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In Berlin, thousands take to the streets to protest far-right extremism

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is election weekend in much of Europe, as hundreds of millions of voters head to the polls in the European Union parliamentary election that is held every five years. In the run-up to this year's vote, there has been a marked increase in violence against politicians and those who work for their campaigns. We're joined now by NPR's Central Europe correspondent Rob Schmitz to chat about this. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So you spent the afternoon at a pro-democracy demonstration in Berlin that attracted thousands of people. And this comes a day before Germans vote in the EU election. What were people saying?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, for the most part, people came out because they're genuinely worried about the rise of the far right and what that would mean for Europe. Forty-two-year-old Gwendolyn Stilling, a social worker in Berlin, was one of many thousands who attended the demonstration along the thoroughfare that leads up to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

GWENDOLIN STILLING: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And she's saying here that she came today because she's worried about the threat of right-wing extremists to Europe's open and diverse society and that she's also worried that should the far right take power, they'll start to exclude minority groups and that we cannot let this happen.

DETROW: This has been a trend that that we've been observing for years and years at this point. How likely is it that Europe's far right parties will do well in this weekend's election?

SCHMITZ: Well, if you look at the polls, they're saying that far-right parties should make many gains across the board. But, you know, in recent weeks, those same polls have told a more nuanced story. I spoke to another protester, Robert Behrens, who came out because he's hoping to convince others to vote. Here's what he said.

ROBERT BEHRENS: I feel the right will get more votes than last time, but I hope that all the voices last week that tried to raise up against the right had some impact and that there will be a strong vote still for democracy.

SCHMITZ: And Behrens hopes here are not too naive. You know, we've seen preliminary results already in the Netherlands where, you know, voters were the first Europeans to head to the polls on Thursday. And exit polls show that left-wing parties actually narrowly edged out a popular nationalist right-wing bloc of parties.

DETROW: Interesting. I want to ask you about something else that you've been covering for us, and that is this uptick in political violence that we've been seeing. A lot of examples here, but just yesterday, the Danish prime minister was assaulted in a public square in Copenhagen. Why is this happening?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, this has been a really chilling wave of violence this election season. You know, you mentioned Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. She was shoved so hard yesterday that she suffered whiplash. But police are still sorting out whether that was politically motivated or not. But, you know, we've seen so many other attacks. Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot several times by a man who had political motives. He survived. And here in Germany, we've seen dozens of attacks by extremists on politicians who they do not agree with, and that sent several politicians to the hospital.

Political observers think social media is behind much of this but also a very tense political atmosphere in Europe due to Russia's war in Ukraine and the economic upheaval the war has created throughout this continent. It's been a really tough few years for Europeans, and we're likely to see how these tensions manifest themselves when we see election results starting tomorrow evening.

DETROW: That's NPR's central Europe correspondent, Rob Schmitz, joining us from Berlin. Thank you so much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.