BERLIN – As a local lawmaker in the east German city of Magdeburg who regularly speaks out against the far right, Soeren Herbst has endured years of animosity. But the sight that greeted him outside his home last week made the Green Party politician realize that the abuse had reached a new level.
Someone had sprayed a gallows on the front of his house, along with Herbst's name and the word "Volksverraeter" — traitor to the German people.
"Now we indeed have a new situation," Herbst said in a telephone interview the day after the incident. "You start worrying about your safety and that of your family."
The incident reflects a growing public tension in Germany. While it's the extremists on the far right who are grabbing most of the headlines, mainstream Germans are increasingly being drawn into inflammatory rhetoric — and at times anti-foreigner sentiment. The country's normally staid — some might say dull — political debates have in particular become inflamed with vitriol amid the influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in recent months.
Nazi comparisons, once considered beyond the pale of polite political discussion in a country still grappling with its genocidal past, have become a common slur. The co-founder of anti-Islam group PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, last week likened Germany's justice minister to Nazi demagogue Joseph Goebbels; in response, a senior official in Justice Minister Heiko Maas' party labeled Bachmann a "crazy fascist."
"The situation that we have at the moment is leading to a split in society where people are drifting apart," said Joachim Trebbe, a communications researcher at Berlin's Free University.
Just a few months ago newspapers were full of reports about refugees being warmly received at German train stations, he noted. Now the tone has changed to one where migrants are automatically linked to the word "crisis" as authorities struggle to cope with tens of thousands of arrivals each month.
Social media and the immediacy of modern communications have become an easy vent for popular anger. And this week, police raided 10 buildings in Berlin as part of a crackdown on far-right hate speech in social media networks.
"Nowadays everybody has the opportunity to directly criticize politicians without having to write a letter to the newspaper, which might not get printed," said Trebbe.
Authorities have already begun working with Facebook to crack down on the most extreme hate speech, which is illegal in Germany but doesn't fall afoul of the social networking site's community rules.
Commentators have coined a term to describe the often middle-aged, middle-class Germans venting their anger in online forums and at PEGIDA protests: "Wutbuerger" — literally "angry citizens."
Some of those attending PEGIDA rallies have told The Associated Press that they aren't xenophobes, but rather ordinary people who simply feel frustrated that the government isn't listening to their concerns. Sensitive to the growing misgivings among many Germans about how their country is meant to cope with the sheer number of immigrants, the government has agreed on measures intended to quickly process those who stand little chance of getting asylum, vetting more people at the border, and distributing migrants across Europe.
Mock gallows and chants of "lying press" at anti-immigrant rallies aren't the only results of the wave of fury sweeping Germany. The steep rise in attacks on refugee shelters, including arson, has garnered the greatest attention abroad. But security officials warn that there appears to be a general willingness emerging in Germany to use violence for political reasons.
Last month, a writer for Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper who had criticized the far right in a column was struck from behind in the leafy Charlottenburg district by someone shouting "you dirty leftist pig." A few days later, a TV crew was attacked while covering a far-right protest in the north of Berlin.
"We can't rule out that these were politically motivated attacks," Jens Berger, a spokesman for Berlin police, told The Associated Press.
In the most serious physical attack, Cologne mayoral candidate Henriette Reker was stabbed in the neck while campaigning in mid-October, the day before the election, by a man who said he wanted to take a stand against refugees. Reker, who won the election, had been in charge of housing migrants in the western city.
The suspect, who has been charged with attempted murder, is a 44-year-old man who authorities say has past links to the area's neo-Nazi scene. But last month, Germany's top security official warned that two-thirds of suspects linked to attacks on refugees and asylum homes were previously unknown to the police. Thomas de Maiziere, the country's interior minister, expressed particular concern about the way rumors spread rapidly on social networking sites even after proven false.
The gallows on Herbst's house in Magdeburg appeared two days after the politician had written about an apparently racist attack in the city. Three migrants were attacked by up to 30 men wielding baseball bats. The alleged assailants had coordinated their attack on publicly accessible social media websites, said Herbst.
Officials at the state intelligence agency in Saxony-Anhalt, where Magdeburg is located, recently expressed concern about where the growing radicalization might lead.
Previously, educated Germans had been able to tell the difference between neo-Nazi groups and mainstream political opinion. "These boundaries are increasingly dissolving though," said Jochen Hollmann, the head of the section dealing with far-right extremists, in comments to the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung.
Markus Feldenkirchen, a journalist with the respected weekly Der Spiegel, recently likened the mood in Germany to that of a barroom brawl. Recalling how Germany's Weimar Republic descended into fascism, Feldenkirchen said Germans could rightfully be proud of their peaceful post-war democracy but "nobody can be certain that this achievement will be safe forever."
Frustrated at the flood of online hate speech, some activists are trying a new approach: They respond to anti-migrant comments posted on Facebook by saying that one euro ($1.10) will be donated to projects helping refugees or people trying to leave the far-right scene. The more anti-migrant comments, the more donations those projects get.
The website, called "Hate Helps," has so far collected more than 1,500 euros in donations.