Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

German anti-Islam movement hopes for big showing at Leipzig rally

In aftermath of Paris attacks, far-right anti-immigration group to hold pivotal gathering on Monday in eastern city

On Monday night, anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people will gather in a parking lot outside Leipzig’s Red Bull soccer arena and set out on what organizers are calling an “evening stroll” through the city’s Waldstrasse Quarter.

Calling themselves LEGIDA, in German short for Leipzig Against the Islamicization of the West, they are hoping to bring to Leipzig the success of the anti-immigrant protests that began in Dresden in October and have roiled German politics in recent weeks.

The march — and its reception in Leipzig, an hour’s drive from Dresden in eastern Germany — marks a potential pivot point for the anti-immigrant protests. In Dresden, the weekly PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes) rallies have grown to an estimated 18,000 people, far outnumbering the 4,000 or 5,000 counterprotesters who gather to shout them down each week.

The movement’s resonance and longevity has taken Germany’s political establishment by surprise and catapulted issues like asylum policy to the forefront of national debate. But it has remained a local phenomenon, with PEGIDA-inspired rallies outside Dresden drawing a few hundred people at most. “They have to grow in other cities to get political credibility,” said Oliver Decker, head of the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Democracy at the University of Leipzig.

The Wednesday attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has only added fuel to the fire. “Today Paris, tomorrow Berlin?” LEGIDA organizer Joerg Hoyer asked in a post on the organization’s website Wednesday. “How long will it take politicians to notice that we’re demonstrating for a reason?”

‘Today Paris, tomorrow Berlin? How long will it take politicians to notice that we’re demonstrating for a reason?’

Joerg Hoyer

LEGIDA organizer

Islam, though, is only one of the complaints PEGIDA and its imitators around Germany, including LEGIDA, have incorporated into their pitch. According to Hoyer’s statement, LEGIDA opposes everything from what it calls the “spread of fundamentalist Islam,” “growing numbers of asylum seekers from Africa” and “U.S. warmongering” to “Germany’s low birth rate.”

Buried deeper in the small print of the group’s platform are gripes familiar from Germany’s extreme right, like what LEGIDA calls the “cult of guilt” over World War II. The group exhorts Germany to turn away from multiculturalism and embrace and strengthen national culture — rhetoric that many see as drawn straight from the neo-Nazi scene.

The German political class has come out strongly against the PEGIDA demonstrations, almost across the political spectrum. In her New Year’s address to the nation, Chancellor Angela Merkel counseled the nation not to “follow people who organize these rallies, for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice and even hate.” Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called for an “uprising of the decent.”

In Dresden yesterday, more than 35,000 people gathered for an anti-Pegida demonstration in front of the city’s Frauenkirche. “I did not come to this rally because I am against those who go to PEGIDA’s events, but because I am not afraid of people who have a different skin color, manners and customs,” Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz told the crowd, according to press reports.

In Leipzig, locals worry that if LEGIDA manages to draw significant crowds, it could do lasting damage. “You’ve seen in Dresden how quickly a whole city’s reputation can be stained by a movement like this,” says Gesine Grande, a Leipzig native and president of the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences.

Thus far, PEGIDA-like demonstrations have fizzled outside Dresden. Last week’s rally in Berlin drew 300 people and more than 5,000 counterprotesters. Similar scenes played out in Cologne, Münster, Stuttgart, Hamburg and Munich.

But all those cities, with the partial exception of Berlin, were once part of West Germany, where immigration has a history going back more than half a century and Muslims represent a sizable minority in many large cities. Tomorrow’s demonstration in Leipzig will be in the former East German state of Saxony, where PEGIDA has found its strongest support. Muslims make up a tiny fraction of the population in that area, and yet studies show German anti-Islam sentiment there is at its highest.

In a study released Thursday, researchers at the Bertelsmann Foundation asked Germans if they saw Islam as a threat. In the former West Germany, 55 percent said "yes"; in Saxony, the figure was 78 percent.

“We saw that where no Muslims lived, the perception that they were a threat was particularly high,” said Yasemin El-Menoaur, an Islamic-issues analyst at Bertelsmann, who added that German media reporting about Islam often focused on violent incidents. “In places where there’s no contact with Muslims, there’s no corrective, and Islam becomes something for people to project their fears onto.”

What happens in Leipzig, Saxony’s largest city, could send a strong signal. “Everyone’s waiting to see what’s going to happen in Leipzig. Are they as dumb as those fools in Dresden?” said Solveig Prass, a Leipzig social worker who specializes in religious extremism and the extreme right. “That’s why we need to show LEGIDA isn’t Leipzig.”

