Squeezing into a student apartment on a snowy Saturday evening in March, a group of Colombians, a Bangladeshi, an Algerian and an American mix salsa into a Mexican-inspired meal.
It seems like a scene straight from Berlin and not Cottbus, a city in Brandenburg that has garnered a reputation as a gathering ground for right-wing rallies and violence.
In the past three years, the number of foreigners in the eastern German city of 109,000 inhabitants grew from 4,500 to 8,000. The increase, mostly from refugees but also international students and employees, helped fuel tensions and suspicions in an area already anxious about its social and economic future.
When Laura, a Colombian master’s student in Cottbus since October, stopped by the supermarket in search of ingredients with her international group of friends, “the guard asked us to leave our bags at the entrance,” said Laura. “Local people were going inside and he didn’t ask them to do the same.”
Laura captures a common sentiment about Cottbus. The city is increasingly diverse - a quarter of the 8,000 students at Brandenburg University of Technology (BTU) are international, while two theatres employ staff from every corner of the world. But it has also become known for its violence from - and against - refugees and foreigners.
Cottbus stopped taking in new refugees in January after a man was allegedly attacked by a knife-wielding Syrian teenager at a local shopping centre, days after a German teen received facial injuries in another knife attack from a Syrian refugee. Locals took to the streets to stress their security concerns, and voice their worries about the caustic impact refugees would have on city resources.
But the city also has a history of right-wing violence, including an incident last year in which two men allegedly made racist comments to an Egyptian student as she lay dying moments after their friend hit her with their car. The city is home to 145 right-wing radicals, according to security authorities.
And just as Dresden became the weekly heart of anti-Islam Pegida protests, Cottbus has become the core of regular rallies by the regional citizens’ initiative Zukunft Heimat, which pickets in protest at increased migration to Germany.
How tensions started and grew
Cottbus was once an industrial hub of Brandenburg. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the population of the city has dwindled by nearly 40,000, largely due to economic decline. In the early 1990s, its energy and textile industries became obsolete, but it was rebuilt as a centre for coal mining.
Now, close to 30 years later, the city is facing another structural change as it questions the existence of the dirty brown coal business, due to Germany’s Energiewende (energy transition), says Dr. Martin Roeder, director of the Brandenburg Culture Foundation of Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder. By 2030 the industry will also need to be faded out, putting nearly 20,000 jobs directly or indirectly at risk.
“There is a very fertile ground for extremism because people have a lot of anxiety about the future,” says Roeder. He pointed to the Cottbus State Theatre he directs, where locals in the past year have stopped purchasing the more expensive front-row seats that they used to snatch up.
The State Theatre in Cottbus. Photo: DPA
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In February, the city had 6,081 registered job openings, outpaced in Brandenburg only by Potsdam.
Cottbus could become an extension of Berlin’s suburbs, accommodating start-ups and more arts and cultural organizations if the train connections were faster and it polished up its image, said Roeder.
He describes how he moved to Cottbus from western Germany after touring the town on a frigid February day. Besides seeing a lot of destruction still left over from World War II, he found an ornate town centre and museums devoted to the arts and the city’s Sorbian minority. “Very superficially I thought, I could get to like this place,” he said.
Only after the move, did Roeder realize that “this is a place where right-wing activists are very prominent in everyday life.” The far-right National Party of Germany (NPD) would gather every month en masse in the city centre. Yet, while unruly and aggressive, “they were speaking to themselves. There was nobody else around.”
‘We are entitled to our own Heimat’
Cottbus’ conservative calls against migration became much more vocal following the migration wave in 2015. Refugees came to Cottbus in previously unseen numbers due to its plentiful living space: vacant and cheap Plattenbau apartments made the city more attractive to newcomers than refugee camps in Berlin and nearby. About 15 percent of all registered refugees in Brandenburg are in Cottbus, which is also the state’s second largest city.
Locals began to worry that schools, nurseries and administrative offices would be overwhelmed. At primary schools, half of students in some classes have a migration background, reported one local newspaper.
According to right-wing movements, refugees have also made the city less safe.
“On several streets and squares we can no longer move as naturally and safely as we have always been used to, and as we are entitled to in our own Heimat,” Christoph Berndt, co-founder of Zukunft Heimat (Future Homeland), told The Local.
Cottbus’ Altmarkt, where quaint buildings overlook a cobblestone square, has become the backdrop of the group’s demos, which swelled in size to 4,000 people in February. “The dissatisfaction of citizens is increasing as these large protests show,” says Berndt.
A Zukunft Heimat demo in the Altmarkt. Photo: DPA
It was unsurprising to many that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) garnered 26.8 percent of the vote in Cottbus during national elections last year - more than twice what they scored nationally - after running on an anti-refugee platform.
Marianne Spring-Räumschüssel, the AfD’s leader in Cottbus, is at pains to distance the party from the “primitive labels” it is given.
