DRESDEN, Germany — On Monday night a strong, chilly wind whipped the German flags floating above the crowd gathered on Dresden’s Theaterplatz, overlooking the Elbe River.
Hemmed in by dozens of police vans, 17,000 demonstrators stood in the December cold. For an hour and a half, they listened to speeches denouncing Germany’s political class and media institutions, cheered anti-immigrant rhetoric, sang Christmas carols and chanted slogans that rang off the 19th century facade of Dresden’s opera house.
The demonstration was the 10th in as many weeks and the largest to date. Loosely organized under the name PEGIDA, the rallies have shaken Germany’s image of itself as an open, tolerant country.
PEGIDA, Patriotische Europäer gegen eine Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West), has steadily grown from a Facebook page and a march of a few dozen people in late October into weekly demonstrations attracting thousands of people and the rapt, uncomfortable attention of German politicians and the media.
PEGIDA protesters say they’re worried Germany’s doors are too open. Last year the country had more refugee applications than any other country in the world. As 2014 draws to a close, German officials say they expect over 200,000 asylum claims, nearly twice 2013’s tally of 127,000. In the last four years, most of Germany’s refugees have come from Syria and Iraq.
“Germany’s becoming the world’s welfare office,” said Detlev, a 36-year-old German living in Switzerland who traveled to Dresden for the demonstration and declined to give his last name. “That has to change.”
Nearby, a middle-aged man holding a blue-and-white checked Bavarian flag on a long pole said he journeyed from Regensburg, more than 200 miles away, to express his dissatisfaction. “No one’s controlling where these people are coming from,” he said, shaking his head when asked for his name. “I’m just here to show we’re not OK with what’s going on.”
‘Germany’s becoming the world’s welfare office. That has to change.’
Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony. Once known as “Florence on the Elbe” for its magnificent architecture and long history of fine art and culture, it was largely destroyed by Allied firebombing in the last months of World War II. The city has nurtured a sense of itself as one of history’s victims ever since.
During the communist era, Dresden’s hilly geography meant it was the only part of East Germany unable to tune into West German TV. Still sometimes derided by other Germans as the “Valley of the Clueless,” Dresden has been a hotbed of neo-Nazi activity ever since the end of communism in 1989. The February anniversary of the bombing often attracts neo-Nazi demonstrators to the city. And the far-right National Democratic Party has had enough electoral success to send representatives to the Saxon parliament on multiple occasions.
Yet the vehemence of the current anti-immigrant rhetoric has come as a surprise, especially since Saxony’s immigrant population is small compared with those of other parts of Germany. At just over 100,000, immigrants make up an estimated 2.8 percent of the state’s 4 million residents, compared with more than 14 percent in big cities like Berlin and Hamburg. Reportedly, just 0.1 percent are Muslims.
Local activists say that may be exactly why the demonstrations have managed to attract so many people so fast. “PEGIDA has hit a nerve, maybe because we don’t actually have so many foreigners here,” said Eric Hattke, a spokesman for the group Dresden fuer Alle (Dresden for All), which helped organize a counterprotest of some 5,000 people on the other side of the police cordon. “What you don’t know or aren’t familiar with is easier to fear.”
PEGIDA-inspired demonstrations in western German cities like Cologne and Dusseldorf, with much larger immigrant populations, have struggled to attract anywhere near the numbers seen weekly in Dresden.
Though Dresden is no stranger to far-right rallies, locals and experts say PEGIDA is something different. “It’s more of a cross-section, not a clear-cut right-wing extremist event,” said Michael Minkenberg, a political scientist at Viadrina University in Frankfurt an der Oder, as he surveyed the crowd. “I’m surprised at how many women and older people there are here.”
Local observers, too, have been shocked by the movement’s rapid success. “The repetition and regularity are unusual,” said Kulturbüro Sachsen’s Danilo Starosta, a Dresdener who has worked with the city’s immigrant community for decades. “In the last 20 years, I haven’t seen anything with such frequency or fast growth.”
‘It’s more of a cross-section, not a clear-cut right-wing extremist event. I’m surprised at how many women and older people there are here.’
political scientist, Viadrina University
PEGIDA organizers have used social media to get the word out. The PEGIDA Facebook page had 85,000 likes the day after the rally, twice as many as two weeks before. Organizers manage the movement’s image carefully, hoping to recruit people who might otherwise be scared off by any association with the term “neo-Nazi.”
