Foreigners avoid Dresden as Pegida creates poisonous mood

Anti-Islamic minority’s Monday night protests are hurting German city’s reputation

At night, Dresden's baroque Altstadt or old town has a fascinating, morbid atmosphere. On Monday nights, however, the atmosphere is gruesome. For almost two years Dresden has been hijacked by the anti-Islam Pegida group, organising Monday night protest marches against what it sees as the "Islamisation of the West".

For two hours a few streets echo with angry shouts of “Merkel must go” and “We are the people”, as about 2,000 Pegida marchers make their rounds – down from peaks of 25,000.

The poisonous mood reached a new low on Monday night when two homemade bombs were detonated in the city at about 10pm at a conference centre and the Dresden Fatih mosque in the Hühndorfer Strasse, 4km west of the main station.

No one was injured in the attacks but the bomb covered the gable in soot and left hanging inwards a charred door to the mosque’s living quarters, home to the Turan family. Ibrahim Ismail, son of the mosque’s imam, was heading to bed on Monday at about 9.50pm when he noticed someone outside wearing a motorcycle helmet.


“I thought he was throwing stones but it was a bomb,” said Ibrahim on Tuesday. “I heard a boom and saw the door was open.”

The second bomb shattered glass panels on the riverside terrace of the modernist trade fair. Police said on Tuesday they are keeping an open mind but suspect a xenophobic motivation.

It is a disaster for the Saxon capital and its once thriving tourist industry. City hoteliers say bookings in July – usually the city’s busiest month – were down 10 per cent on last year. Visiting the city in August, Dresden was noticeably emptier than usual, with no English-speaking tourists to be heard on the streets.

Dresden’s shops and gastronomy are hurting twice over. With tourist numbers down, locals stay at home on Monday nights to avoid Pegida, forcing traders to issue vouchers and special Monday night deals.

“They [Pegida] don’t know what they’re doing,” said Richard Fordham, a South African native and steak house owner. His Monday night bookings are down from 130 on average, pre-Pegida, to just two or three now, resulting in lost revenue of about €100,000 and two redundancies.

“Every Monday it’s the same: first a state of emergency, then the city centre is dead.”

Michelin star chef Stefan Hermann says that, wherever he goes in the world, "people's eyes widen because I'm from Dresden".

Rising xenophobia

A year after Germany's refugee crisis peaked, with one million asylum applications in 2015 alone, a government report warned last week that rising xenophobia in eastern Germany – including Saxony – poses a threat to the region's social peace and economic development.

Over at Dresden’s technical university, president Hans Müller-Steinhagen says Pegida has caused “palpable” reputational damage, with people asking him on his travels: “What is going on in Dresden, is it safe for foreigners?”

In response, he changed his Facebook profile picture to himself holding the sign: “I’m one of more than 500,000 Dresdeners who doesn’t go to Pegida”. His move brought much praise, he said, but also messages he passed on to the local police.

“We were making such progress,” said Prof Müller-Steinhagen recently of his university’s transformation, using the past tense.

Over at Dresden’s prestigious Max Planck research institute, new applications from abroad dropped last year for the first time, as dark-skinned researchers report a new, threatening atmosphere in Dresden – and not just on Mondays.

Nurse Emiliano Chaimite came to Dresden from Mozambique 25 years ago and was beaten up twice in the 1990s. He was hopeful Dresden had turned a corner in recent years but then Pegida came along and, he says, revived the mood from the 1990s.

“This unspeakable new movement has created a new hate,” he said, “I fear it will make society ill, that the hate leads to physical violence.”

Though Saxony’s foreigner quota remains low at 3.9 per cent, its effectively all-white East German legacy put the state at the top of the list for xenophobic and far-right attacks last year.

After Monday night's attacks, Dresden police are now standing guard at three city mosques, a prayer room and a meeting centre. For the city fathers, watching Dresden's reputation go to the dogs, a nervous week looms. Next Monday, instead of Pegida, the Saxon capital will host the annual celebrations for the Day of German Unity. After her migration crisis response, it remains to be seen how warm the welcome will be for chancellor Angela Merkel.

In Dresden, a grim-faced police chief Horst Kretzschmar warned on Tuesday: “We have now switched to crisis mode.”