Michael kretschmer in chemnitz: the challenger

Saxony’s prime minister must save his country from the AfD. But how, when even the Hitler salute no longer bothers so many?

Prime Minister Kretschmer and Mayor Barbara Ludwig face the cameras in Chemnitz Photo: dpa

The challenge is first of all to exist at all. Michael Kretschmer, 43, CDU, Minister President of Saxony, sits in a circle of chairs with citizens in Chemnitz and talks. They’ve given each person here an extra name tag so that everything looks a bit more binding.

It’s Thursday evening, 8 p.m. sharp, and Kretschmer says, "If we’re talking about the truth here, then we also have to talk about the Hitler salutes."

At that, most of the room boos and jeers, and a woman shouts from behind, "That was a leftist!"

"Slow down," Michael Kretschmer says. "Very slowly."

This text is from the taz am wochenende. Always available from Saturday on the newsstand, in the eKiosk or in the practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

Basic tenor: slow down for now

At 8:05 p.m., a woman sitting just two seats to his right says, "The ones who gave the Hitler salute, that was only five people. If the camera had panned a little to the right, you would have seen that there were 10,000 normal people." That’s when they all clap, that’s when they call out to him again. "Slow down," says Michael Kretschmer.

At 8:19 p.m., an older gentleman says, "There are people, that’s the so-called Antifa. These are people who stink. They only get wet from the water when it rains." And then he says to the prime minister, to loud applause, "You distance yourself from the right-wing extremists. But you don’t distance yourself from the leftists!"

Chemnitz citizen

"There are people, that’s the so-called Antifa. They stink."

Kretschmer says, "Slow down now."

At this point on Thursday evening, the Saxony Talk has already been going on for over an hour, and the question in the room is: How can it be that the Minister President of the Free State of Saxony said earlier, in all seriousness, that he is also happy about the band Kraftklub, a Chemnitz band that, after the right-wing extremist incidents earlier this week, has announced that it will set a sign against xenophobia next Monday? Most people here can’t believe that.

As if the country had already slipped away from him

Michael Kretschmer, born in Gorlitz, explains that as Minister President he cannot simply ban a concert.

At 8:31 p.m., a man with a bald head is given the microphone. He says, "The truth is, someone died, and two were stabbed, and the worst thing that apparently happened that weekend was a Hitler salute. All I hear is ‘Hitler salute.’ They always stand here with ‘Hitler salute’."

"Exactly," says a woman, and again almost everyone claps.

And so now the prime minister, who is actually the challenged one here, has to explain again what he has already explained before – as if he is the challenger here, as if he has to wrest something from his urban society here, as if the country has already slipped away from him: That the worst thing that happened last week was the death of 35-year-old Daniel H.. That that was quite clear. That this crime would be severely punished. "And if I said that," Kretschmer says, "but we are also in agreement about the other things that happened afterwards, yes?"

Hitler salute? Silence.

In Saxony Talk, Saxony’s prime minister asks voters, "Do we agree that the Hitler salute is not okay?"

Now most of the people here are silent, and a grumble goes through the rows, and the man with the bald head nods somewhat reservedly. One person claps.

So that’s the tragic outcome of this evening, that’s the success Michael Kretschmer has achieved in the VIP lounge of the insolvent regional league club Chemnitzer FC, where the Saxon state government has invited its people to talk. One must marvel at him probably almost for the fact that he produces after all this ridiculous consensus here. Michael Kretschmer is only the challenger in Saxony. That’s the problem.

Because the challenge to himself, who represents the strongest party in the state, is actually: In September 2019, when the next state election is due, the CDU must beat the AfD, which is currently the second-strongest force in polls in Saxony. That’s one of the reasons why he’s here today, facing off in this conversation.

Everyone has the same questions

When Kretschmer comes to Chemnitz this Thursday, he doesn’t just want to talk about how organized right-wing extremists hunted down people in Chemnitz. He will visit a school, the town hall, a daycare center, before arriving in the evening at the stadium, where some of the hooligans who were on the streets on Sunday and Monday shouting "Foreigners out!" are also usually in the fan section.