“We have absolutely nothing to do with racism and Nazis,” she says, sitting in her office in the Stadthalle. “I was born in 1946 in Guben (on the Polish border) right after the war. My mother told me a lot about that time and it’s absolutely horrible.”
The AfD is focused primarily on protecting people and their interests in day-to-day life, she argues. “The shopping climate here has changed. Some think, ‘I could be the next one attacked with a knife’ and they turn to online shopping instead.”
It’s not that the AfD is against foreigners, she says, pointing out the large numbers of Vietnamese immigrants that came to East Germany during the days of communism - still when the quota of foreigners in Cottbus didn’t exceed one percent.
Sharing a belief held by many in her party, she added her fears that many Syrian newcomers, particularly men, are stuck in backward values, especially in their attitudes to carrying weapons - “this is not the US,” she says - and treatment of women. “We don’t tolerate this in Europe - absolutely not,” she says, her voice becoming firmer.
The angst and anger felt by some locals comes with a darker side, though. Cottbus was the city in Brandenburg with the highest number of right-wing attacks in 2017, according to a report published this by non-profit Opfer Perspective, which works with victims of right-wing violence.
Police are still investigating an incident from April, in which two men are accused of mocking a 22-year old Egyptian student at BTU after their friend ran over her with their car.
“Some people affected by right-wing violence told us that they try to avoid leaving the house and if so they only go in groups or during the day and never at night,” says Martin Vesely, an advisor at Opfer Perspective. “For some [refugees and international students] even the way to the supermarket has turned into a zone of fear.”
'We stand for a colourful society'
Many residents of Cottbus are taking steps to show solidarity with refugees and against any sort of racism.
On a snowy Saturday in March, a Zukunft Heimat demo spanning a few hundred people fills the Altmarkt, where protesters wave flags with the German eagle embedded on them, totting signs proclaiming that “Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland” (Islam doesn’t belong to Germany) and “Macht die Grenzen dicht” (Close the borders). Large police vehicles and a fire truck guard all sides. Two Japanese students scurry past the crowd.
A small and silent counter-demo is scattered across an adjacent sidewalk. As at each of these protests, Sylvia Wähling, head of the Human Rights Centre of Cottbus, is there with a sign proclaiming the merits of multiculturalism, a “Leben Ohne Hass” (Live without Hate) button affixed to her blouse.
A man in his early twenties confronts her. “And just why should we live without hate?” he asks, directly after another man tries to explain that the gathering is not racist, just against the “Islamization of Germany.”
Wähling is currently coordinating an exhibition tracing anti-foreigner tendencies and politics in the GDR through to today. Cottbus, she says, was the city in East Germany with the highest number of Stasi informants - many of whom still live in the city.
Sylvia Wähling. Photo: DPA
“After the fall of the wall, people did not become democratic right away,” says Wähling. “They did not have the time to learn about how democracy and the new system function. They had to survive, since they lost their jobs and everything changed.”
Longtime union organizer Lothar Judith is another local active in the pro-refugee community. He sits in an office plastered with posters from years of protests, many proclaiming that “Cottbus bekennt Farbe” (Cottbus takes a stand).
His organization, Cottbuser Aufbruch, was founded in 2009 after reported attacks against foreigners. Every six weeks they gather to discuss the current climate in Cottbus and plan events and marches for diversity, such as February’s Sternmarsch.
“This year we had 2,500 people on the street,” he says. “We could show that it’s not just people on the right out there. We stand for a colorful, multicultural society and wanted to stand against them.”
Judith remains upbeat about the future.
“This city will become a good place to commute when it cleans up its act a bit,” he says. “We’ve got plenty of space, the Spreewald close by.”
A place to put down roots?
Three times a week many foreigners, and some Germans, gather at the Cottbus Sprechcafé, where they practice German amongst themselves and with German volunteers. The project won the Cottbus Tolerance Prize in November 2017 for its work bringing locals and newcomers together.
“Meeting and spending time together are basic but very effective ways of becoming part of society, or of creating a new diverse society,” says organizer Julia Kaiser.
Even for international residents, Cottbus is not a city without its charms. For Anthony Rizk, a Lebanese master’s student, the biggest barrier has been the lack of public services in English. “Personally I have felt welcomed so far,” he says.
Fuhad, a master’s student from Bangladesh, had grievances general to any smaller city - the fact that most services close at 8pm and the monotony of food choices - but also found that “the locals have very little interest in speaking to foreigners.”
But both Anthony and Fuhad boast of the beauty of the rebuilt buildings and the nearby nature. They also say they have not felt threatened in the city.
Is Cottbus the kind of place its international students would stay in once they have graduated? Posed the question at Laura’s dinner, the group erupts in laughter.
“Actually, it’s a good question,” Laura admits when no one else is listening. “If I found a job here, if I learned enough German, this could actually be a nice place to live.”