Welcome to 'Saxon Manchester' - a German city struggling with the far-right

Sophie Atkinson visits our twin city, Chemnitz, in the former East Germany. She finds a place where the recent past still casts a long shadow

By Sophie Atkinson

“Let’s go in here,” I gesture across the street. It’s raining hard — ropes of water hit the pavement with a hiss. The kebab shop is empty when my friend Johnny and I enter — there’s just one man behind the counter, who asks me to repeat myself when I order in German. We get talking and I find out he’s Lebanese. He agrees to an interview on two conditions: He won’t tell me his name and I’m not allowed to record our conversation, because “you know what Chemnitz is like.” 

He speaks almost no German although he’s lived here for six years, and never socialises with Germans either. Does he ever have problems in Chemnitz? Problems? No, he says, and his friends haven’t either. Besides, he says, fixing me with a look. “Bad things only happen to people with bad feelings in their hearts. If you have peace in your heart, nothing bad will happen to you.” 

Shortly after this, a group of Germans enter the shop. “Interview’s over,” he says to me so quickly under his breath that for a moment, I think I’ve imagined it. But from this moment on, he won’t so much as look at me. 

Chemnitz is a city in the east of Germany, southwest of Dresden. In 1953, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic renamed it Karl-Marx-Stadt and the “Nischel” (Saxon-German for head) was erected — a seven metre-tall statue of Karl Marx’s head which sits a short walk from the main train station. In 2025 it’s going to become one of two European Capitals of Culture (Nova Gorica in Slovenia is the second), something everyone you speak to here is very keen to talk about. But for now, it is wrestling with its reputation as one of the most right-wing cities in Germany, a place with a thriving neo-Nazi scene — something people are understandably much less keen to talk about. 

Oh, and it’s also known as the Saxon Manchester, on account of its similar industrial heritage. In fact, Chemnitz is one of Manchester’s official sister cities, along with Wuhan and St Petersburg. But more on this later.

Later the same day, I head to a traditional beer-and-stodge type restaurant in the centre of the city. The waiter looks Latin American and has a tattoo on his arm of the word Cuba but speaks German with a broad Saxon accent. He was born in Cuba but moved to Zwickau, another city in Saxony, when he was 17, and quickly came to Chemnitz. “Things have got much worse here in the last ten years, since the refugees arrived,” he says. “Now everyone is afraid.” 

This post is for paid subscribers