Germany’s anti-immigrant PEGIDA isn’t a Vladimir Putin plot. It’s scarier.
Last week, when I attended my first rally in Dresden organized by PEGIDA, Germany’s mysterious “anti-Islamization” movement, I was reminded of the aggressive pro-Russian protests that tore apart eastern Ukraine a year ago. Thousands of demonstrators, who mostly refused to talk to the “lying press,” listened to fiery speeches railing against the country’s political class. Among the German flags present, I also spotted a few Russian ones, including a banner that was split diagonally, one half Russia’s tricolor, the other half Germany’s. A reporter and cameraman from the Gazprom-owned NTV channel were greeted with welcoming calls of “Vladimir! Vladimir!”
Based on a few shreds of evidence, it would have been easy enough to weave together a conspiracy theory that the Kremlin is behind the demonstrations that were initiated by a secretive organizing committee in October and swelled to a record 25,000 participants on Monday. After all, President Vladimir Putin served as a KGB agent in what was then an East German city in the 1980s (suspicious!) and one of PEGIDA’s key demands is an end to Germany’s “war-mongering” against Russia (bingo!). But accepting this kind of explanation would buy into the Kremlin’s own paranoia that mass protests can be bought with money — and isn’t supported by the facts.
Next, I briefly entertained the possibility that PEGIDA’s success was accidental, a joke by a group of friends in reaction to the turmoil in the world. For one, the name PEGIDA, which stands for Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident,” sounds like a parody of itself. Also, its main organizers — a former petty criminal, a provincial business consultant, and the head of a janitorial firm — hardly seem serious enough to dignify a condemnation from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who did exactly that in her New Year’s address.
Now, having interviewed PEGIDA leaders and supporters, I understand that the movement is not as sinister as a Russian plot but not quite as innocent as a prank gone viral. The organizers have been called “Pied Pipers,” and German journalists have chased down leads connecting individual PEGIDA activists with far-right groups. The problem, however, is that PEGIDA’s leaders don’t fit the caricature of neo-Nazi Neanderthals. What’s most striking about the movement is not the radicalism, but the ordinariness, of the people it attracts.
The Jan. 12 PEGIDA rally in Dresden was the biggest to date, coming less than a week after the Paris terrorist attack and a string of headlines about Islamist violence in the Middle East and Africa. At the same time, anti-PEGIDA demonstrations in other German cities brought out as many as 100,000 people, 20,000 in Munich alone. Two rival visions of modern Germany clashed: the liberal vision, embraced by the country’s elite, of a globalized, open society, and a conservative one, more assertive about national interests and German identity in a chaotic and dangerous world.
PEGIDA claims to have emerged from the center of German society, a silent majority that normally doesn’t protest but can’t stand by idly anymore. A study published by the Bertelsmann Foundation last week found that 57 percent of Germany’s non-Muslims regard Islam as a threat, and one in four Germans would support a ban on Muslim immigrants. Not surprisingly, a significant portion of German conservatives feels let down by Merkel, who has hung onto power by becoming a committed centrist. Last year, the right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, stormed out of nowhere to take seats in three state parliaments, including the Saxon legislature in Dresden.
Because PEGIDA is led by three nobodies, it has created a great deal of befuddlement among Germany’s elite. The speeches at rallies typically lambast the country’s immigration policy and the out-of-touch politicians who are responsible for it. But besides a Facebook page, which has more than 139,000 “likes” and counting, the organizers shy away from publicity. But a slick, 100-second video of the Jan. 12 demonstration indicates PEGIDA is starting to pay more attention to its image.
Lutz Bachmann, 41, PEGIDA’s creator, no longer speaks to the press after it became known that he has previous convictions for burglary and drug possession and once even jumped bail to become a fugitive in South Africa. (One of PEGIDA’s demands is “zero tolerance” for immigrants who have been convicted of a crime.) Bachmann, who had 110 Twitter followers at the beginning of the year, hasn’t tweeted since December, though his profile reveals some clues about his earlier life: warnings about traffic enforcement cameras, a fair amount of partying, and his recent marriage. In one Facebook post, marked with the “feeling proud” status, Bachmann writes that a Turkish friend was the best man at his wedding. When I reached Bachmann on the phone, he was garrulous and polite but directed all questions to Kathrin Oertel.
