With visible and vocal far-right protests against foreigners swelling in Germany in recent weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel forcefully denounced the demonstrations Monday, affirming that the country has both a special obligation and desire to welcome anyone in need of sanctuary.
Dr Merkel made her comments as an estimated 15,000 protesters participated in an anti-Islam rally in the eastern city of Dresden, with another 5,500 attending a counter demonstration against the group.
“We don’t want radical Islamists here,” Thomas Schmidt (53) said at the rally, a German flag wrapped around his shoulders.
More than 150,000 people sought asylum in Germany in the first 11 months of this year, many of them refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, straining the country‘s ability to house them. In addition, a looming labour shortage means Germany is increasingly attracting immigrants to work here.
“There is freedom of assembly in Germany, but there is no place here for incitement and lies about people who come to us from other countries,” Dr Merkel told reporters Monday, hours before Pegida, a group opposing alleged “Islamification,” was to hold its ninth weekly protest in Dresden, where attendance has swelled from a few hundred to 10,000 last week.
“Everyone needs to be careful that they are not taken advantage of by the people who organise such events,” Dr Merkel said. Her remarks capped a week of mounting establishment concern about right-wing opposition to Germany‘s open-door policy toward immigrants.
The protesters in Dresden, a mix of young men, local neo-Nazis and ordinary citizens who have appropriated the rallying cry of anti-Communist demonstrators in East Germany in 1989, have made clear that not everyone agrees with this policy. Their chants of “Wir Sind das Volk,“ or “We Are the People,“ have both struck a chord and sent a shudder throughout Germany.
Nerves were rattled last Friday, when three buildings newly renovated for a few dozen refugees in Vorra, a village of 1,000 near Nuremberg, were burned in what appeared to be arson attacks. A swastika and an anti-refugee slogan were daubed on one of the torched structures.
The hand-wringing over anti-foreigner and right-wing sentiment crested in the last week. The three most prominent television hosts each devoted a whole show to the protests in Dresden, which are led by Pegida, a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against Islamification of the West.
Opposition parties - the Greens and the Left Party - have accused Dr Merkel’s conservative bloc of Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, of being too tentative in criticism of the protests because they fear losing votes on the right.
The German justice minister, Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat in Merkel‘s coalition government of center-left and center-right parties, called Dresden demonstrators “a shame for Germany.“ The majority of Germans, Maas said Monday, want to welcome refugees “who have just lost everything.“
Mr Maas cited the example of a pro-foreigner rally attended by 15,000 people in Cologne over the weekend, and counter-demonstrations in Dresden - attended by 9,000 people last week - welcoming refugees. The protests have raised the question of whether Germany, despite relative prosperity and low unemployment, is vulnerable to the kind of populism on much stronger display in neighboring France, where polls show Marine Le Pen and her Front National party are favoured by 25 to 30 per cent of voters, or in Britain, where the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party has rattled the governing Conservative Party.
A new party, Alternative for Germany, struck a populist tone and won local legislative seats this fall in three eastern German states, including Saxony, which in the past had elected neo-Nazis in the National Democratic Party to its state legislature. Every February, on the anniversary of the Allied bombing of 1945, Dresden is the venue for Germany‘s biggest annual far-right protest.
Politics in eastern Germany, where memories of Communist rule are still strong a quarter-century after reunification, are notoriously febrile, and it is unclear whether Alternative for Germany can reach the 5 per cent threshold needed for any legislative representation in Berlin, either in coming western German state elections, or in national elections to be held in 2017.
Over the weekend, Alternative party leaders clashed over whether to heed the Dresden demonstrators. One leader, Alexander Gauland, said in a telephone interview that he would talk with Pegida marchers on Monday. “I would like to know who they are,“ he said, condemning other politicians for dismissing the Dresden crowd as out of hand. “Obviously, for the most part, these are normal people from right in the middle of society,“ Mr Gauland said. It is unclear who is behind the movement. Lutz Bachmann, the 41-year-old advertiser who addresses the weekly rallies, has admitted to a criminal record that clashes somewhat with his followers’ assertions that foreigners often bring unwanted crime.