Perhaps most important, Leipzig isn’t Dresden. “Even though there aren’t that many kilometers between Dresden and Leipzig, there are a lot of differences,” said Ulf Schirmer, the Leipzig Opera’s general music director. “Even in the GDR [the former East Germany], Leipzig has always been a more open, worldly city.”

In Leipzig’s case, that’s more than tourism office boosterism. Leipzig has been one of Europe’s trading centers since 1185, when the city began holding regular trade fairs. The tradition continued even under communist rule, with visitors from around the Soviet Bloc and beyond meeting there twice a year during the Cold War.

After 1989, Leipzig emerged as one of East Germany’s rare success stories. Porsche and BMW built factories there in the 1990s. Amazon opened a massive shipping and warehouse facility on the outskirts of the city in 2006, and shipping company DHL invested $355 million to build its European hub next to the city’s newly renovated airport. Among its more than 500,000 people, the unemployment rate is lower than Berlin’s.

And locals say the city has a tradition of civil society coming together to oppose the extreme right that doesn’t exist elsewhere in Saxony. “Unlike Dresden, Leipzig is really well prepared for this,” said Juliane Nagel, a Left Part politician and co-organizer of the Leipzig Nimmt Platz counterdemonstration.

‘We saw that where no Muslims lived, the perception that they were a threat was particularly high. In places where there’s no contact with Muslims, there’s no corrective, and Islam becomes something for people to project their fears onto.’

Yasemin El-Menoaur

analyst, Bertelsmann Foundation

The city’s planning office denied the LEGIDA group permission to gather in the city center, instead shunting them to the parking lot of the Red Bull soccer arena almost a mile away. There are at least four counterprotests planned, and tens of thousands of people are expected to turn out on the streets and in the city’s churches.

Grass-roots groups hope to amass enough people to physically block LEGIDA’s planned route from there through the city’s historic Waldstrasse Quarter, where apartment buildings with ornate 19th century facades line cobbled streets a short walk from the banks of the Elster River.

Along the planned route, the neighborhood association is organizing residents to turn off their lights and blast Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the open windows. Some of the city’s theaters are suspending rehearsals to allow people to attend counterprotests. The heads of the city’s universities signed a joint declaration of support for the counterdemonstrations. On the city’s main square, the opera house is hanging banners promoting tolerance, diversity and openness.

But experts say even a poor showing in Leipzig tomorrow won’t be the end of PEGIDA’s run. Many in eastern Germany remain open to PEGIDA-style populism. After 1989, “people were promised blooming landscapes, and they got high unemployment and closed factories,” says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist in Berlin. “There have been a lot of disappointments, a lot more in the east than in the west.”

The countryside outside the city hasn’t shared in Leipzig’s boom, and many small towns have emptied out as people move to Leipzig or cities in western Germany. Neo-Nazi and far-right activity in the region is high, and in election years, posters for the far-right National Democratic Party are prominent and common.

Matthias Berger is the mayor of Grimma, a struggling town of 28,000 people just southeast of Leipzig that has been hit by depopulation and has been gutted by two severe floods in the last decade. Berger, an independent, will be in Leipzig on Monday, standing against the LEGIDA demonstrators. “What’s happening in Leipzig is dangerous for Saxony’s reputation,” he said. “It’s important to show that we’re for a pluralistic, liberal Germany.”

But he said his small-town constituents have a perspective different from the counterprotesters’ in Leipzig, and he worries that the condemnations from national politicians and counterprotesters alike are making dialogue — and an eventual solution — more difficult.

“To stick anyone who criticizes what’s going on in German politics, asylum policy included, in the right corner is a problem,” said Berger. “There’s a deep unhappiness out there right now, and it’s all being presented as right wing or xenophobic. That’s wrong. It goes a lot deeper than that, and we need to start listening and talking to each other.”

No matter how things go tomorrow, experts say the PEGIDA movement has staying power. Already, mainstream conservative political parties are beginning to openly court PEGIDA followers, and German politicians will soon have to take uncomfortable stands on issues like asylum policy and immigration.

That, some experts say, is success of a sort for the movement, no matter how many people set out from Leipzig’s riverfront tomorrow evening. “After all, when a movement doesn’t have any concrete goals, it’s hard to say it’s failed,” the University of Leipzig’s Decker said.

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