‘Tell me, what do you expect/ From what we are striving for in Germany?’ – Goethe, Faust, 1.

On the 20th of February 1997, 28-year old journalist Michaela Weigel, writing in the mainstream newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, described the British Foreign Secretary  (later Sir Malcolm Rifkind) in the wake of a speech he delivered in Bonn, as ‘the Jew Rifkind’ (a German turn of phrase often used pejoratively during the Third Reich). The newspaper apologised several days later, saying that there was ‘no anti-Semitic intent’.  Still, the nemesis of its 1930s/40s past is an ever-present anxiety for Germany.  That same year of 1997 saw the highest number of crimes committed by German far-right activists in their political cause since 1945.

And now the turmoil has returned to the streets of Germany as the European ‘project’ of integration is increasingly questioned in what is arguably the Eurozone’s paymaster.  This is not so say that the inhabitants of Europe’s largest economy are intent on taking the country backwards, but a significant minority have stoked tensions with their anti-immigrant and Islamophobic posturing with a steady ratcheting since October.

Sometimes, these marches can backfire.  The town of Wunsiedel, often a magnet for neo-Nazis being as it is the original resting place of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, tricked the home-grown admirers of the National Socialists.  On the 15th of November, the annual date of the march, shop owners and residents in the 1,000-strong town pledged to donate 10 euros for each metre covered by the neo-Nazis, eventually raising 10,000 which went to EXIT-Deutschland, a charity that helps people leave far-right groups.  The pro-Hess marchers were oblivious to why motivational signs along the way were set up and confetti was thrown as they crossed the finishing line, only to read a sign at the end explaining they had raised money against themselves.

This was a humorous exception in a bleak set of months.  The backdrop is that Germany has received more immigrants than any other country in the European Union (EU), indeed it is the world’s number two destination for migrants after the USA.  It has already by far and away the largest population in the EU, and so assimilation would in theory come easier.  But a falling birth rate and consequent decline in population has played on certain fears within German society about a loss of identity.  As in the UK with the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) drawing support from marginalised and/or right-leaning people, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union (CDU) has seen a leaching of support to Alternative for Germany (AfD) which takes a hardline on immigration.  Like the British Conservative Party, the CDU has clamped down on immigrants ‘abusing’ the social welfare system, but does draw a limit, castigating a proposal from the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), that new arrivals who wish to live in Germany permanently should be obliged to speak German in public and at home.

It is against this political storm, giving a spurious credence to those who seek to scapegoat, and sluggish economic growth, that rallies have taken place by a group calling itself ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident [the West]’ (PEGIDA) in Dresden.  It began with a dissatisfied local man with no political background, Lutz Bachmann, calling his first protest against perceived Islamisation in October.  It only attracted a few hundred people but as word spread, by early December, 7,500 had joined the weekly Monday marches and it inspired similar demonstrations in other German cities such as Bonn, Munich, Kassel, Rostock and Würzburg (though the spawned offshoots e.g., BOGIDA – Bonn against the Islamisation of the Occident – have not mustered the same numbers as in Dresden).

On the 22nd of December, for the tenth march, 17,500 rallied and celebrated their rapid rise by singing Christmas carols.  The management of the historic Semperoper concert hall, where the protesters gathered outside, was not impressed, turning off the building’s lights and flying flags preaching openness and tolerance.  Despite the appalling weather and withering condemnation by church leaders, business groups and politicians gathered (except AfD which said the rallies had ‘struck a chord in German society’) with a record 18,000 people turning out in the Eastern city synonymous with controversial firebombing in 1945 by allied forces. There were other PEGIDA marches in Berlin, Stuttgart and, notably, Cologne, where the massive gothic cathedral dimmed its outdoor lights, like the Dresden opera house, to avoid serving as a pictorial backdrop for the movement.  It was followed by the City Hall and other public buildings in the city with a lowering of the lights.  Similar actions were taken in Berlin.  A viral idea on Twitter urged ‘Darkness wherever there is PEGIDA’.

Though Merkel has denounced xenophobic ‘rabble-rousing’ and extremism, with other lawmakers deploring what they describe as ‘pin-striped Nazis’, a poll for Stern news reported that almost 30 per cent of Germans think Islam has too big an influence in the country and that the PEGIDA protest marches are justified.

PEGIDA calls itself a grassroots movement and says it merely wishes to uphold ‘Judeo-Christian values’ and has no animus for ‘integrated’ Muslims (an ambiguous caveat).  It also distances itself from the anti-Muslim protests in Cologne early in 2014 that turned violent, proclaiming itself a peaceful movement composed of ‘patriots’.  Though it displays no neo-Nazi symbols, opponents say its rhetoric is reminiscent of fascists, that it has been infiltrated by known Neo-Nazis and that it seeks to exploit xenophobic sentiment. PEGIDA’s leaders have singled out Muslim immigrants for their ire, but overall the movement has become antagonistic to immigrants of all backgrounds, especially the ones they denigrate as ‘economic refugees’, i.e., not ‘genuine’ ones.  Moreover, the founder Bachmann has been revealed to possess a substantial criminal record, including convictions for burglary and drug dealing.

In wanting to avoid the outcomes of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s The Hangman poem (‘First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist…’), massive counter-demonstrations to PEGIDA have emerged.  On the 22nd of December, 20,000 nationwide turned out for counter-protests (an estimated 12,000 in Munich alone), outstripping pro-PEGIDA rallies, as outside Dresden the right-wing populist movement could only assemble several hundred marchers in other cities.  On the 5th of January, 3,000 Dresdeners paraded to show that PEGIDA had significant dissenters in the city.  Roughly the same amount of PEGIDA opponents were present in Cologne, while 5,000 people in both Berlin and Stuttgart each easily outnumbered the pro-PEGIDA people there.  Even the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas showed his solidarity with anti-PEGIDA feeling by joining the Berlin counter-demonstration.

Where each set of protesters go from here is uncertain as is how long their enthusiasm will remain.  PEGIDA may try to organise itself as a political party or ally itself with AfD – anti-immigrant political parties are strong in the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and the UK, so a similar trend could be emerging in Germany, with some in Merkel’s CDU saying she has moved too far to the centre ground of politics (an unusual charge given that this is a coveted space), allowing this disillusion to spread.  The upshot of these passions and counter-passions could lead to a general re-engagement in politics and higher turnouts at elections, but be careful what you wish for – the results might usher in a new era of less tolerance.

Protest Correspondent, Europe