Frank Richter uses the power of talk to help German towns think about immigrants

To Germans uneasy about their obligation to welcome foreign asylum seekers, Richter offers meaningful dialogue.

Courtesy of The Center for Civic Education in Saxony
Frank Richter has managed to get pro- and anti-immigrant protesters to talk together in Neukirch and Dresden, Germany.

Not long ago Neukirch, a German town of 5,000 people near the Czech border, was in trouble. People were angry, aggressive. The news that as many as 100 asylum seekers would soon be living in their midst landed like a bomb and exploded citizens into action. They hit the streets.

Then Frank Richter arrived.

Ever since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 this small town has had more than its share of challenges: Joblessness has run  high. Young people have left; schools have had to close.

Set among rolling hills in eastern Germany, far from the “economic miracle” that had lifted West Germans to a better life, these East Germans have struggled mightily with change. And now they had the new challenge of having to integrate refugees.

The camel’s back was breaking. Town meetings were rowdy. Rebellion was in the air, mostly because the decision had been made without consulting the residents.

Caught between his obligation to welcome asylum seekers and the emotions of residents, Mayor Gottfried Krause gave Mr. Richter a call.

“We need dialogue,” he said. “Sending those people [asylum seekers] away isn’t the solution.”

If anybody could break the stalemate, it would be Richter. A quarter-century earlier, in the troubled months leading to German reunification, Richter, then a young Roman Catholic priest, had prevented street protests from turning violent by mediating between demonstrators and the then-communist regime.

More recently in the reunified Germany of the mid-2000s, he’d helped the city of Dresden cope peacefully with the “mourning demonstrations” that local members of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party held each Feb. 13, the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden by US and British air forces during World War II.

Now, as head of the Center for Civic Education in Saxony, a nonprofit group promoting democracy, Richter is helping eastern German communities cope with the newest, and hottest, issue – that of welcoming refugees who are waiting for their asylum requests to be processed.

Last summer Richter came to the rescue of the town, moderating discussions among residents and town and Saxony officials over the asylum issue in his mild, but firm, manner.He listened, took notes, and answered questions – and if he couldn’t answer, he promised to follow up with the appropriate authorities.

“Frank Richter is the only one who managed, if not to create a dialogue, at least to get the different parties to listen to each other,” recalls Tilo Moritz of the Neukirch Youth Center. Jörg Briesovsky, pastor of the Neukirch Lutheran Church, said Richter “took a lot of fears away” and convinced residents that the town wasn’t against them. Today, it’s no longer rare for Neukirch residents to ask him how they can help new asylum seekers, Mr. Briesovsky says.

Not long after Richter’s visit in Neukirch, he watched as thousands of people took to the streets of nearby Dresden under the banner of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida). Its numbers, only a few hundred in October 2014, had swelled to 25,000 by mid-January.

The group’s “anti-Islam” message was hurting Germany’s image. Richter worried that the insults Pegida and anti-Pegida people were trading with each other were polarizing society even more. The hearts of Pegida organizers are “cold and often full of prejudice, and even hatred,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel had remarked. The news media were “a bunch of liars,” the Pegida organizers were claiming.

In hundreds of letters people from small Saxony communities were pouring out their hearts to Richter, and their concerns resembled those he’d heard in Neukirch.  
“Islam ... is not the main problem,” Richter says. “There was a gigantic need for discussion.... We have to promote acceptance, and that means talking, talking, talking.”

In January, Richter managed what most at the time thought impossible: He persuaded backers and opponents of Pegida to share a discussion session in Dresden that he called “Why (not) go to Pegida?”  

“Why do people drive hundreds of miles on a freezing Monday night to a protest march?” asked the soft-spoken Richter, who served as moderator that night. A young Muslim woman said she was afraid of living in Dresden. An angry resident mentioned the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. Would Germany be next? he asked.
Richter never took sides; his eyes scrutinized the crowd.

“Many say they don’t want to talk. They have lost faith. Little by little, we are discovering how multifaceted the Pegida problem is,” he says.” We need to do at least another 20 of those events.”

Whether Pegida flourishes or dies out, as now seems to be the case, the problems it has exposed won’t go away quickly. Richter is soothing these divisions using his ability to help people listen to one another, says historian Justus H. Ulbricht.

“In the debate with Pegida he succeeded the way he succeeded brilliantly in 1989: to exchange words with the most difficult of adversaries and partners,” Dr. Ulbricht says. “He never deviates from his core principle – to rely on the power of words and on people’s ability to learn.”

What Richter did in Dresden is what he has been doing at the grass-roots level in myriad towns and villages across Saxony. Ulrike Bielor lives near Perba, a hamlet of 170 that was up in arms over plans for 50 asylum seekers to move into an empty communist-era housing block there. Ms. Bielor, a mother and teacher, wrote to Richter after efforts by residents to resolve the issue with regional authorities failed.

After World War II millions of ethnic Germans who had fled or been expelled from east-central Europe flooded West Germany, and “guest workers” – mostly from Italy, Turkey, and North Africa – came to rebuild the German economy.

But during decades of communism, East Germans had much less contact with foreigners. Today Muslims represent only 1 percent of the population in Dresden, compared with nearly 13 percent in Cologne, in western Germany.

In recent years refugees from war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria have made Germany their No. 1 destination. Small towns in eastern Germany were asked to help. Often, they were caught off guard. Residents were barely consulted, Richter says.

“We are willing to welcome asylum seekers, but not the way it’s being done,” Bielor says. “What [can we] do with young men in their mid-20s who come and have nothing to do? We can’t afford it.”

Richter’s presence changed the atmosphere, she says. “His words were wonderful. In the end there was no concrete result except for the feeling that this absence of communication between the region, the town, and the people couldn’t go on.... We have no alternative but to talk,” she says.

Pegida is an eastern Germany phenomenon, Richter says. People there have less faith in democratic institutions. The number of people voting for extremist or “protest” parties, such as the National Democratic or Alternative for Germany parties, has been rising fast. “Over the past 25 years eastern communities have undergone changes of cataclysmic proportions. No stone has remained in place. And now when people are starting to feel at long last a bit of peace, just then this ‘foreign’ factor comes,” Richter says. “People are exhausted.”

In October 1989, to prevent an anti-communist protest in Dresden from erupting into riots, he had walked up to the head of the local police. “We don’t want violence,” Richter had told the police officer. “I’ll talk to the demonstrators. You bring [Dresden Mayor Wolfgang] Berghofer here.”

That’s how, peacefully, he persuaded city authorities to negotiate with demonstrators: The demands for democracy were made without violence. “I was 29, and it’s stuck with me,” Richter says. “It makes you feel as though this is your responsibility for life, to create dialogue.”

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