It was nearly dormant for months, but recent weeks have seen the return of Germany’s islamophobic, anti-refugee Pegida movement. More confident and aggressive than ever, officials worry the hatred could spread to the mainstream. By SPIEGEL Staff
“I’m not a Nazi,” the innkeeper says, standing without an umbrella in the rain. “I know negroes, I know the döner kebab Turks. I just want my peace and quiet and my German rights.”
“Those aren’t Nazis,” the neighbor says, pointing to a group of young men. “Those are young people who the system has turned into who they are.”
We’re going to have to defend ourselves against the “Kanaken,” says a steward wearing a white band on his upper arm, using a German racial slur that refers to Southern Europeans and people from the Middle East.
Last Wednesday night, in the Einsiedel district of Chemnitz, a city in the eastern state of Saxony, a barricade set up by local citizens was still standing, as it had been for the past 48 hours. Once again, hundreds of people had gathered on Anton Hermann Strasse, which leads straight past pretty burgher houses up to a camp that used to belong to the Pioneers, the East German equivalent of the Boy and Girl Scouts. Those manning the barricade weren’t letting anyone through who wasn’t obviously recognizable as a local resident. The improvised checkpoint in front of a hotel was occupied around the clock.
An entry on the Facebook page for the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (more commonly known by its acronym, Pegida) had claimed last Monday that buses packed with “invaders” were making their way toward the camp. In response, local residents blocked the only road to the planned refugee accommodations — and Saxony police did nothing to stop them.
Last Wednesday, more than a thousand people marched silently through the rain in the suburban district, walking past slogans spray painted on walls like, “Protect our Homeland.” One hollered through a megaphone that the resistance would continue “as long as needed.” Then the speaker thanked “Pegida Chemnitz-Erzgebirge,” without whom none of this would be possible. Locals then cheered. “Thank God,” one resident sighed. “I was afraid this wasn’t going to continue.”
But it is continuing. Pegida is back, apparently more powerful than ever. For a time, the movement had disappeared almost entirely from public view. Its founders had fallen out with each other and Pegida head Lutz Bachmann even had to temporarily step down from his chairmanship after the tabloid daily Bild published a picture of him posing for a photo as Hitler. Attendance at Pegida protests, which has taken place every Monday in Dresden and other cities for almost a year had waned to the point of insignificance. But a week ago on Monday, some 10,000 people took to the streets of Dresden, almost as many as during the peak of the protests last winter.
Words Followed By Action
This time, though, there’s more to it than just peaceful protests, as the street blockade in Einsiedel demonstrates. The movement is also becoming more radical. On Monday night, thousands of Pegida demonstrators marched through Dresden shouting out epithets like, “deport, deport” against the refugees, “We’re the people,” and “Merkel must go.” One sign showed Merkel as Mother Teresa (a play on a recent SPIEGEL cover), but with the headline, “Mother Terroresia.” Other signs were directed against “German haters,” the “asylum mafia,” and the “politician pack,” a reference to Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s recent strong condemnation of right-wing, anti-refugee protesters. One protestor even carried a mock gallows with nooses attached to signs indicating they were reserved for Merkel and Gabriel. And Pegida co-founder Bachmann described the German government in a speech as “our dictators in Berlin.”
On Tuesday, a spokesperson with the Dresden Public Prosecutor’s Office said an investigation had been opened into unknown perpetrators in response to the gallows stunt, on possible charges of disturbing the public peace through incitement to criminal behavior. “This should make clear that there are limits to the right to assemble and freedom of speech,” a spokesperson for the office told public broadcaster MDR on Tuesday.
Pegida currently appears to be profiting from the volatile atmosphere created by the refugee debate in Germany. Political positions once the exclusive domain of populist demagogues like Bachmann are now being adopted even by politicians within Merkel’s mainstream conservative Christian Democrats, which in turn serves as an invitation for Pegida’s supporters to become even more radical.
Tatjana Festerling, a candidate representing the Pegida movement who scored almost 10 percent of the vote in Dresden mayoral elections in June, recently claimed at a demonstration recently, “We’re already at war.” On Monday of this week, she described Merkel as the most dangerous woman in Europe and called for a “Säxit,” Saxony’s secession from Germany.
Pegida began as a diffuse “movement of outrage,” says Dresden-based political scientist Hans Vorländer. But now it has found more precise targets: the refugee issue and Chancellor Merkel. He says the rhetoric from the group has become totally uninhibited.
