Alison Smale (The New York Times)
Pegida first caught my attention in late November, when I read in German media that there were peaceful rallies taking place each Monday in Dresden. They were attracting ever more people and seemingly fusing a dual agenda: harking back to the cries for liberty in East Germany in 1989 but picking up the populist cries of Europe’s present and protesting against an alleged ‘’Islamization’’ of the West.
I went to Dresden and found that much about this Pegida movement was murky. Its supporters – 7,500 of them at the Dec. 1 rally which I attended in teeth-chattering cold – seemed to be a very mixed bunch. All were discontent, voicing disappointment at established politicians, but some seemed more rightwing than others, many refused to talk, none would give their name and above all each had a specter in their minds that seemed more powerful than reality. For the fact is that there are very few foreigners in the state of Saxony – about 2.2 percent of the population – and in Dresden there are no more than a few hundred Muslims. But the marchers were not even looking at their own city so much as places like Cologne – 10 percent Muslim population – or Berlin, with its many immigrants – and quite clear that they did not want that in their backyard.
Since that first visit, support has swelled for Pegida, which at its last rally attracted 25,000 people, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel criticizing the organizers in unusually stark language. The next Monday, Pegida was kept off the streets by what police said was a credible terrorist threat against the marchers and Pegida’s leader, Lutz Bachmann. All demonstrations were banned for 24 hours in Dresden – an unusual move in Germany. And then Bild Zeitung published what it claimed were genuine photos of Mr. Bachmann pretending to be Adolf Hitler. This man seems, at the very least, an unlikely political leader.
Yet clearly the movement he says he started with Dresden friend has aroused something in Germany. A woman in her early 20s whom I know in Berlin expressed surprise that politics now seemed to have moved to the streets – something unknown in her conscious political life. The sight of several thousand Germans marching, in effect, against immigration – even if Pegida says it welcomes war refugees – stirred horror both in Germany and abroad. The clear language of Chancellor Merkel made clear the worry in Berlin. And, since then, tens of thousands have come out all over Germany to demonstrate against Pegida and emphasize that outsiders are welcome. Business has echoed politicians in stressing that new workers are needed from outside Germany. The population indeed rose slightly last year – from 80.8 million 2013 to 81.1 million in 2014, when Germany recorded more than 200,000 applications for asylum, its third highest total ever.
The coincidence of Pegida’s rise and the terrorist attacks in France, which set off fresh debate and police action across western Europe, have already marked this young year as one of confrontation and conflict. But confrontation is not always fearful. Often, as in Paris on Jan. 11, it unites people, who turn out to be more defiant and resilient than imagined. In Germany, too, the emergence of Pegida has illustrated not just lingering xenophobia and prejudice, but also a modern debate about guaranteeing security while embracing newcomers in 21st century Europe, working through cultural clashes that may result.