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In the space of just a few months, a populist, anti-immigration protest movement—supported by a puzzling mix of radicals and average citizens, vague in its goals, and hard to place in established political categories—has sprung up in Germany. What exactly is PEGIDA—the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West”? Where did the movement come from, what has fueled its success, and what does the movement’s emergence mean in the broader European context?
PEGIDA began when a Dresden man, Lutz Bachmann, witnessed street tussles between supporters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and ISIS sympathizers. Outraged, he took to Facebook to rally the people of Dresden against what he saw as a creeping “Islamization of the West.” Within weeks, Bachmann’s marches had swelled from a few hundred participants to tens of thousands and had inspired imitators in other major German cities, including Leipzig, Cologne, and Berlin, and even abroad. The people at Dresden’s PEGIDA rallies criticize Germany’s immigration and asylum policies and decry “religious fanaticism” and the supposed “foreignization” of the country. They rail against the media and against a political caste that they see as indifferent to the interests and will of average citizens. Their core demands include the revamping of Germany’s asylum and immigration policies, a no-tolerance policy towards immigrants with criminal records, and the introduction of direct democracy through national referenda.
The movement’s organizers constantly deny being xenophobic right-wing radicals and say they welcome sympathizers from any background. By using slogans like Wir sind das Volk—“We are the People”—closely associated with German reunification, by holding their marches on Mondays to recall the famous Montagsdemonstrationen that helped bring down the communist German Democratic Republic, and by invoking the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris as “evidence for their raison d’être,” PEGIDA’s leadership has attempted to tie their cause to powerfully symbolic events that rouse great emotion in Germany and in Europe. Their proudest claim is to have brought controversial issues, long-hushed up by an untrustworthy and biased Lügenpresse (“lying press”) to open discussion.
The PEGIDA marches have ignited a raging debate that has gone far beyond the topic of the alleged “Islamization of the West” and has touched on German national identity, the lingering East-West divide in Germany, and relations with Russia. Seeking to show that the government takes citizens’ concerns seriously, Interior Minister Sigmar Gabriel attended one of PEGIDA’s meetings in Dresden, explaining that public discussion is vital to a democratic society. Still, the overall public and media perception of PEGIDA is that it is a xenophobic and racist movement—a perception strongly reinforced by the emergence of photos of Lutz Bachmann posing as Adolf Hitler (supposedly inspired by a popular satirical novel) and of online comments in which he called asylum-seekers “scumbags” and “trash.” The movement’s leadership has seen rapid turnover as Bachmann and his lieutenant Kathrin Oertel have resigned in quick succession. Government and Church officials across Germany have condemned the PEGIDA message, and counter-PEGIDA protests have consistently outnumbered the originals, often by overwhelming margins. Moreover, PEGIDA has flailed in its attempts to work out a consistent platform, and has had trouble dissociating itself from its more extreme offshoots, like Leipzig’s LEGIDA. Critics point out that Saxony, and Eastern Germany in general, has a tiny Muslim population, especially compared to Western Germany, and records extremely low levels of church attendance. As Christian Ehring, a TV host, put it in an oft-quoted quip, “they defend religious values that they themselves don’t believe in, against people who don’t even exist in their area, reported on by media whom they hold to be liars.”
The movement also incorporates an ill-defined call for a reevaluation of Germany’s place in Europe and the world. Protestors have called for Germany to move beyond its preoccupation with its war guilt and to become proud of its national identity again. In one of his speeches, Bachmann called for an end to “warmongering against Russia” and for the repatriation of national powers from Brussels. In the city of Erfurt, a small imitator group recently rallied to protest the “Americanization” of the West. Many have pointed out an affinity between PEGIDA and the new Euroskeptic political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). AfD is a party whose original purpose was to oppose the Euro currency but which has increasingly acquired a populistright-wing identity and has to some degree taken over the nationalist profile of the Free Democratic Party, a free-market liberal party that has seen its support much reduced in the last five years.
To learn more about PEGIDA’s supporters and its place in the broader European political context, we spoke to Professor Hans Vorländer of the Technical University of Dresden, whose recent study on the PEGIDA movement revealed that a majority of its supporters are motivated not by fear of Islamization, but by a general feeling of distrust and hostility towards the government, media, and national elites in general.
PaprikaPolitik: Professor Vorländer, your study shows that many people who took part in the PEGIDA demonstrations were actually not motivated by the “Islamization of the West.” Are the demonstrators largely heterogeneous, or can they claim a broadly identifiable ideology?