Kretschmer wants to be there now. You can see it, for example, in the fact that throughout the day he is always patiently available to reporters accompanying him through Chemnitz for their questions, to which he does not actually have any answers yet: Is there any new information about last weekend’s death? Why were the police overwhelmed against the right-wing demonstrators? What does Kretschmer want to do to help Chemnitz get a grip on its right-wing problem? Journalists from all over Europe are in Chemnitz that day. They all have these questions.

When Michael Kretschmer gets out of his black BMW at 11:15 on Thursday morning, he is standing in the rain. The last few days have been exhausting, you can see that, even if the circles under his eyes no longer mark his face quite as deeply as they did on Tuesday, when he first appeared before the press after the nights of agitation in Chemnitz.

Here, at the secondary school in the Chemnitz district of Helbersdorf, he is now sitting in a classroom. Green signs hang above the blackboard: "We listen to each other" and "We don’t call each other names" or "We don’t use violence." These are rules that Kretschmer claims also apply in the Free State of Saxony – sanctioned by the monopoly on violence that the prime minister has repeatedly invoked in recent days.

No price for Saxony

The students and teachers present their democracy project – title: "Developing Democratic Action" – in which they develop rules themselves and monitor compliance with them. The school received the Saxon School Award for this project. "39 percent of the students here," the principal proudly announces, "have an immigrant background."

Which prize do you think Saxony would get right now? And in September 2019, when Saxony goes to the polls, what approval rating will their prime minister get with his CDU, whose biggest rival at the moment is the AfD?

Kretschmer asks the children if they also question the rules and those in charge. And he asks one student what his parents actually say about his involvement in the democracy project. The student answers: "My father is afraid I’ll make myself unpopular.

Then, before going to the stadium in the evening, the prime minister comes to Sonnenberg, once notorious as the city’s poor district. It’s the last meeting before the Saxony Talks in the stadium over there, in front of which hundreds of right-wingers and right-wing extremists will later demonstrate against his visit.

Who else can you turn to?

In Tchaikovsky Street, he takes off his jacket, rolls up the sleeves of his shirt and asks the parents whether they have found the right daycare center for their children here. At the very end of this conversation, when everything seems almost over, an elderly woman says she is devastated. She points to her daughter-in-law. After this week’s incidents, she had been racially harassed for the first time because she was from China. Her daughter-in-law has tears in her eyes, as do her mother-in-law and her son.

Suddenly, it gets very quiet in the room set up for the prime minister with bar tables, the finger food and the framed photos of laughing children with their parents on the wall. "I’m scared," says the woman in question.

"When something like this happens, who do we turn to?"

Michael Kretschmer says, with a matter-of-factness, "To the police." Now a woman wearing a headscarf and holding her child by the hand says, "But the police are overwhelmed."

Deportations as a joke

Kretschmer gets something to eat, and then he says something after all: This is about decency and civil courage. But his sentence bursts like a soap bubble in the room.

A few hours later, when Kretschmer is asked by an older man in the VIP lounge of Chemnitzer FC what he is doing to combat criminal foreigners, the CDU politician refers to a deportation flight that recently deported 16 people.

He has not yet uttered the sentence when everyone in the room is already laughing, as if familiar with each other, as if it were a good joke and as if they had already known the punch line beforehand. Kretschmer doesn’t understand why they are laughing now, he looks uncertain, he frowns. Then he asks why everyone is laughing right now. "Only 16!" they shout. "That’s just it."

There is one sentence that none of the citizens who are here today to meet their prime minister will say all evening. It’s a sentence like, "We must now counter the images of Sunday and Monday with a strong sign." Or maybe something similar.

A previous version of this text stated that the AfD was the second strongest parliamentary group in the Saxon state parliament. The AfD is the fourth-largest parliamentary group, but currently the second-strongest force in polls in Saxony. We have corrected this.

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