Our next scheduled stop on our journey through Germany was to Leipzig, the largest city in Saxony, with roughly 550,000 inhabitants, and I was excited because it would be our first big city in Germany save the airports. Unfortunately, Saturday morning was another early day for our group, as we left our castle:-) around 7:15 and took the train from Fulda to Leipzig. If I could offer one quick plug for German public transportation- their train system is cheap and phenomenal- definitely the way to get around quickly.
During the 2 1/2 hour ride, once again we saw the beauty of the countryside, though most of us were too tired to appreciate it. I was unable to sleep, staring out the window as I re-familiarized myself with the music saved on my iPhone. During the ride, Wood, our tour leader, pointed out the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial. Throughout Eastern Germany, at the site of the former camps, humongous monuments were created by the GDR to remember the dead, blast ring-wing fascism and to remind Germans of the horrors of their past. Though we were miles away, the monument drew my gaze and made me reflect on the horrors that once took place here-
How many victims once rode these same tracks against their will, never to return home again?
Upon our arrival to Leipzig, we decided to have our group meal at lunch in order to have more free-time in the evening. The restaurant we ate at was called Auerbachs Keller, the second oldest restaurant in the city and a favorite of the famous German playwright Goethe. This was clearly visible throughout the restaurant as there were beautiful paintings of his classic, Faust, on display throughout the bar. Though their special of the day was wild boar, I hesitated to eat it further due to the amount of pork I had on the trip already, so I went with a steak roulade instead. As always the meal was top quality and the fun times with our Top 6 group were priceless. Eric and I toured the restaurant and snapped pictures of all the paintings before we headed out.
Following our meal, we arrived at the Universität Leipzig where we listened to a lecture on the “Mitte” studies dealing with proliferation of right-wing extremism in Germany:
A major issue facing Germany today is how to deal with immigration to their country. Following World War II, when the German state was restored and a new constitution was drafted, the primary focus of the state was to protect the right to human dignity. As a result, all of Germany’s decisions over the past 50 years has been how to best preserve this right for their people. This has led to incredible social programs in their country, ranging from universal healthcare to free education to guaranteed social security programs for life. In exchange, Germans have willingly paid higher taxes to make sure that everyone has the right to a dignified life.
Recently however the unrest in the Middle East has led to a large influx of refugees into the country, as many hope that they will be treated as citizens in the thriving nation. Unfortunately with the growing tide of immigration swells anti-refugee sentiments, as some question the motivations of their guests.
The Mitte Study was conducted to see just how big of a problem immigration is to German citizens today.
Studies found that roughly ten percent of Germans believe that they need a fuehrer, or a leader with absolute authority, as opposed to the current democratic regime, to make major changes to their policies.
There is also a higher percentage of right-wing extremist beliefs in the east, where immigration is lowest. This study reminded me of the comments made by our student presenter Simon at our school visit to the Gymnasium- When people are less familiar with other cultures, fears fester, leading to right-wing xenophobic ideological beliefs.
The current political group pursuing anti-immigration agenda is known as Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident. The average Pegida follower is a middle class citizen who feels cheated in the current economic landscape and is looking for a new voice to cure their problems. Ultimately Pegida sees wants immigration stopped to their country due to concerns over terrorism and also the potential loss of jobs for German citizens to outsiders.
It is not difficult to draw parallels between this movement and that of the National Socialist Party of Germany’s past. Hitler rallied his people with the idea of mobilizing German society as well, rebelling to bring down the elite so the working classes could take control. Pegida also see themselves as rebels, but the major change Pegida has taken to move away from the label of Nazism is to turn from racial to cultural discrimination. They have garnered larger support due to the growing concept of Islamophobia in western nations, or prejudice against Islam or Muslims. As terrorist violence has increased around the world, many German citizens believe that allowing Muslim immigrants into their country may increase the potential for danger their as well. But this is not specific to Germany, as similar groups have sprung up in the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France.
This is truly part of a larger Euro crisis called self-complacent nationalism, where the general belief is that “we are doing everything right, and everyone else is doing it wrong” in the political spectrum. In Germany specifically, the political system is very condensed where a large coalition of politicians agree to move along the same agenda. With a lack of contestation between parties, it becomes very easy for new parties to emerge with a different vision of the nation and gain support from disenfranchised voters.
National Patriotism has become a new euphemism for National Socialism. It is a huge problem for the growing right-wing nationalist groups in Germany and throughout Europe. People are able to hide their xenophobia and hatred for other cultures behind the growing Islamic fears and immigrant concerns throughout the region, unable to make the connection that their sentiments against Islam mirror the beliefs of early Nazism over half a century ago. If left unchecked, politicians representing these beliefs could grow more popular and lead to major changes to the socio-political landscape in the future. Only by spreading knowledge on these groups can we hope to turn the tides of hate. Unfortunately I was able to draw far too many correlations between Germany and our own immigration concerns. Not only do we face growing discrimination towards Mexican immigrants, there is a real fear of Islam in our country today, and we need to look no further than Donald Trump in the Republican debates preaching messages similar to those of Pegida. I am quite afraid of where we are headed if these issues continue to fester.
Following our visit to the university, we were finally able to check into our own hotel rooms. Quickly we changed and decided to tour the city.
Leipzig was a much different experience compared to Regensburg and Taan as it was much larger and more diverse than our previous stops. Here, artists performed on every corner, stores, restaurants and shops lined each street, and everything certainly moved much faster than our previous stops. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Chicago or New York as I watched people of all walks of life rushing through the streets to keep up with the speed of the day.
During our walk, we found a restaurant nearby that served pizza so that Eric could find something he would be comfortable eating in Germany. Pizzas in Germany are big, but usually thin so they can be easily shared between two people. Jake and I decided to get one together, and he attempted to order pizza for the two of us, due to his knowledge of German and my lack of all language abilities. Since he didn’t feel like meat, we agreed on the Pizza Michaelangelo, full of toppings, but half would be without salami. Though Jake tried to explain, it was clear the waiter thought he wanted only meat on his half of the pizza. As the waiter grew increasingly frustrated, Jake went so far as to draw a picture of what he wanted to be on the pizza. Later when he returned with our order, I couldn’t help but laugh when the only item on Jake’s side were thin slices of meat.
Saturday night, everyone else collapsed but I managed to convince Eric to tour the city further and we went out for drinks in the alleyway cafe area together. After all, how many Saturday nights in our lifetime could we say we partied in Leipzig, Germany?
As we sat outside, shared laughs and fumbled through basic German with the server, I realized just how awesome an experience this trip had been so far. Early on, I was worried about going on an adventure like this alone, but in the end I realized that I never was. Everyone in this journey made it better in their own way, because together we were able to share our own experiences, hold intellectual discussions and had fun when we spent time together. Saturday night was great because Eric and I were able to get out and have some laughs together on one of our few free nights. This trip wasn’t simply valuable from an educational experience, it helped me to make connections and friendships with people I would never have gotten an opportunity to spend time with otherwise. Though I have a number of great relationships at home, I’m never going to forget spending time with Eric or any of the wonderful people during our travels together. After many laughs and stories were shared, we headed back to our hotel, happy to have had some fun before the day to come.