Pe-what? Only three months ago, the combination “Pegida” would have looked like a bad-luck leftover set of letters in a Scrabble game. Widely known today, the acronym stands for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident”. An outgrowth of a Facebook group, this self-declared civil movement in the eastern German city of Dresden attracts an increasing crowd to a weekly Monday evening march, free-riding on the historical aura of the Monday demonstrations in 1989 which ultimately led to the downfall of the GDR. Today’s demonstration however has been cancelled. Based on intelligence, the Saxon police found it urgent to prohibit “all public gatherings in the open within the limits of Dresden”.
According to the police, the intelligence services have intercepted concrete exhortations to Islamists in Germany urging them to mix with the crowd and to murder one of the Pegida organizers. “Under these circumstances, the lives of all participants in any demonstration are in immediate danger.” As the authorities are keen on avoiding excessive security measures in order not to create a public panic, the threats must have been very serious. Nonetheless and whatever one thinks of Pegida, it is unfortunate that the Islamist menace has now succeeded in effectively restricting the freedom of assembly, which victimizes the protesters. “Racists turned into martyrs”, as the headline in the left-wing daily newspaper “Taz” runs.
The ban puts a momentary halt to the upward trend in participation at the Pegida marches in Dresden. Last Monday, in the first demonstration after the “Charlie Hebdo” massacre in Paris, 25,000 people joined the march, 7,000 more than the week before and 20.000 more than at the end of November. The organisers had posted an invitation to their 12th “evening walk”, asking participants to wear black ribbons as a sign of their mourning and solidarity with the French victims. Some did, while others carried black flags with a white cross, and there were many national flags to be seen, which is a rather uncommon sight in Germany but for times of a soccer world cup.
The Pegida demonstrations against the current government policy regarding refugees and immigrants have been peaceful so far, and the official claims of the initiative, far from being rooted in a clearly defined ideology, cover vast political ground. According to a “position paper” of the registered association published on December 10, 2014, the initiative calls, among others, for a more humane, quick and efficient administrative treatment of refugee cases (a typical claim of the Social Democrats, SPD, and the Green party) and a qualifications-oriented immigration scheme like in Australia or Canada (a claim of the liberal FDP). Other points to which even convinced libertarians are likely to agree are sexual self-determination and the introduction of public referenda like in Switzerland. Pegida does not endorse the German government’s shipping arms to support the Kurds in their fight against IS terror (in line with the Greens and the leftist party “Die Linke”). They protest against “parallel societies” within Germany and against the increasing application of sharia law by German courts (perfectly in agreement with the Christian Democrats, CDU).
They want to see a new paragraph added to the German constitution, the “Grundgesetz”, according to which immigrants would have a formal duty to integrate (which would please the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU). Farther to the right, they also cater to the AfD with their call for a better-equipped police, a strict application of the law on expulsion, “zero tolerance” against criminal foreigners and a strict priority for the Western Judeo-Christian civilization. As a programme, this is not a clear extreme-right agenda, as one might fear, but a strange hodge-podge full of contradictions. Given this breadth, it is not in the least surprising that the demonstrations attract all sorts of people, worried members of a perfectly bourgeois middle class, frustrated members of the former GDR elite, militant racists and neo-nazis alike. Pegida sweeps up the political malcontents of the country.
Nonetheless, the nationalistic conservative trend and the angry atmosphere of intolerance seem to be dominant in the group. It is difficult to grasp the exact mood since both the organizers and the followers of Pegida generally refuse to speak with the established Western media, which they call “Lügenpresse” (a press full of lies), a wording for which the Nazi chief demagogue Joseph Goebbels was notorious and which still rings a threatening bell in Germany. An exception to the rule was Katrin Oertel, a quite presentable albeit rather stiff member of the organizing committee, who appeared in a public TV talk last week, her essential message being that the demonstrations are mostly motivated by a general frustration with politics. As for the mood in the crowd, a public TV reporter, a fake “Russia Today” microphone in hand, recently managed to interview some participants at the Dresden march without receiving a fist in his face. He obtained a wealth of remarkably mindless quotes, one interviewee declaring that he was afraid of the IS because “they are even worse than a soccer stadium full of homosexuals”.
