Dresden’s far-right movement finds its voice again

Germany’s refugee crisis has given fresh momentum to the Pegida group

Dresden has many attractions: the remarkable art collection of the Saxon Kings or the Church of our Lady, rebuilt from wartime ruins a decade go.

On Monday evening, however, the city marked the first birthday of a more controversial attraction: the Pegida protest marches.

A year ago, the group held its first gathering to protest against “the Islamisation of the West”. On Monday night, as the mood in Germany darkens on its refugee crisis, about 15,000 Pegida supporters gathered again.

In the misty Dresden dusk, their defiant chants of “We are the People!”, the co-opted slogan of 1989 civil marches, and “Merkel must go!” echoed around the cobbled square before the Semper opera house.

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When he took to the stage, a bigger affair than last winter, Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann said he had “goosebumps”. He never imagined the movement could thrive as it had, he said, considering the “nasty tricks” employed against the group.

Bachmann remains the undisputed leader of the group despite controversy over several Facebook posts: a Hitler lookalike selfie and posts describing immigrants as “cattle”.

That prompted a Pegida organiser split and drop in numbers. But with Germany forecasting about 800,000 asylum seekers this year, Pegida’s dire warnings of immigrant infiltration have found a new audience.

“We are still here, we will stay to win – and we will win,” said Bachmann. “We are doing this for our country, our culture and our children’s future.”

Home-made gallows

Monday’s event was already going to be a closely watched affair after last week, when a marcher brought along two home-made gallows dedicated to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her deputy, Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel.

The images caused uproar, though the 39-year-old man behind the ghoulish props remained defiant, telling the Bild tabloid the gallows were symbolic for Berlin's "sell-out" of the German people on the refugee question.

In Monday’s crowd, noticeably younger than a year ago, marchers waved the German black-red-gold and the resistance flag of the 1944 Stauffenberg plot against Hitler.

“We are the new resistance, we are at war but people don’t realise it yet,” said one marcher, Uwe, a 43-year-old industrial designer. “Merkel is causing as much damage to Germany as Hitler did.”

Susanne from the western city of Bielefeld, in Dresden for her first Pegida march, said: “Where I’m from people don’t dare go on the streets for fear of the consequences, but they are seething.”

Seething too, beyond the 1,000 police in riot gear, were a younger crowd of counter-demonstrators.

“You can’t talk to those people, you can’t ignore them either, all we can do is show our presence,” said Christian, a student, holding a sign reading “Your Patriotism Kills”.

Police spread out across the city to keep apart groups and reportedly used pepperspray against counter-demonstrators who tried to breach their cordon. Local media reported attacks by Pegida marchers on reporting journalists.

Widespread pessimism

A year on, pessimism is widespread in Dresden over Pegida. Last January, Saxony’s state centre for political education opened its doors to allow Dresdners – pro- and anti-Pegida – air their concerns. But no more.

“A year ago this was a catch-all group for people to vent their frustration on everything from the local bypass to the gap between politicians and citizens,” said Thomas Platz of the Saxon centre.

“Now it is exclusively anti-immigrant. Pegida supporters are simply not open for constructive dialogue.”

Prof Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at Dresden’s Technical University, agrees.

“I do not think you can reach them now,” he said. “If the politicians had taken them seriously a year ago they could have done it.”

Now Pegida is too radicalised, he says, pointing to studies by his department where between one-fifth and one-quarter of Pegida marchers describe themselves as far-right and ready to use violence.

“Friendships and families have been torn apart over this,” he said.

As local authorities commandeer sports halls and kindergartens for open-ended use as emergency accommodation, Prof Patzelt says there is no reason to assume that the anti-refugee Pegida protests will go away.

“Pegida is just the tip of the volcano,” he said. “It’s a catalyst for a growing frustration.”