown of civility ahead of several critical elections this year, including in three states where the far-right Alternative for Germany party could make significant gains.

In the latest attack, on Friday evening, four people assaulted a prominent Social Democratic politician who was hanging campaign posters in Dresden, leaving him with a broken cheekbone and eye socket that required emergency surgery.

The official, Matthias Ecke, is running for re-election to the European Parliament.

That evening a Green Party campaigner, whose name has not been released, was attacked in the same residential neighborhood, by what the police believe was the same group of people. A day earlier, on Thursday, Rolf Fliss, the deputy mayor of the city of Essen, 300 miles west, was punched in the face by a group of men with whom he had been having what he initially characterized as a “friendly exchange.”

The violent attack on Mr. Ecke drew a sharp response from Chancellor Olaf Scholz, himself a Social Democrat, in Berlin on Saturday.

“Democracy is threatened by such things, so accepting them with a shrug is never an option,” Mr. Scholz said. “We are not going to take it, and we, the decent and reasonable, are the majority” in Germany, he added.

Later, on Sunday, thousands protested against the violence in Berlin and Dresden. At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, politicians from mainstream parties and members of civil society gave speeches denouncing the assaults.

On Tuesday evening, the interior ministers of Germany’s 16 states, as well as the federal interior minister, Nancy Faeser, will meet to discuss security concerns in the aftermath of the attacks.

The police have linked four teenagers to the attack on Mr. Ecke. On Saturday, a 17-year-old youth walked into a police station in Dresden, accompanied by his mother, and admitted to his role in attacking the politician, the police said.

By Sunday, the police had raided the homes of three others, all aged 17 or 18, thought to be involved in the attack. The Dresden public prosecutor on Monday said that at least one of them had ties to far-right ideology.

The recent attacks on political figures started to gain national attention last September, when a man threw a rock at Green Party leaders at a campaign event in Bavaria.

A mob prevented Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice chancellor and a prominent Green politician, from disembarking from a ferry in January. More recently Katrin Göring-Eckardt, another senior Green Party politician who is a deputy president of Parliament, was blocked while leaving an event when 40 to 50 demonstrators surrounded her car.

While most of the victims have been members of the governing Green and Social Democratic parties, the Alternative for Germany, know by its German initials, AfD, has also been a target.

On Saturday, vandals attacked a stand holding AfD election material in Dresden, according to the party. A 54-year-old tending the stand was unhurt.

“The situation has been coming to a head for some time now,” said Andrea Römmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School in Berlin.

According to preliminary government figures, 2 790 attacks — physical as well as verbal or other kinds of threats — on political representatives in 2023 were registered with the police, roughly twice as many as were registered in 2019.

Some experts and rival parties point a finger at the far right and the AfD, saying that it has often used inflammatory language directed at mainstream politicians. In 2017, when the AfD first entered the federal Parliament, Alexander Gauland, then one of the leading candidates, promised on election night that “we will hunt them down,” an apparent reference to the governing coalition.

“I would call it affective polarization — it means that one no longer responds to the factual argument of the opponent, but that one fundamentally delegitimizes the opponent and marks him as an enemy,” said Johannes Hillje, a political scientist who studies political communication.

In a statement released over the weekend, the Social Democratic party in the state of Saxony, where Dresden is the capital, called the attack an “unmistakable alarm signal.”

“Violent action and the intimidation of democrats is the tool of fascists.” the heads of the state party, Henning Homann and Kathrin Michel, said.

Mr. Hillje said the problem lay not only with the growing extremes of Germany’s political landscape but also in verbal attacks from centrist, mainstream politicians, especially toward the Greens.

“The dangerous thing is that democratic forces have adopted the right-wing populist stylistic devices and thus promoted a discourse that is not in the spirit of democracy,” Mr. Hillje said. “They are sawing off the branch they are sitting on.”

The recent attacks call to mind Germany’s highest-profile political assassination in recent years, when Walter Lübcke, a conservative lawmaker and defender of Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy was shot and killed by a neo-Nazi in June 2019. Thought to be Germany’s first far-right political killing since the end of World War II, Mr. Lübke’s death led to a public soul-searching.

But as shocking as that crime was, it was targeted and meticulously planned, and the assassin had a police record and was a known, violent neo-Nazi. The recent attacks seem more opportunistic, but still have drawn a strong response.

“The series of attacks by thugs on campaign teams of democratic parties are an attack on the foundations of our democracy,” Mr. Homann and Ms. Michel of the Saxony Social Democrats said.

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