The demonstrations are promoted via Facebook with a knowing wink: “Join us for an evening stroll through the Christmas Market” or “Come sing Christmas carols with us on Theaterplatz.” The group’s logo prominently features a stick figure throwing a wide range of well-known extremist symbols — from a swastika to the flag used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — into a trashcan.
Experts say protesters are often new to politics. At the rally, some on the square complained of feeling ignored by Germany’s elite and of being dismissed as neo-Nazis for criticizing Germany’s asylum policies.
“A lot of people who are showing up aren’t part of any political constellation,” said David Begrich, an expert on the far right at the organization Miteinander e.V in Magdeburg. “They don’t feel represented by traditional institutions or parties.”
“I’m unhappy with the government. Politicians think we’re all dumb,” said Heinz Kuroda, an affable PEGIDA demonstrator sporting a wool cap and trim beard. “I want a democracy like Switzerland’s, where I can vote on everything.”
The Monday rallies have been widely condemned by German politicians. In mid-December, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Germans not to let themselves be “exploited” by far-right populism. “There’s no place for incitement and lies about people who come to us from other countries,” she said. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas called the demonstrations a “disgrace for Germany.”
The German Central Council of Jews, which has struggled to deal with a rising anti-Semitic trend in recent months, labeled PEGIDA’s anti-Islam demonstrations as “immensely dangerous.” Last week the council’s president, Josef Schuster, said, “Here neo-Nazis, parties from the far-right and citizens who think that they can finally let out their racism and xenophobia are all mixed together.”
But on the square in front of the opera house, the harsh words only served to confirm the notion that elites were ignoring ordinary people’s concerns. “They say everyone here is a Nazi, and that’s just not true,” said Detlev. “They just want to stick us in the right corner and forget us.”
Surveys show that while racism and anti-Islamic sentiment have declined in Germany recently, unhappiness with German asylum policy is on the rise. A study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation released in November showed 44 percent of Germans were biased against asylum seekers. In the former East Germany, that number was more than 50 percent. (The only group more Germans dislike, the survey showed, was the long-term unemployed.)
Local immigration activists say the political establishment’s reluctance to talk about asylum policy openly has contributed to the movement’s remarkable success. “It’s been clear for years that the numbers of asylum seekers was growing and was going to keep growing, but no one wanted to deal with it,” says Jakob Gilles, a member of Dresden Nazifrei and a co-organizer of the counterprotest. “Now people out there feel mega-screwed.”
‘Neo-Nazis, parties from the far right and citizens who think that they can finally let out their racism and xenophobia are all mixed together.’
president, German Central Council of Jews
At the PEGIDA protest, the line between asylum seekers and other immigrants — Muslim or not — seemed to blur as the rally went on. “We’re not against refugees,” one speaker asserted from the stage. “We’re against economic refugees. We’ve got nothing against people from Syria. It’s people from Tunisia and Serbia we don’t want.”
As the rally got underway, anger at the media bubbled to the top. Chants of “Luegenpresse” (lying press) were full-throated and frequent, and speakers called out the German media and reporters by name for what they claimed was misrepresentation and slander. TV crews trying to record at the front of the crowd were jeered and shoved.
Unsurprisingly, many in the crowd refused interviews. “It’s not personal,” said a lean young man with close-cropped hair and a white hooded jacket, carrying a Berlin flag on a long pole. “You just have to understand that in Berlin the press is always turning things around on us.”
Protesters also chanted slogans coined at democracy protests in 1989. Even the day of the week — PEGIDA rallies every Monday — recall the Monday demonstrations, which began in nearby Leipzig and eventually brought the GDR to its knees. Echoing across Dresden’s Theaterplatz, the 1989 democracy movement’s “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people) cry took on a different cast. “The Monday demonstrations were about reclaiming power from the regime,” Minkenberg said. “Here they’ve used the tradition of the Monday demonstrations and turned it toward something else.”
The movement’s rapid growth has Dresden’s immigrant community on edge. “The people I work with see it as a direct threat,” says Starosta. “When I see 15,000 white people on the street, with no political party behind them, I start to fear racism and even physical violence. People are terrified and starting to ask if it’s time to leave Saxony.”
On Monday the rally wrapped up with a halting rendition of the traditional German carol “Oh, du fröhliche” [Oh, You Joyful] and a round of the national anthem. Demonstrators poured out of the square in the direction of Dresden’s historic center. The next rally is scheduled for Jan. 5, after a pause for the holidays.
The demonstrators chanted, “Wir kommen wieder” (We’ll be back).