Christian Fabel, the mayor of Sumte, Germany,
stands in front of a facility to house asylum
seekers from Africa and the Middle East.
SUMTE, Germany — This bucolic, one-street settlement of handsome redbrick farmhouses may for the moment have many more cows than people, but next week it will become one of the fastest growing places in Europe. Not that anyone in Sumte is very excited about it.
In early October, the district government informed Sumte’s 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, the mayor 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.
But 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 well over a million people seeking refuge from poverty or wars in Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In a small concession to the villagers, Alexander Götz, a regional official from Lower Saxony, told them this week that the initial number of refugees, who start arriving on Monday and will 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 broadly, creating deep divisions in the conservative camp of Chancellor Angela Merkel and energizing a constellation of extremist groups that feel their time has come.
Dirk Hammer of Sumte at a public meeting on German genocide.
One of the few people, in fact, who seem enthusiastic about the plan for Sumte is Holger Niemann, 32, an admirer of 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,” Mr. Niemann said of the plan, which would leave the German villagers outnumbered by migrants by more than seven to one.
Germans face “the destruction of our genetic heritage” and risk becoming “a gray mishmash,” Mr. Niemann added, predicting that public anxiety over Ms. 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 remain firmly 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 Mr. 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.”
Dirk Hammer, a Sumte resident, said that he felt sympathy for the refugees, but that he 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 stomachaches from fear of what is going to happen — not just here but in the whole of Germany,” he said.
At least for the moment, the tolerant values of people like Mr. Hammer have proved resilient, even as Mr. Niemann and like-minded neo-Nazis deride such views as alien imports imposed by the United States and other World War II victors.
“People are just tired and think that so long as we have enough food in the fridge we are all fine,” Mr. Niemann said in an interview, frustrated that his efforts to stir resistance to the refugee relocation had gained little traction in Sumte.
Other extremists in the area have resorted to blunter methods to get their message across. 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.
Mr. 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 N.P.D., 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. Fabel, the mayor, 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 that there was no point in trying to block the plan when, at the initial meeting, he asked Mr. Götz, 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.” Mr. Götz 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,” the mayor said.