(c) Image: dimensiv, 2020

Every year, January 16th marks the nearly complete destruction of the German city of Magdeburg on that day in 1945 by Allied forces. Annual commemoration events promote peace and unity – and aim to counter Neonazi torch rallies.

Read Time: 6 Minutes

Beethoven’s world famous 9th symphony, Ode to Joy, was written in the spirit of the French Revolution. Ode to Joy has since been used for vastly differing political purposes: It was once Hitler’s favorite, and concentration camps would play it as prisoners were forced to march into gas chambers. Today, it promotes European peace and unity as the anthem of the European Union.

On January 16th 2020, it played a distinct role in the German city of Magdeburg, capital of German state Saxony-Anhalt, selling out the opera house. “Towards A Peaceful World” commemorated the nearly 2000 victims of the Allied bombing that destroyed close to 90 percent of Magdeburg on January 16th, 1945, at the end of World War 2.

The day after, Magdeburg erupted in turmoil, as it does year after year. Right-wing initiatives organize torch marches claiming to mourn the German victims of the bombing. The group usually consists of right-wing extremists, AfD sympathizers and other affiliated and watch-listed extremist groups. And year after year, various groups and initiatives organize counter protests, candlelight vigils, marches, concerts and other events all over the city in an effort to present a unified Magdeburg against Nazis.

Members of counter protests argue that torch march organizers propagate and misuse wrong and disproven victim numbers, deny the accountability of Nazis as initiators and war criminals, and misappropriate a day of invoking peace for a show of national-socialist rituals (one of which is torch-carrying). Marches in recent years have included prominent Holocaust deniers.

It’s a standoff that falls in line with historically contrasting political uses of Ode to Joy: Where it used to be a genocidal tune, its purpose is now the opposite.

Masked Marchers, Sitting Blockaders

Magdeburg, 5 pm. After a long day of demos, including Fridays for Future and a farmer’s initiative, torch marchers are expected to arrive in Magdeburg from all over Sachsen-Anhalt in the early evening. For hours, nobody knows when or where it will begin. On Twitter, counter protest initiatives such as Solidary Magdeburg are keeping locals informed with minute by minute updates.

Vigil groups gather at several important locations in Magdeburg to provide symbolic resistance in case the march follows their route. One small group has gathered at the gates of a former concentration camp in Magdeburg-Polke. On the ground, a sign shows a Jewish saying: “Wanting to forget prolongs exile. The secret of salvation is remembrance.”

“We must never forget”, a vigil attendee tells me. “Our past should never be forgotten or concrete-cast, because that’s how we stagnate.”

At the main station square, a local evangelical group initiates a vigil with Samba drums. The counter protest arrives, made up of various groups: Fridays for Future, The Left, smaller socialist parties, the Antifa, Bündnis gegen Rechts (Alliance Against Right). The entire protest is said to be approximately 500 strong. Police presence is dense, with swathes guarding a fenced-off pathway leading away from the station entrance. 800 policemen and -women are deployed, drafted from various states around the country. The right-wing march itself is expected to have about 150 attendees.

Police Protection

When the first batch of torch marchers arrives at a smaller station nearby, they are greeted with anti-Nazi rally cries: “Nazis Raus” – “Nazis Leave” and “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”.

The group walks for a bit, then stops, waiting for members to catch up from the station. As they come to a halt, I find my spot amid several reporters, camera ready. Passersby line the sidewalk. About two rows of police guard the tip of the march line. We all stand and wait. Everything is calm for several minutes.

A loudspeaker voice in the march tells marchers: “We’re about to start. You may light your torches now.” It’s impossible to tell whether it’s police or march organizers. The group begins walking silently. As we take pictures, marchers point their torches at us, filming back.

I turn around to where a small group of counter protesters have been forming a sitting blockade. I assume that they are the reason why the march is being led down another road. The sitters are surrounded by dozens of police.

Less than a couple of minutes after the march has started, taking a different direction, police pull up the sitting blockaders, push them towards a nearby wall, circulate them. A brawl erupts, but calms down. There are at least as many policemen and -women as sitters.

Meanwhile, the marchers are taking on the main road. A loudspeaker plays a slow piano piece, as the marchers walk silently. “Are you not ashamed of yourselves?”, a counter protester shouts into the march. Others yell anti-Nazi chants.

Two rows of police guard the tip of the torch march right before it starts. (c) dimensiv 2020

On the Solidary Magdeburg Twitter page, media persons tell their accounts of being attacked by torch marchers on the side, who are then allegedly being guided back into their formation by police.

At the time of writing, one arrest has reportedly been made in the left camp.

Answers Are Still Missing

This showdown repeats every year. Nazis travel to Magdeburg to march, Magdeburg citizens organize counter events and protests, mostly symbolical. Arguments on both sides are well publicized and known.

What’s yet missing in the equation is an explanation, a statement, a perspective putting in context decision-making on the part of police.

Counter protesters have long alleged and criticized that police measures during the marches serve as a diversionary tact, making protesters believe they’re on the right track as the actual march follows a different route. The same goes for shielding concrete information about beginning and locations of the march. Magdeburg police themselves sent updates on traffic and road blocks as well as some general information on the location of counter protests. Nothing, however, to give away details of the actual march taking place.

The main interest is likely to avoid big escalations and even violence. At events like this, police presence is undeniably relevant. But as a state-mandated force, transparency about motives and decision-making on part of the police are a part of their accountability.

Objectively speaking, several questions remain unanswered but important:

What warranted the deployment of an 800-strong police force from several different German states served, when a significant share was put in place keep peaceful sitters in place or to discipline yelling protesters? Why were protesters not shielded from singular attacks by marchers to the same extent? Why were no arrests made of marchers wearing complete face covers?

The video below has sparked particular uproar on Twitter. It shows a group of three young protesters determinedly walking towards a group of armed riot gear police. They are instantly shoved back, before one gets tackled by a group of police.

Other witnessed incidents include single sitting protester being pushed away, against fences and on the ground, often by groups of policemen.

Both sides will naturally argue in their defense. Notwithstanding, police have an additional state-mandated duty to account for their actions and training.

Saxony-Anhalt, formerly belonging to the political East, is known for its high numbers of underground Neo-Nazi activity as well as some of the highest polling numbers in support of right-wing AfD. Initiatives and movements frequently target migration using blanket statements about crime by foreigners, often without clear evidence.

In this context, the universal police goal to protect citizens is closely tied to their decision-making process. Transparency and accountability are not only relevant to evaluate the appropriateness of police actions. They are also needed in order to tell government intentions.

Magdeburg has yet to witness a police deployment during Nazi marches that provides either.

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