The Perils of Ignoring PEGIDA

The rise and fall of the PEGIDA movement in Germany was as quick as it was fleeting. The group, officially known as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, first appeared on the streets of Dresden in October 2014. Ignored at first, the group began to take local, national and then even international spectators by surprise as the numbers at its weekly Monday night protests swelled into the tens of thousands. As the group’s fame grew, sister protests appeared in other German cities, and even in some of Germany’s Scandinavian neighbours.

Photo courtesy of Încărcată de Blackwhiteupl, © 2015, some rights reserved
Photo courtesy of Încărcată de Blackwhiteupl, © 2015, some rights reserved

As the movement spread, so did the anger against it. Throughout December counter-protests began to pop up across Germany. While the original Dresden protests continue to grow in number, elsewhere in Germany anti-PEGIDA protesters began to outnumber the group they were protesting against. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, 35,000 people took to the streets against PEGIDA; 10,000 more than estimates place at PEGIDA marches.

Meanwhile the German political establishment’s reaction was swift and unequivocal. The main political parties across Germany quickly distanced themselves from the group. In her annual New Year’s speech, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to characterise PEGIDA participants as having ‘hatred in their hearts.’ Meanwhile politicians across the spectrum started putting in appearances at the anti-PEGIDA protests. In Cologne, the lights of the iconic Cathedral were turned off in protest against the PEGIDA-inspired protest happening in front of the cathedral. Volkswagen did the same thing with their plant in Dresden.

The media was no different. National and international press were quick to characterise the group as a far-right, xenophobic, nationalist party. In response, PEGIDA leadership created a policy of not talking to the press. They worried about being labelled neo-Nazis by a sensationalist media eager to make connections to Germany’s past.

The group’s concerns were eventually justified, although it turns out that they should have been less worried about the press calling them neo-Nazis and more worried about their members self-identifying.

On 21 January 2015 a picture depicting the founder and leader of the PEGIDA movement, Lutz Bachmann, emulating Hitler, with the caption ‘He’s Back,’ was discovered on Facebook. Within hours the picture was splashed over newspapers, tabloids and evening news programmes. Mr. Bachmann’s disgrace was the beginning of the end for the movement. It was the perfect moment for all those who had called out PEGIDA as being an anti-Muslim, xenophobic, neo-Nazi movement. Here was the proof, right on the front page of their morning newspaper.

Since Mr. Bachmann’s downfall, the movement has obviously struggled to recover. On 29 January the group’s leadership was split again, after five of the top leaders left to start a rival movement that would focus on instead on citizen-direct democracy.

The splintering of the group is an important sigh. It points to the fact that they are internal divisions with PEGIDA. While there is no denying the Mr. Bachmann and many of the participants in PEGIDA marches were motivated by racist and xenophobic ideology, it is unlikely that Dresden suddenly gave birth to 25,000 neo-Nazis in a three month period. Quick, simplistic characterisations by the press and politicians may serve to counter the movement in the short-term, but in the long-term they risk long-term damage to German society. By characterising PEGIDA’s participants as people ‘with hatred in their hearts’ and ‘hooligans’, mainstream political discourse in missing the larger socio-economic trends that motivate these people to take to the streets. This is not a claim that PEGIDA participants concerns about Islamization and immigration are not something to be concerned about – indeed the protests seem to be a classic case of scapegoating. But it is a claim that the German press and Bundestag would be wise to look into why some people feel so threatened and underrepresented in their own society.

Dresden at first glance seems like a strange place for anti-immigration protests to develop. The Free State of Saxony has been one of the last states to be affected by the new waves of migrants and asylum seekers in Germany. Demographically Dresden is not one of Germany’s more diverse cities. This suggests that the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment that catalysed PEGIDA protests has less to do with concrete experiences and more to do with a general perception of loss of agency and marginalization by people in the area.

Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall many in Germany’s current government consider the integration project to be complete and have turned their attention instead to Germany’s role in the larger EU project. Yet some discrepancies between the East and the West remain. In 2012 the states the used to make West Germany posted an average unemployment rate of 6 per cent, while the former GDR states posted a rate nearly double that, at 11.2 per cent. While Saxony overall has the highest birth rate among the German states, it has been experiencing a decline in population since 2000, largely as a result of brain drain to the West. As the West grows and gets richer, some citizens in Germany’s eastern states feel they are not experiencing the same progress.

Politicians and citizens across Germany are right to worry about the PEGIDA protests. Scapegoating minorities and religious group is a worrying sign anywhere. It is obviously a particularly sensitive issue in Germany. It is also important to note that this is not an ‘East vs. West’ issue – counter-PEGIDA protests occurred in Saxony and other former GDR states as well as in states in Western Germany.

PEGIDA is a minority movement but it should not just be written off as an outburst of neo-Nazis and racists. The capacity to gather 25,000 people in a march suggests that larger socioeconomic trends and perceptions of these trends must be taken into account. Anti-immigration groups across Europe, including Alternative for Germany, UKIP and the Front National in France, among many others, are a sign of the growing inequality and segregation between different socio-economic groups in Europe. However repellent these groups views may be, the solution for mainstream politics is not to marginalise or degrade them. Feeding into the participants’ sense of disenfranchisement and lack of representation in their own society will only make matters worse. Allowing these types of frustrated opposition groups into mainstream politics is the best chance of countering and debating their ideologies. Participation in coalition democracies forces hard-line parties to comprise and makes them accountable to public opinion. On the other hand, condemning and marginalising groups will reaffirm the suspicion among their supporters that they are being ignored by members of their own society. Pushed to the side, and with no other outlet for political action, these groups will only become more extreme.

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