One year on and against the backdrop of a worsening refugee crisis, the self-appointed “defenders of the Occident” have radicalized. Our columnist joined them on the streets of Dresden, where the movement first began.
There are some journalistic cliches that are best avoided. The columnist writing about his cat is one; the foreign correspondent quoting taxi drivers is another. Yet on my latest visit to Dresden last week, I found myself trapped in the taxi of Horst, a true Pegida believer.
I was in town to report on the first anniversary of a movement that began when a small group of “concerned citizens” gathered in central Dresden to protest against the “Islamization of the West”. Organized through Facebook, the movement gained momentum and, even on the coldest January evenings, brought 40,000 people onto the streets.
Sitting in the back of the car, I discreetly made notes of everything Horst told me. Reading them back now is like encountering the angry rant of someone who is relieved to finally have an audience. What was worse, I wondered to myself as I listened – his views, or his lack of inhibitions in sharing them?
“They get everything though they’ve never paid anything in, those young men with their smartphones, we don’t need them.”
“If someone comes, fleeing war, and agrees to our constitution, then fine,” he said. “But they have to show respect.”
I asked him whether he respected Lutz Bachmann. The Pegida founder was sidelined, if only for a few weeks this year, after a selfie emerged in which he was dressed as Adolf Hitler, alongside Facebook posts describing refugees as “cattle”. Now, however, Bachmann is back on top. “Bachmann, well, I don’t like all the vomit that he speaks,” said Horst, as the traffic slowed, “but some of the things he says are right.”
As the traffic picked up again, so did Horst. He was tired of driving around asylum seekers with vouchers from the local immigration office, and he was tired of them occupying the local fitness hall. Looking at his considerable belly, I mulled asking him when he had last used the fitness facilities, but decided against it.
I asked him instead why the scale of protests against foreigners in Germany always seems to be inversely proportional to the number of foreigners in a region.
It was a pre-emptive protest, he said: many of his friends had seen how things were in the West and wanted to stop that happening here in their “pretty Dresden”. Perhaps the strangest element of the Pegida movement is its apparent concern for the “Abendland” – the West or the Occident. I asked Horst what, for him, defines the “Abendland”. He scratched his head and said: “Na, die Ruhe, die man hat.” “Eh, the peace and quiet you have.”
Asked about these “defenders of the Occident” recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that the problem was perhaps one of perspective. “We have every chance to stand up for our religion, insofar as we practice and believe, to have the courage to say we are Christians, to go to mass again or be sure about the Bible,” she said. To see what Germans actually know of the Christian Occident, she said, you have only to ask about the meaning of Pentecost. “But to then complain that Muslims know their Koran, that I find strange,” she said. “Perhaps this debate can lead to us addressing our own roots, to know more about them.”
The trouble with this is that the people who go to Pegida demonstrations aren’t curious and don’t read anything except poisonous Facebook posts full of dubious statistics and self-fulfilling conspiracy theories. If you inform yourself exclusively through Pegida newsfeeds – as many supporters are thought to – you play a game of digital telephone: all you hear is about criminal foreigners, about Germans evicted to make room for refugees, and why the Americans and the Jews control the media. You cannot reach these people in their self-contained, xenophobic vacuum.
That evening, Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann said he had “goosebumps” when came on the stage. He said he wouldn’t have believed a year ago that Pegida would attract so many followers, or thrive despite “hate” from the establishment. “But we are still here, we will stay to win – and we will win,” said Mr. Bachmann. “We are doing this for our country, our culture and our children’s future.”
As threatening cheers of “We are the people” echoed around the cobbled square at the Semper Opera House, smiling protesters waved the German black-red-gold, along with another flag: the resistance flag of the 1944 Stauffenberg plot against Hitler. ”We are the new resistance, we at war but people don’t realize it yet,” said one marcher, Uwe, a 43-year-old industrial designer. “Merkel is causing as much damage to Germany as Hitler did.” Another held a sign “Rotschild and Co”, blaming an international Jewish conspiracy for the refugee crisis, saying he voted “in the national socialist spectrum.”
It was striking to see that the other side of Pegida – the concerned citizens – have largely gone. The crowd today is younger and rougher. You hear the same from people in Dresden who tried to engage with Pegida a year ago. They say now that they have given up; the hard core that remains is not interested in constructive dialogue, they say, only “broadcasting” their frustrations. Anyone who could be reached has either left, they say, or has been radicalized after a year on the streets. A year on, they sigh – the window of opportunity has closed for Saxon politicians to bring people back.
As Pegida demonstrations swell alongside refugee numbers, concerned observers in Dresden believe this is the greatest test yet of the 25-year-old eastern German democracy. Can its leaders act proactively, or are they doomed to be reactive, driven by events and extremists?
My heart aches for the wonderful city of Dresden and its sensible citizens. They, too, have concerns about the refugee crisis, but not as great as their concerns about the intolerant image of their city being broadcast around the world.
Walking away from the demonstration, Lutz Bachmann babbling in the background, I marvel at the achievement of a clever snake-oil salesman who covers up his rhetorical gift for preaching xenophobia by sounding like a Saxon mechanic talking about winter tires. In just one year he has transformed Pegida into a living, breathing, hating contradiction. It demands tolerance from immigrants while preaching hate towards them; it demands they integrate while insisting on exclusion; it claims to be defending our values while betraying them.
As one Dresden counter-demonstrator warned on his banner last Monday: “Your Kind of Patriotism Kills.”