DRESDEN, Germany – The terrorist attacks in Paris have thrown Europe’s refugee policies into turmoil. Nowhere is that more evident than in Germany, the country that won international praise this summer when it promised to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war in the Middle East. Now, there is a growing backlash against the German government.
The backlash is being led by a new right wing that is drawing supporters all the way from neo-Nazis to everyday Germans afraid that the massive influx of refugees will forever change their nation.
Many PEGIDA supporters claim that refugees coming to Germany aren't fleeing from war, but are coming to exploit the German welfare system. PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann said as much in a post on social media, adding that refugees are “animals.” (He is currently under investigation for incitement as a result.)
The sign reads: "Stop asylum fraudsters/cheaters. One refugee is one too many. Go home! Not welcome! Deport!”
When a group of friends around Bachmann organized the first rally against “the Islamisation of Europe,” they say they didn't expect more than 150 people to join. Since then, their expectations have been exceeded. Now, thousands gather to listen to speeches in Theaterplatz before marching into town. The members include disgruntled, conservative, middle-class voters, unemployed workers and die-hard skinheads. For the first anniversary of PEGIDA, the number of participants peaked at 25,000 people, but the average crowd is around 10,000 a week.
Some analysts say that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to open Germany's doors to refugees from Syria – and posing for a selfie with a refugee – caused the recent influx. In January, Merkel said that Islam “belongs to Germany,” a statement that PEGIDA followers despise.
The sign reads: "Mother of Multiculturalism. Merkel's migration policies.”
Conspiracy theories about “The New World Order” and American world domination are ripe among PEGIDA followers. They support Russian President Vladimir Putin for standing up against alleged U.S. imperialism. Support for Putin is seen in Russian flags carried by supporters.
The organizers held a moment of silence at the beginning of the demonstration to commemorate the victims of the Paris attacks. Many PEGIDA members fear that migrants can bring the same insecurity to Germany. The sign reads: “Islamic flooding of Germany is deadly/lethal.”
The black, red and gold flag is known as the “Wirmer” or “Stauffenberg.” Had Claus von Stauffenberg’s conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler succeeded, this, allegedly, was the flag that would have been introduced. PEGIDA supporters carry it as a protest against what many in the movement see as the illegitimacy of the German government.
Joachim Schneider is a 62-year-old unemployed IT engineer, who has been out of work for almost 10 years. He joined PEGIDA last November, one month after it started. Since then, he’s been going to the rallies every week. He disagrees with the extremist views of the movement’s leaders, but felt obligated to join because he feels that none of the other political parties can protect him from Islam.
In October 2015, a neo-Nazi attacked Henriette Reker, a candidate for the mayor seat in the city of Cologne, with a knife. Before running for office, Reker, who would go on to become Cologne’s first female mayor, had been organizing housing for refugees “PEGIDA sows the hatred that breeds violence,” said Heiko Maas, Germany’s minister of justice, in October. In the first 10 months of 2015, there were 576 crimes against refugee shelters across Germany, almost three times more than all of last year.
Compared to the rest of Germany, the numbers of counter protestors in Dresden pales against the number of PEGIDA followers. Nevertheless, they try to disturb the anti-Islam rallies with chants and blockades, if numbers permit. At the one-year anniversary, neo-Nazi hooligans swarmed through the city center, hunting counter protestors and immigrants alike.
The map offers insight into where the demonstrations against refugees and shelters are taking place throughout Germany. The highest numbers are to be found in the east of the country, comprised of the states of the former East Germany.
Raphael Thelen contributed to this report.