In earlier days, Pegida members often derided the media as the “lying press,” but those calls, increasingly, are being supplanted by actual physical attacks on journalists. Two weeks ago, Pegida supporters attacked journalists with MDR and the Dresdner Neuesten Nachrichtennewspaper, with one reporter getting punched in the face. Officials at MDR, which is the public broadcaster for Saxony, Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, have reported insults, vandalism and physical attacks by Pegida supporters at all of their state studios and say the number of incidents is growing, particularly in Saxony. The “growing aggressiveness” toward its employees, officials say, is a “new experience.”
In the right-wing magazine Compact, Jürgen Elsässer, a writer who speaks at Pegida events, issued a call to arms to Germany’s armed forces to resist the government. “In this situation, it is up to you, soldiers of the Bundeswehr: Fulfill your oath and protect the German people and the liberal and democratic order! Occupy the border stations, above all the border train stations, and close all possible crossings, particularly from the South. Don’t wait for orders from above!”
At the very least, the movement is conducting “discursive arson,” warns political scientist Vorländer, adding that Pegida is “paving the way” for more radical behavior. In a current situation report, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), Germany’s answer to the FBI, writes that agitation from the right is having a “catalyzing effect.” During the first nine months of this year, the BKA registered more than 400 attacks on asylum-seeker hostels. For all of 2014, there were only around 200 such attacks.
The path from words to actions appears to be getting shorter and shorter, as illustrated by Pegida’s “We’ll help build the border” initiative. Announced for the first time in early October in the Saxon town of Sebnitz — a place that is also the site of anti-refugee protests — the action is expected to continue in Bavaria. Hundreds of “wire mesh fence” enthusiasts have set up an event using Facebook for Nov. 8 to seal off the German border on their own. One of the ringleaders is Michael Viehmann, a former supermarket worker from the western city of Kassel, who was also involved in the protests in Sebnitz. November 8, it should be noted, was the date that Adolf Hitler launched his failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in 1923.
Last year, Viehmann established a Pegida offshoot in a western German state. He is also known to have participated in “Hooligans against Salafists” events in the past and became the subject of a criminal complaint after posting hate speech on the web. He allegedly incited against Jews on Facebook and blustered that, hopefully, “soon a revolution will break out and the whole pack of German politicians will have their skulls bashed in.”
Flirting with Neo-Nazis
Viehmann appealed and a local court must now decide the case. But his past didn’t do much to halt his rise within the allegedly peaceful protest movement. On the contrary, Viehmann is now part of Pegida Germany’s inner circle.
The degree with which Pegida is blurring the lines between itself and extremist right-wing groups is apparent in its offshoots in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, which have long been dominated by neo-Nazis. Munich, where a Pegida association was established earlier this year “to promote the rights of civilians,” provides another example. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Karlsruhe has opened an investigation into the head of the Munich group, Heinz Meyer, under the suspicion of establishing a terrorist organization. Meyer, who says the accusation is “baseless,” is believed to have had contact with Martin Wiese, a notorious neo-Nazi and convicted right-wing terrorist.
Even apart from Meyer, members of Pegida in Bavaria don’t seem terribly discerning when it comes to choosing their leaders. Other members of the Munich Pegida board include a former candidate for the federal parliament with the xenophobic, neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) and an old friend of Michael Stürzenberger, a key figure in the anti-Islam blog Politically Incorrect, (PI) known for the increasingly rabid methods he uses to incite his readers.
Last week, Politically Incorrect called on its readers to hunt down Angela Merkel, “the monster.” It said all German citizens should blow into whistles or horns each day at 6 p.m. and to chant “Merkel must go!” The people behind Politically Incorrect say the “resistance” follows in the tradition of attempted Hitler assassin Claus von Stauffenberg. Like von Stauffenberg, they argue, the question “we” are facing today is: “Do we want to simply look on as our leadership destroys us?”
In Bavaria, officials at the state chapter of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors extremist activity, are speaking of a “massive verbal escalation” on the part of the anti-Muslim scene. The agency found it of particular concern that that the right-wing extremists had clearly begun reaching previously untainted people with their “campaigns of hate.” This group, too, could become a future source of “xenophobia-inspired attacks,” they warn. The closing of ranks between right-wing extremist parties and German citizens irate over the refugee influx is a phenomenon that is worrying officials at virtually every domestic intelligence agency in the country. Now officials at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution are hoping to find ways to track down ringleaders of the NPD and other neo-Nazi parties like Die Rechte (“the Right”) and The Third Way and to find ways to unsettle the scene.
“Something is heading our way,” says one high-ranking member of German domestic intelligence. “We need to try and stop it.”