Professor Hans Vorländer: No, they have no really identifiable ideology; we’re dealing with different groups. There are, one must say, neo-Nazi groups; there are also hooligans from the football scene. But the great majority—this is what our study showed—are citizens with a variety of motives. Certainly, about a quarter of them spoke about Islam and Islamization and named those as their motivation, but the great majority had, above all, a feeling of deep discontent with politics. They were frustrated citizens, and articulated this at the demonstrations.
PP: So although their ideas are strongly held, they are not very well developed?
HV: No, they have no really viable unified ideas; they are above all against something: against the media, against established politics. And against that they set, in their words, the voice of the people—but without necessarily introducing their demands into a dialogue. They originally had nineteen different points, six of which they consistently demanded, but at the same time they were always limited in their ability to actually establish a dialog for the implementation of these demands. This may have changed in the last one or two weeks, since the PEGIDA movement has split between its more radical and more moderate members, so at the moment it’s no longer possible to reliably predict how it will proceed.
PP: The demonstrators appear to have a certain idea of the “people” and the “nation” and are unhappy with elites who do a bad job representing the people. Would you say that they have a coherent conception of the “nation,” and, if so, is this conception basically traditional, or is it something new?
HV: To be perfectly clear, they talk less about the “nation”—rather, they talk about politics, about their unhappiness, and about the fact that they have no influence over politics. They demand direct democracy, but by this they understand above all that the people should be heard with no intermediation at all, whatever the corresponding procedures may be. There have been no statements at all about the nation itself. That could be interpreted to mean that they are conservative, but one cannot absolutely say—our survey doesn’t permit us to—that they are reactionary nationalists. That just can’t be said.
PP: We have seen PEGIDA demonstrations in different cities and also in other countries, including Austria and Denmark. Do you think that PEGIDA is uniquely German, or is it the example of a more widespread phenomenon?
HV: I think we need to very clearly make the following distinction: PEGIDA has been a very successful street movement, first and foremost, in Dresden—and now the PEGIDA movement here has splintered. What has gone on in other cities under similar names has to be viewed differently, individually and specifically in each case. The people there are different, to an extent. For example, in Leipzig and in other cities they have included stronger neo-Nazi groupings, more radical groupings. In this sense one can’t speak about a unified PEGIDA movement. Our observations don’t permit that.
What on the other hand certainly must be said is that right-wing populist and extreme right movements and parties, are spreading across Europe. Marine Le Pen’s Front National, or movements in the Netherlands, in the Scandinavian countries, Italy, and certain countries in Central Europe, suggest that the potential for right-wing populism in Europe is relatively great and is searching for ways to organize itself.
PP: In the demonstrations, we have seen posters supporting Vladimir Putin. Lutz Bachmann also advocated for an end to what he called “warmongering against Russia.” In your study, did you notice foreign policy ideas?
HV: In the statements and stated motives of the participants in the demonstrations, we certainly saw criticism of foreign policy, criticism of so-called warmongering against Russia. We did hear that, but that was one motive among many. That’s the mystery of PEGIDA in Dresden—people gathered for many different reasons, and what united them was a general unhappiness with politics, a protest against established politics, and—stronger at the beginning than at the end—a front against alleged Islamization. That formed, so to speak, the lowest common denominator, but that cloaked rather different motivations, including a rejection of policies regarding Putin.
PP: Over the last 20 years, we have often heard discussions about whether or not Germany can once again be a “normal country.” In these demonstrations we heard calls for recuperation of national pride and of a certain conception of the “people.” Can PEGIDA be viewed as a sign of normality?
HV: I think there can be no doubt that over the last twenty years in Germany a position of openness to the world, tolerance, and relaxed patriotism has become widespread. One must also keep in mind that PEGIDA is a tiny minority of citizens, while citizens who describe themselves as open to the world and tolerant have always remained a majority—that is also true in Dresden, with the counter-protests.
On the other hand, it also reflects a normalization of the fact that there are forces stirring to the right of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) in Germany, in the realm of right-wing populism—from the Alternative für Deutschland, which is critical of Europe and the Euro, all the way to PEGIDA. But the field is not really organized yet, in contrast to the situation in other European countries.
[Interview translated from the German by Joshua Dill]
–Joshua Dill is a Pannonius Fellow of the Common Sense Society. He holds a degree in German and European Studies from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.