AILSA CHANG, HOST:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party came out on top in the country's elections this week, but a lot of attention in Germany and around the world is on the third-placed finisher. It's a right-wing populist party called the Alternative for Germany. It ran on an anti-immigrant platform, and a lot of its support comes from Eastern Germany, places like the State of Saxony where few immigrants live. Reporter Esme Nicholson has more.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: When Germany reunified 27 years ago, the late Chancellor Helmut Kohl famously declared he wanted to see the former East in bloom again. In the small town of Pirna near the Czech border, Kohl's vision is on display at the weekly market where the vegetable and flower stools show off a healthy local harvest. In 1990, Pirna's medieval center was rundown and deserted. Today it's elegantly restored and the streets are alive with shoppers and tourists. But scratch the shiny surface here, and you'll find dissatisfaction and fear.
WALTRAUD KASCKE: (Through interpreter) It's not as nice here as it used to be. You now see so many foreigners on the streets, and it's no longer safe.
NICHOLSON: Waltraud Kascke is a retired secretary and has lived near Pirna all her life. She says the only political party that will listen to her concerns about immigration is the Alternative for Germany Party, or AfD. Many here share her views. Thirty-four percent of the town voted for the AfD compared with the 13 percent it received nationwide. Its leaders pledged to close the borders and, in their words, take their nation back.
But the immigrant population of Saxony is actually rather small, just over 2 percent. One of them is a man who would only identify himself as Massoud. He's from Morocco and came to Germany for a better life, but he feels unwanted by his neighbors.
MASSOUD: They don't like to see us here. These people - they think they are humanity and we are not humanity. You are Muslim. Also they're racist also for Islam. I don't know why.
NICHOLSON: Forty-five-year-old street cleaner Dagmar Host was born and raised here. She voted for the AfD because she feels ignored and forgotten. She says everyone is obsessed with integrating refugees and migrants but says she doesn't even feel at home in a reunified Germany. Many in the former communist East feel they're treated like second-class citizens.
DAGMAR HOST: (Through interpreter) We're just expected to keep our mouths shut and put up with this filthy foreigner trash. That's the truth. I'm not a Nazi. I'm not anything.
NICHOLSON: Such language and hatred is something activist Sebastian Raibig has been fighting against for the last two decades.
SEBASTIAN RAIBIG: (Through interpreter) Accepting and embracing diversity is something we're still working on.
NICHOLSON: Also born here, Raibig founded a nonprofit to counter the skinhead neo-Nazi culture that began to thrive after the collapse of communism. He says he thought they've made progress.
RAIBIG: (Through interpreter) I'd accepted that the AfD were going to do well. It was obvious. But that they did so well here is horrifying. I'm still in shock, and I'm not sure I've quite taken it in.
NICHOLSON: Raibig notes that it wasn't until after 1989 that the residents of Pirna even began to discuss a notorious incident in the city's past. Here in the castle, the Nazis gassed 15,000 mentally ill people. He worries that failure to acknowledge Nazi atrocities makes some more susceptible to looking for scapegoats today. For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Pirna, Saxony. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.