BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s conservative interior minister said on Thursday he would have joined protests over the fatal stabbing of a German man, allegedly by two migrants, in comments likely to deepen divisions in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition.
Far-right groups clashed with police and chased people they deemed to be migrants in the eastern German city of Chemnitz on Aug. 26 after police said a Syrian and an Iraqi had been detained as suspects in the killing of a 35-year-old German man.
“People are annoyed and outraged because of such homicides and I understand that,” Seehofer told the Rheinische Post newspaper in an interview. “If I had not been a minister, I would have taken to the streets as a citizen, but of course not with the radicals.”
The protests, during which some members of an 800-strong crowd performed the illegal Hitler salute, laid bare the divisions in Germany over Merkel’s decision in 2015 to take in around one million, mostly Muslim asylum seekers.
Seehofer, leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) and a Merkel ally, added: “I understand it when people protest, but this doesn’t make them Nazis.”
Seehofer has taken an increasingly hardline stance on immigration as his party tries to fight off a strong challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in October’s regional election in Bavaria.
The protests in Chemnitz have sparked a debate about whether politicians are being too complacent in the face of rising far-right xenophobia in a country where many had thought the lessons of Germany’s Nazi history had been fully learned.
Before his interview for the Rheinische Post, Seehofer was rebuked by politicians and ordinary Germans on social media for telling CSU members at a meeting in the eastern state of Brandenburg on Wednesday: “Migration is the mother of all problems.”
Asked what she thought about that specific remark by Seehofer, Merkel appeared to distance herself from her interior minister on Thursday in an interview with the RTL broadcaster.
“I say it differently,” Merkel said. “Migration presents us with challenges and here we have problems but also successes.”
Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Merkel’s conservative-led coalition, condemned Seehofer’s remarks.
Klingbeil tweeted a picture of Seehofer and wrote: “When I look at this picture, I ask myself whether I’m seeing the father of many problems. I have no more energy for this kind of right-wing, populist nonsense.”
Reporting by Joseph Nasr and Andreas Rinke; Editing by Gareth Jones