A fast-growing movement protesting the place of Muslims and immigrants in Germany drew a record 17,500 people to the streets of Dresden on Monday night. The first weekly demonstration in October for the Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West, or PEGIDA, only drew a couple hundred people, but the far-right organization has rallied supporters at a rate that has alarmed German officials and revealed a surprisingly popular undercurrent of anti-foreign sentiment in the country.
“The politicians in Germany have lost touch with the people and that’s why they can’t comprehend what’s happening here,” 41-year-old PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann told the 15,000 person crowd who gathered to demonstrate last week.
Bachmann, who runs a public relations firm, launched PEGIDA as a way to protest plans to develop 14 new facilities in Dresden to house about 2,000 refugees. Germany will take in about 200,000 asylum seekers this year, a number that’s second only to the United States.
A Facebook page for PEGIDA now boasts more than 84,000 likes. For context, Der Speigel points out that the Saxony state chapter for the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has less than 700 likes.
While the country’s largest neo-Nazi march takes place annually in Dresden, a conservative enclave, the protests by PEGIDA seem to draw from a larger base of people, ranging from “problem fans” of the city’s soccer club to noted skinheads and self-described “hooligans.” In counter-protests, 6,000 marched against PEGIDA in Dresden, and at least 12,000 took to the streets to oppose the group in Munich, under the banner, “Make Space — Refugees are welcome.”
Police noted no major incidents of violence at the rallies, although politically-motivated violence runs rife in Germany, with nearly 2,500 violent crimes carried out by people on either end of the political spectrum last year, according to its Interior Ministry. Many of them occurred during rallies.
But the fact that the PEDIGA rallies in Dresden, despite their numbers, have been largely without incident has made them harder to quell.
“We cannot label 10,000 people as right-wing extremists. That creates more problems than it solves,” Saxony Interior Minister Markus Ulbig said. He went on to call many of them “middle-class citizens” and said, “You can’t toss all into the same neo-Nazi pot.”
“We’re not Nazis,” one protestor told Reuters. “We’re just peaceful citizens against the Islamization of Germany. We’re not against foreigners who come here to work. We’ve got nothing against the Turks or anyone else.”
But while many of the protesters have noted that they are not sympathetic to Nazi beliefs of German purity, many have no qualms shouting slogans like “We are the people!” — a slogan that was used by East Germans while protesting the Communist government that sealed them off from the West. Andreas Zick of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence Studies in northwest Germany told Der Spiegel that the rallying cry might now mean something closer to “We are the (ethnic) German people.”
“A radical, parallel society is taking shape here,” he said, adding that a number of previously separate groups and mini-groups are now on the verge of creating “a shared nationalist and chauvinist identity.”
That’s what has more moderate voices in Germany worried.
According to a survey conducted by Der Spiegel and the TNS Institute 34 percent of Germans believe that their country is enduring a process of “Islamization,” and that the government is not doing enough to address concerns about immigration and asylum seekers.
The fear that national identities are being lost to waves of immigrants is being stoked across Europe. The far right U.K. Independence Party won its first seat in Parliament earlier this year, and in France, Marine Le Pen of National Front might could even become president. Nationalistic parties are also on the rise in Denmark, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Serbia.