Oertel, 36, a business consultant and the mother of three, finally agreed to meet me in a hotel bar in Dresden’s historic center, which has been restored to its former splendor since German reunification in 1990. With her flowing blond hair and monochrome outfits, Oertel has become one of the main faces of PEGIDA. I asked her why she thought “Islamization” was a problem in Saxony, a state where less than 0.1 percent of the population is Muslim. “The Muslims are making it a problem,” she said. Oertel said she voluntarily sends her children to what she called an “integration school,” with pupils from around the world. Her complaint is that girls from Muslim families wear headscarves and don’t take part in swimming lessons: “The exceptions are always made for the Muslims, and for nobody else.”
René Jahn, 49, who runs a building maintenance company, is the third member of PEGIDA’s triumvirate. Unlike Oertel, an atheist, Jahn told me he was christened and faced harassment growing up in communist East Germany because he was a member of the non-state sanctioned Plowshares to Swords peace movement. Among the dozen members in PEGIDA’s organization team, less than half are members of a church, according to Jahn. “It doesn’t play a decisive role,” he said. More important is getting immigration legislation changed.
PEGIDA was a reaction to a number of protests in Dresden and other German cities in October, when backers of the outlawed Kurdish rebel group PKK demanded weapons for fighters fending off the Islamic State in northern Syria. Oertel brushed aside my objection that the PKK, originally a Marxist group, could hardly be called Islamist. “We don’t want them to carry out their quarrels on our streets,” she said. “They flee from their countries, hoping they’ll be better off here, but they bring the same situation into our country. This isn’t any of our business.”
Jahn said he had expected 100 people at their first PEGIDA rally on Oct. 20. Instead, 350 people showed up. PEGIDA wasn’t conceived as a one-time action, Jahn told me, and at subsequent protests, the numbers kept doubling. By Dec. 8, the group broke the 10,000 mark. The organizers make it a point to include foreigners — an angry Dutchman, an angry Frenchman — among the speakers, and a Mozambican named Hamilton George, who came to East Germany in the late 1980s, walks demonstratively in the front line when PEGIDA marches through Dresden.
Although PEGIDA offshoots have formed across Germany, the movement has failed to gain a similar following in other cities. What makes Dresden unique is its geography and political culture. During communist times, the area around the city was known as “the valley of the clueless” because West German TV signals couldn’t reach it. On the other hand, Dresden was one of the cities where peaceful protesters went out on the street in 1989, helping to bring down the communist regime in the so-called Montagsdemonstrationen — Monday demonstrations.
Many civil rights activists from that time are dismayed that PEGIDA also schedules its rallies on Monday evenings and uses the same rallying cry of Wir sind das Volk (“We are the people.”) But Jahn, who said he participated in the demonstrations 25 years ago, draws a direct line between the anti-establishment spirit then and now. “The people feel like they’ve been passed by,” he said. “There’s no contact to the citizens. That’s the way things were done in East Germany, too.”
Having undergone the transition from communism, eastern Germans are more skeptical about the country’s political order than western Germans, who take it for granted. The PEGIDA organizers are all disillusioned supporters of the country’s big center-right parties, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, Oertel said. Now many of them are voting for the upstart AfD, which held talks with PEGIDA last week.
“It’s silly to talk about cooperation with other parties. We see ourselves as a citizen movement. We only want to address the concerns of the people and convey them to politicians,” Jahn said. “We’re not megalomaniacs. It’s clear we won’t sit down at one table with Merkel.”
The rallies won’t continue indefinitely but will come to an end once politicians take their concerns about immigration seriously, Jahn said.
In advance of Monday’s protest, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said PEGIDA supporters were “hypocrites” for attacking the media one day and mourning the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists the next. Horst Seehofer, head of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, Germany’s most conservative mainstream party, flatly told PEGIDA to take a break. Merkel, while hosting the Turkish prime minister in Berlin, said that Islam was an integral part of German society.
Merkel is only confirming what PEGIDA supporters were already afraid of. Those fears may be irrational and unfounded, but they still exist. That is the nature of all phobias.
PHOTO (1): Participants hold a banner during a demonstration called by PEGIDA, in Dresden, Germany, Dec. 22, 2014. The text reads: “No more lies to us anymore! We are the people!” REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
PHOTO (2): Lutz Bachmann (R) and Kathrin Oertel, leaders of anti-immigration group PEGIDA, are pictured during a Reuters interview in Dresden, Germany, Jan. 12, 2015. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
PHOTO (3): A member of BAERGIDA, Berlin’s section of anti-immigration movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) demonstrates in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Jan. 12, 2015. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke