The End of Tolerance? Anti-Muslim Movement Rattles Germany
Disenchanted German citizens and right-wing extremists are joining forces to form a protest movement to fight what they see as the Islamization of the West. Is this the end of the long-praised German tolerance of recent years?
Felix Menzel is sitting in his study in an elegant villa in Dresden's Striesen neighborhood on a dark afternoon in early December. He's thinking about Europe. A portrait of Ernst Jünger, a favorite author of many German archconservatives is hung on the wall.
Menzel, 29, is a polite, unimposing man wearing corduroys and rimless glasses. He takes pains to come across as an intellectual, and avoids virulent rhetoric like "Foreigners out!" He prefers to talk about "Europe's Western soul," which, as he believes, includes Christianity and the legacy of antiquity, but not Islam. "I see serious threats coming our way from outside Europe. I feel especially pessimistic about the overpopulation of Africa and Asia," says Menzel, looking serious. "And I believe that what is unfolding in Iraq and Syria at the moment is a clear harbinger of the first global civil war."
Menzel, a media scholar, has been running the Blaue Narzisse (Blue Narcissus), a conservative right-wing magazine for high school and university students, for the last 10 years. His small magazine had attracted little interest until now. But that is about to change, at least if Menzel has his way. "The uprising of the masses that we have long yearned for is slowly getting underway," he writes on his magazine's website. "And this movement is moving toward the right."
In Dresden, at least, the sentiments expressed in the Blaue Narzisse have become more palpable in recent weeks. Protests staged each week on Mondays initially attracted only a few dozen to a few hundred people, but more recently the number of citizens taking to the streets has reached 10,000. The group, which calls itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (and goes by the German acronym Pegida), demonstrates against economic migrants and a supposed "cultural foreign domination of our country" -- whatever is meant by that.
What is going on in Germany, the world's second most popular destination for immigrants? Has the open-mindedness for which Germans had long been praised now ended? Are we seeing a return of the vague fear of being overwhelmed by immigrants that Germany experienced in the 1990s, when a hostel for asylum seekers was burned down? How large is the new right-wing movement, and will it remain limited to Dresden, or is it spreading nationwide?
So far, protests held under the Pegida label in other cities -- like Kassel and Würzburg -- have attracted only a few hundred people at a time. In fact, some of the protests attracted significantly larger numbers of counter-demonstrators. And while thousands of "patriotic Europeans" aim to take to the streets in Dresden again in the coming days, their counterparts in Germany's western states are taking a Christmas break. Pegida supporters are waiting until after the holidays to return to the streets in cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf and Unna.
34 Percent Believe Germany Becoming Islamicized
Still, many Germans share the protestors' views, according to a current SPIEGEL poll. Some 34 percent of citizens agreed with the Pegida protestors that Germany is becoming increasingly Islamicized.
Even before the Pegida movement began, the number of right-wing protests was on the rise nationwide. In the first 10 months of this year, the refugee organization Pro Asyl and the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which combats racism, counted more than 200 demonstrations against hostels for asylum seekers.
Violence has erupted at the protests again and again. Right-wing perpetrators are attacking accommodations for immigrants an average of twice a week in Germany. On Dec. 11, three buildings that had been converted to house refugees but were still empty became the targets of right-wing hate, when they were painted with swastikas and set on fire. Attacks like these are "intolerable," Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the incidents.
According to the federal government, there were 86 attacks by right-wing assailants on asylum seekers' hostels between January and the end of September 2014. The offences included arson, grievous bodily assault, trespassing and painting symbols barred by the German constitution.
In addition, the Internet has been flooded with countless right-wing hate sites and Facebook groups. Just one anti-Islamic blog, Politically Incorrect, is reporting about 70,000 visitors a day.
Various movements are coming together in the new wave of protests. Concerned residents are encountering conservatives who have grown wary of democratic values, while hooligans are joining forces with neo-Nazis and notorious right-wing conspiracy theorists. Citizens' qualms about those on the far right are decreasing, and extremist, xenophobic ideas have apparently become socially acceptable.
German Officials Alarmed
This confusing coexistence of movements and ideas is what makes it so difficult to deal with the self-proclaimed saviors of the West. The majority of the demonstrators don't want to be pegged as right-wing extremists. Still, it doesn't seem to trouble them that, week after week, they are demonstrating alongside bullnecked men with shaved heads, as they all shout together: "We are the people!," a slogan adopted from the protests in East Germany in the autumn of 1989 that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Far-right groups like the xenophobic National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) see the protests as a chance to take their worldview directly to the middle class. Populist movements that have attracted little attention until now, like the so-called "identitarian movement," are suddenly in the spotlight, as is the aimlessly wandering Reichsbürgerbewegung, or Reich Citizens' Movement, which asserts that the German Reich still exists within its pre-World War II borders.
German security agencies are alarmed. "We take this very seriously," says a senior official with the domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The authorities were especially aroused by the events of Oct. 26, when at least 400 right-wing extremists went on a rampage in downtown Cologne during a demonstration staged by the group "Hooligans Against Salafists" (HoGeSa). The issue was even on the agenda of an "intelligence situation" meeting at Merkel's Chancellery, where officials were ordered to heighten their scrutiny of the unusual mix of protestors.
The Federal Prosecutor's Office is also involved. According to a spokesman, there are more than 100 "observation and investigation procedures associated with right-wing extremist activities" pending at the agency, based in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe. The HoGeSa movement is one of the groups under observation, say the Karlsruhe officials.
A report on the connections between hooligans and right-wing extremists compiled by the police and the BfV was the focus of a meeting of the federal and state interior ministers just over a week ago. The group also discussed Pegida and its many clones, as well as the question of how to handle the simmering protests.
Fomenting Fears and Prejudice
But the interior ministers failed to develop a convincing plan to effectively combat the problem. "We cannot label 10,000 people as right-wing extremists. That creates more problems than it solves," says Saxony Interior Minister Markus Ulbig, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). According to Ulbig, there were many "middle-class citizens" among the Dresden demonstrators, "and you can't toss them all into the same Neo-Nazi pot."
His counterpart from the Western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Ralf Jäger, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the current chairman of the conference of interior ministers, began the meeting by referring to some of the protesters as "neo-Nazis in pinstripes." But he too became more cautious by the end of the conference. "We have to unmask these instigators. They are deliberately fomenting fears and prejudices," said Jäger. Instead of taking a repressive approach, he explained, the authorities should create awareness campaigns for nervous citizens.
The demonstrators aren't exactly making it easy for German authorities. Since the riots in Cologne, they have generally taken great pains to avoid committing prosecutable offences during the weekly protests, or being seen as too obviously in league with right-wing extremists. But the line between freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate, on the one hand, and hate speech and xenophobia, on the other, has become blurred. As a result, citizens are currently marching straight under the radar of the BfV and police.
In Dresden on Dec. 8, an anonymous Pegida speaker even began his speech by quoting the words of US black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, "I have a dream." He too had a dream, the demonstrator in Saxony said, a dream of the peaceful coexistence of all human beings and cultures. But then he arrived at what he called the hard reality: that we are in a state of war.
Was there an "objective reason," the speaker asked rhetorically, to invade Iraq, overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, intervene in Tunisia, depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and "provoke Russia with Ukraine?" "No!" the crowd shouted each time. "He who sows war will reap refugees," the Pegida speaker shouted to his audience of 10,000 Dresden citizens, and warned against the "perverse ideas" that are coming to Germany. "Do we have to wait until the conditions we see in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin have come to Saxony?" he asked, referring to a district in the nation's capital that is home to large Turkish and Arab immigrant populations and is wrought with urban problems.
Are Germans Yearning for 'Good Old Days'?
In a dispatch from the city titled, "Dresden Journal," the New York Times wrote: "In German City Rich with History and Tragedy, Tide Rises Against Immigration." Still, the author, who was promptly interviewed by MDR, the public broadcaster for the eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, praised the peaceful atmosphere at the demonstration, saying that the participants were in good cheer, "despite teeth-chattering cold." She told the German broadcaster that she had been under the impression that many were mourning the "good old days."
The only question is: Which good old days? Those after 1933, when Dresden, displaying the Nazi swastika, drove out its Jewish residents? Or those after 1945, when the East German Communist Party transformed an entire region into one that was virtually cut off from the Western world because its residents were geographically cut off from illegal broadcasts of West German television that provided a link to other East Germans to the rest of the world.
- Part 1: Anti-Muslim Movement Rattles Germany
- Part 2: Imaginations Run Wild