Skip to main content

A rally called 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West' (PEGIDA) is photographed through a gap of a balcony with the view to the Frauenkirche cathedral (Church of Our Lady) while the exterior lighting was switched off in Dresden, eastern Germany, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015.Jens Meyer/The Associated Press

The protest was billed as a moment of renewal, a return to the spot where it all started. But instead it may have marked the beginning of the end.

Last week, the right-wing group whose demonstrations have shaken Germany gathered once again in the eastern city of Dresden. They carried German flags and shouted slogans against the lying press and the country's leaders. They claimed that many asylum seekers are illegitimate. They complained of a creeping Islamic influence in society.

This time, however, only about 2,000 people braved the damp February night to show their support for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida, after its German acronym. At its peak in January, the weekly march attracted 25,000 people. It spawned sister demonstrations in other German cities and several other European countries.

Ever since they began in October, the protests have convulsed Germany's political scene, provoking counterdemonstrations and condemnation by national leaders. Now the Dresden demonstrations are ebbing, thanks to a leadership controversy and an internal split. But the dissatisfaction they unearthed isn't going anywhere – and it has long-term consequences for Germany and beyond.

"The true reasons why Pegida emerged will not disappear," said Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at the Technical University in Dresden who has polled the protesters. The discourse of mainstream political parties has shifted to the left, said Prof. Patzelt, opening up space on the right side of the spectrum. "It is exactly into this representation gap that movements like Pegida … have jumped."

Peter, a 49-year old father and customs official who declined to give his last name, said he was motivated to march by what he described as the growing power of Islam in Germany – just look at how many minarets there are in cities, he said, or the way that pork isn't served in some schools.

"This is my country, this is my culture," he said last Monday night in Dresden's historic Neumarkt square. "The people who come here should assimilate and accept it."

According to Prof. Patzelt's polling, about a third of those involved in the movement in Dresden could be described as right-wing xenophobes, while the other two-thirds are a variety of concerned or outraged citizens, with complaints against the media, mainstream political parties and the validity of some asylum seekers.

The immediate cause of Pegida's recent troubles is internal. Late last month, it emerged that Lutz Bachmann, the movement's founder, had posted a photo of himself on Facebook sporting a Hitler-esque mustache and hairstyle, together with the caption "He's back." In another posting, he referred to immigrants as "trash," "scumbags" and "cattle."

The controversy led to a schism in the group's leadership, with one prominent figure, Kathrin Oertel, leaving Pegida to form a separate outfit called "Direct Democracy for Europe." It held its first protest on Feb. 8 and 500 people attended.

"I don't think [Pegida] will survive the split," said Juergen Falter, an expert on right-wing groups and a professor of political science at the University of Mainz. The more radical members will gravitate toward the ultranationalist, neo-Nazi fringe, he predicted, while others will give their support to the Alternative for Democracy, a new euroskeptic, conservative party that is uneasy with immigration.

Last Monday, Mr. Bachmann, Pegida's founder, was once again at the microphone. The controversy over his comments about migrants was overblown, he said, and claimed his choice of words had been similar to what "every one of us has used at the pub."

He thanked the crowd for coming. The protesters booed as he noted that the landmark church behind them – a reconstruction of an 18th-century building – had switched off all of its lights in a silent gesture of opposition to the march.

Those gathered in Dresden weren't bothered by Mr. Bachmann posing as Hitler in a photo. "This is just parody, like comedians do," said Rene Dizk, 55, who has attended the Pegida marches since they began.

What did disturb the protesters was how they were portrayed in the media. At various points during the demonstration, loud chants of "Luegenpresse!" – lying press – reverberated off walls and cobblestones.

They weren't racist or uneducated, many of the marchers asserted, and they voiced support for allowing legitimate refugees to come to Germany. Yet there was also a frank discomfort with Islam, with the numbers and types of asylum seekers arriving in Germany and with a perceived lack of assimilation by immigrants.

"The people were not asked for their approval" on policies related to migrants, said a 69-year-old, a retired Siemens employee who asked not to be named publicly. He added that he doesn't want mosques built in the centre of German cities and complained that many refugees weren't legitimate. "Everyone has the same opinion, but a lot are afraid to say it," he said.

Behind the microphone, the speakers fulminated against the press and against Germany's political leadership as the audience waved flags and homemade banners. But there was little talk of what specific changes the movement sought to make. It's a common problem in protest movements, said Nico Lange, an expert on German politics at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin.

"They stick together by being against something, not for something," he said. When they try to articulate particular demands, things fall apart.

At the end of the demonstration, Mr. Bachmann vowed the protests would continue and told his supporters to go home in groups. Afterward, he sat smoking a cigarette and declined to talk with The Globe, saying he had no time. Within half an hour, the square was quiet and empty.