Meanwhile, the official speakers at the Pegida events continue to call for more patriotism; they vociferate against government not heeding the true will of “the people”; they accuse the welfare state of attracting way too many lazy “welfare refugees” and criminals from abroad; they deplore the “destruction” of the traditional family; they criticize the EU sanctions against Russia and praise president Vladimir Putin’s strong hand (“Help us, Putin!”). The most important and most provocative message they endlessly repeat however is that the German people need to stand up and defend themselves against the allegedly aggressive, backward and generally inferior “non-culture” of Islam. With a healthy dose of sarcasm, Jens Spahn (CDU) has said that, if the goal was to save the Western civilization based on the Judeo-Christian values, it might be a good idea to consider going to church every Sunday instead of joining the ill-famed Pegida marches every Monday.
Who stands behind Pegida? The initiator is a man called Lutz Bachmann, now head of an advertising firm and a former sausage salesman, who was found guilty of no less than 16 burglaries in 1998. Sentenced to almost four years in prison, he then eloped to South Africa under a false name. After his expulsion back to Germany, he could no longer avoid imprisonment. After his release, the police caught him twice dealing with cocaine. Bachmann is currently still on probation. Rumours are that it is against him that the current death threats are directed. According to Bachmann’s own statement, he cooperates at Pegida in Dresden with a group of 12 people. This group doesn’t stand alone. Imitators mushroom elsewhere, for example in Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Munich, and recently also in other European countries. But none of them has been able to attract a group as large as in Dresden. In Cologne, the march consisted of no more than 300 people, and in Berlin, only 400 could be mobilized. In her traditional New Year’s TV broadcast, Chancellor Angela Merkel still found it necessary to warn: “Don’t follow those who initiate these demonstrations! Their hearts are full of prejudice, bleakness and even hatred!”
Pegida is a bizarre phenomenon. It is difficult to understand how it managed to take hold specifically in Dresden, a city of Eastern Germany where there are almost no Muslims at all. Even in Germany as a whole, with 5 percent, Muslims don’t constitute a very large group, and the vast majority of them are perfectly peaceful. Against the rumours, criminal acts perpetrated by Muslims have not increased in number according to official statistics. Neither has the fertility of the immigrants grown, no more than the immigration from Muslim countries. Germany is indeed the second largest immigration country of the world, after the United States. But Germany attracts mainly European immigrants, mostly Catholics (and orthodox Christians), while the (mostly Muslim) Turks, on balance, migrate back home. So did 27,000 Turks in 2013, while 23,000 went the other way. As for refugees, 17,000 people came from Syria to Germany in 2013, and in 2014, this number has more than doubled – but among these people there are many Christians. So what’s the point?
Most political observers are worried and puzzled. Stefan Locke in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine (January 13, 2015) thinks that Pegida is a phenomen typical only for Dresden, and he relates how politically divided its statist society has been for centuries. Other commentators, for example the political scientist Werner Patzelt from Dresden, believe that it is a broader Eastern German phenomenon, given the post-unification frustration of the unsuccessful. All these elements may indeed play a role. Undeniably, however, there does seem to exist a general nationalistic conservative trend in Germany, a sentiment to which the AfD, a new party leaning partly to the extreme right, caters explicitly. The AfD’s speakers Alexander Gauland and Frauke Petry were among the first to express their understanding and to warn that the concerns of the people demonstrating at Dresden should be “taken seriously” by the otherwise ignorant political establishment. The AfD benefits from the fact that the CDU, Germany’s traditional conservative party, has moved farther and farther to the left in order to shrink the SPD; both currently form the governing coalition. As a result of that shift, the former center right and right sides of the political spectrum are thus not taken care of anymore.
Even though the trend toward nationalistic conservatism and intolerance is an undeniable reality, the Pegida movement is by no means representative of the German people at large. One week ago, 100,000 people demonstrated against Pegida in several German cities, 30,000 alone in Leipzig, right next door to Dresden. And in the Facebook world, where it all started, traffic is now increasing dramatically for groups like “Offene Grenzen” (Open Borders), “Pegida Watch” or “Pegida Nö Danke” (Pegida nope thanks). And the platform “Nogida” has collected almost half a million signatures against Pegida. While fear increases, civil society is reacting, and the public debate is in full course.