The World

Xenophobia Is Going Mainstream in Germany

PEGIDA’s January 5 rally in Dresden.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

For the past several weeks, the East German city of Dresden has been the site of weekly demonstrations organized by a recently formed group called PEGIDA, the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Yesterday’s rally was the largest yet, drawing 18,000 people. 

PEGIDA’s presence is significant enough that it drew a denunciation from Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as from dozens of politicians and celebrities who published a petition in the country’s most popular tabloid, Bild, criticizing the rallies. PEGIDA’s supporters might be a minority, but they’re clearly effective at driving the conversation.

Why has this movement, founded by a previously unknown former publicity agent with several burglary convictions named Lutz Bachmann, caught on? Far-right anti-immigrant groups have long been a factor in German politics, despite laws preventing Nazi imagery or incitement of “hatred against segments of the population.” Authorities have been unsuccessful in attempts to ban the extremist NPD party, often described as a neo-Nazi organization, but despite some electoral successes, the group has been pretty adept at sabotaging itself.  

So far, PEGIDA has been smarter. They are taking the same ideas that traditionally were only voiced by scary guys with shaved heads and armbands—the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments—and packaging them in a way that normal middle-class Germans can embrace.  PEGIDA has banned neo-Nazi symbols at its rallies and declared itself non-xenophobic and against “preachers of hate, regardless of what religion.” It’s platform supports the right to “sexual self-determination,” and a speaker at one rally in December even quoted Martin Luther King. While a number of the demonstrators have been members of the NPD or far-right football hooligan groups, press accounts describe most of the marchers as ordinary citizens alarmed by what they see as an uncontrolled foreign influx. The movement has appropriated the chant “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people”), a rallying cry of the opposition movement under East German Communism, much to the irritation of the East German-raised Merkel. The protests have also attracted those angry about seemingly unrelated causes ranging from factory farming to NATO’s “aggression” toward Russia.

The Guardian’s Kate Connolly has noted that PEGIDA members have a habit of beginning their sentences with variants of “I’m not racist, but…” Though it’s been packaged for the widest appeal, much of the group’s rhetoric, from inveighing “cultural foreign domination of our country” to the “protection of Judeo-Christian culture” isn’t all that different from other far-right groups. And its got a captive audience.

Germany has one of the most liberal asylum policies in Europe and last year, around 200,000 refugees entered the country, many fleeing the war in Syria. The Syrian situation has prompted some legitimate security concerns in Germany, due to both the potential for pro-ISIS attacks like those seen recently in Canada and Australia, and the recent clashes between Kurds and ultrareligious Salafist groups in several German cities. All this has left the public primed for the emergence of a phenomenon like PEGIDA.

But even after successive waves of immigration from Muslim countries, Turkey in particular, dating back half a century, only 1.9 percent of Germans self-identified as Muslims in the 2013 census. The real number is thought to be higher than that—respondents aren’t required to state a religion—but it’s still a small minority and only a tiny fraction of Germany’s Muslims are religious extremists. In Dresden, the epicenter of the PEGIDA movement, Muslims are only .1 percent of the population. Foreigners as a whole are only 2.8 percent, compared to 14 percent in Berlin. Conditions are not exactly ripe for the emergence of a Dresden caliphate.

The German media has mocked the protesters’ chants of “potatoes not doner kebabs” and their fears that their daughters will soon be required to wear headscarves, but the marches clearly represent more than just an extremist fringe. One recent poll found that 34 percent of Germans share the view that Germany is becoming increasingly Islamicized and another found that one in eight people would join a PEGIDA march if it took place near their home. (Judging by the attendance numbers in offshoot rallies yesterday, which were not as strong in Berlin and Cologne as they were at the main demonstration in Dresden, a lot of these people weren’t quite willing to walk the walk.)

PEGIDA’s opponents so far have been trying to dismiss it as part and parcel of a movement that includes people who wave swastikas and try to burn down mosques. “They are clearly Nazis,” one observer in Dresden commented to the New York Times. But to a lot of Germans, that’s not so clear.  PEGIDA has appeal beyond the traditional far-right fringe, and it would be a mistake for German leaders and the media to simply dismiss it.