Sumte has become a showcase of the extreme pressures bearing down on Germany as it scrambles to find shelter for what, by the end of the year, could be more than 1 million people seeking refuge from poverty or wars in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
SUMTE, Germany — Sumte, a bucolic, one-street settlement of handsome redbrick farmhouses, may have many more cows than people, but this week it will be one of the fastest-growing places in Europe. Not that anyone in Sumte is excited about it.
In early October, the district government informed Sumte Mayor Christian Fabel by email that his village of 102 people just over the border in what was once Communist East Germany would take in 1,000 asylum seekers.
His wife, Fabel said, assured him it must be a hoax. “It certainly can’t be true” that such a small, isolated place would be asked to accommodate nearly 10 times as many migrants as it had residents, she told him. “She thought it was a joke,” he said.
It was not. Sumte has become a showcase of the extreme pressures bearing down on Germany as it scrambles to find shelter for what, by the end of the year, could be more than 1 million people seeking refuge from poverty or wars in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
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In a small concession to the villagers, Alexander Gotz, a regional official from Lower Saxony, told them the initial number of refugees, scheduled to start arriving Monday and to be housed in empty office buildings, would be kept to 500, and limited to 750 in all.
Nevertheless, the influx is testing the limits of tolerance and hospitality in Sumte and across Germany. It is also straining German politics, creating deep divisions in the conservative camp of Chancellor Angela Merkel and energizing extremist groups that feel their time has come.
One of the few people who seem enthusiastic about the plan for Sumte is Holger Niemann, 32, an admirer of Adolf Hitler and the lone neo-Nazi on the elected district council. He rejoices at the opportunities the migrant crisis has offered.
“It is bad for the people, but politically it is good for me,” Niemann said of the plan, which would leave the German villagers outnumbered by migrants by more than 7 to 1.
Germans face “the destruction of our genetic heritage” and risk becoming “a gray mishmash,” Niemann added, predicting that anxiety over Merkel’s open-armed welcome to refugees would help demolish a postwar political consensus in Germany built on moderation and compromise.
Unlike those in other European countries, far-right parties in Germany have had little success in national elections and have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Germans.
Reinhold Schlemmer, a former Communist who served as the mayor here before and immediately after the collapse of East Germany, said people like Niemann would “have been put in prison right away” during the communist era.
“Now they can stand up and preach,” he said. “People say this is democracy, but I don’t think it is democracy to let Nazis say what they want.”
Schlemmer is among those concerned that extremists are exploiting widespread concerns, even in the political mainstream, over absorbing vast numbers of refugees, as the influx tests Germany’s capacity to cope.
Sumte has no shops, no police station, no school. The initial number of arrivals was, in fact, reduced to avoid straining the local sewage system and to give time for new pumps to be installed.
“We have zero infrastructure here for so many people,” said Fabel, the mayor.
As the federal government scrambles to find shelter for the refugees before winter, it is assigning quotas to each of Germany’s 16 Lander, or states, based on factors such as economic strength and population.
Initially, migrants were housed in renovated homes, then in gymnasiums, military bases and old schools. But as obvious shelters run out, authorities are hunting for any free space they can find, such as the 23 empty office buildings in Sumte.
Dirk Hammer, a Sumte resident, said he felt sympathy for the refugees but feared the sheer number of people dumped with little warning in places like this could offer “an ideal platform for the far right.”
“I get stomach aches from fear of what is going to happen, not just here but in the whole of Germany,” he said.
For the moment, the tolerant values of people like Hammer have proved resilient, even as Niemann and like-minded neo-Nazis deride such views as alien imports imposed by the United States and other World War II victors.
When Niemann took the floor at a meeting in October between villagers and regional officials responsible for migrants, Hammer snatched away the microphone.
“We have to take a clear stand against these people,” Hammer said later, noting that his family had lived in Sumte for 400 years. He dismissed Niemann, who lives in a village a couple of miles down the road, as a disruptive outsider.
Hammer initially reacted with dismay when he heard of plans to move refugees into the empty office complex, built by a now-defunct debt-collection company, and wrote an open letter on Facebook expressing his fury as a longtime supporter of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party who felt betrayed.
“If we are being used as dumping ground, this shows the situation is out of hand,” Hammer said at his family’s home, a modernized farmhouse.
But he has curbed his anger and rallied to efforts by Fabel to make sure that extremists do not capitalize on the unease among residents.
He said he knew people who “are not far right, but who are afraid and their fear is being exploited.”
Unable to speak at the village meeting last month, Niemann and some followers heckled speakers who voiced sympathy for refugees, and waved banners demanding an end to “asylum terror.”
At a follow-up meeting between officials and villagers Wednesday, Niemann stayed silent, taking notes.
“People are just tired and think that so long as we have enough food in the fridge we are all fine,” Niemann said, frustrated that his efforts to stir resistance had gained little traction in Sumte.
Other extremists in the area have resorted to blunter methods. Shortly after the news first broke of the plans to move 1,000 refugees to Sumte, unidentified arsonists attacked a smaller refugee center in the nearby town of Boizenburg, setting fires and smashing windows.
Niemann said he rejected violence, but a far-right coalition he represents on the district council includes two of Germany’s most belligerent groups, the National Democratic Party, better known by its German acronym NPD, and Die Rechte, which was last week linked by authorities in Bavaria to a cache of weapons assembled in an alleged plot to attack refugees.
“There are individuals who cannot be controlled at all times,” said Niemann, a car washer.
Asked whether he considered himself a neo-Nazi, he said, “No, I am National Socialist,” in other words, a real Nazi. “We are not extremists, but people have become so soft that we seem extreme,” he added.
Fabel insisted that Sumte, despite its unease, was open-minded and hospitable, and was now focused on making the refugee holding camp work.
“Many families here suffered during the war, so they will think twice about joining extremists,” he said.
He said he realized there was no point in trying to block the plan when, at the initial meeting, he asked Gotz, the regional official in charge of finding places for migrants, whether Sumte had any choice. “You have two options,” he said he was told. “Yes, or yes.”
Gotz declined to be interviewed.
The asylum seekers will stay in Sumte only as long as it takes to process their applications for refugee status. But those who move on will eventually be replaced by new arrivals, as the vast stream of refugees and migrants shows no signs of slowing.
“Life here is going to change,” Fabel said.