Geert Wilders is sitting on a plane, glancing at the clouds below and occasionally turning the page of a newspaper. A cameraman from a Dutch news agency is sitting behind him, filming his every movement.
The plane lands in London, after the short flight from Amsterdam. Wilders, 46, the head of the populist right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), is the first to disembark. This is the first time he has been to Britain in eight months.
He is not detained by a border official this time, as he was in February, when the British government denied Wilders entry into the country after declaring him a "serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society." He went anyway, with 50 journalists in tow, and he was sent back to the Netherlands immediately. His poll ratings went up dramatically after the London incident, and he owes much of his recent rise in popularity to the British decision. Now that the government has overturned its ban and he is permitted to enter the country once again, Wilders plans to make it a triumphant return.
Aside from a lunch with a member of the House of Lords, Wilders doesn't have much to do in London, but he needs a few more photos. A limousine takes him from Heathrow Airport to the Houses of Parliament, where he intends to give a press conference. A group of Islamists is already standing in front of the parliament building, shouting "Wilders, go to hell!" and carrying signs that read "Islam will rule the world." Wilders couldn't have wished for a more perfect setting for one of his appearances.
He gives a speech, which is short, probably because there isn't really much to say. He says that his being in London is a victory, not a victory for him personally, but "a victory for freedom of speech."
The usual questions follow: Why do you want to ban the Koran? Do you want to ban the Bible, too? Wilders gives his standard responses. Islam, he says, is not a religion but a fascist ideology, and the Koran is no different from Hitler's "Mein Kampf." And if that book is banned, he says, the Koran should also be banned. When making this argument Wilders, usually quotes the great British statesman Winston Churchill who, as he is quick to point out, once made the same comparison. Quoting Churchill would be highly appropriate for this appearance before the global press in London, but Wilders is so agitated that he has completely forgotten about the British war hero.
"We have good relations with our Muslims. The only one who is creating tension is you," says one journalist. "The Jews were the last group that was persecuted in Europe because of its religion," another reporter calls out. "I accept no parallels," says Wilders. Finally, he says that it's important to not just debate with friends, or there would be no debate. Then he gets up and leaves.
Last of a Generation
Geert Wilders is an exceptionally gifted right-wing populist, the last of a generation determined to stir things up in Europe. In Switzerland, Christoph Blocher was ousted from office, in Austria right-wing politician Jörg Haider died in a car accident, and German politician Ronald Schill was caught on video snorting cocaine in Brazil.
Wilders stands a chance of becoming prime minister of the Netherlands. The country's next parliamentary election is scheduled for May 2011, and his party, the PVV, has been leading in the polls for months. According to those polls, if elections were held today the PVV would capture about 20 percent of the vote. It performed almost as well in the European elections in June as the ruling Christian Democrats.
The leader of the PVV is featured on the cover page of some newspaper every day, and every headline about Wilders on the Internet gets three times as many clicks as a headline about Jan Peter Balkenende. Although Balkenende is the Dutch prime minister, Wilders already holds considerable sway over the government. Since he left the liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy in 2004, he has applied great pressure on Dutch administrations with his campaign against Islam. Many of his sentences begin with the words "One ought to be allowed to say that ," followed by statements like: Dutch culture is better than that of the Muslims; there is an Islamic invasion; the Muslims are turning Europe into an Arab colony. The reality is more complicated than that, but Wilders prefers to use simple words.
He wants to "recapture" the Netherlands from the hands of the Islamists, street-by-street and neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Wilders uses expressions like "Moroccan street terrorists" and "the Islamization tsunami" -- soundbites that are made for headlines. For him, Muslims are people who pollute the public space with their headscarves, their "beards of hate," burqas and mosques. Wilders even recently called for a tax on headscarves: €1,000 ($1,500) per person and year. But he insists that he has nothing against Muslims, only against Islam.
This is an abstruse verbal balancing act, but the people of this small, wealthy, liberal country are not troubled by Wilders' outrageous remarks. Much has changed in the Netherlands since the day, five years ago, when a fanatical Islamist shot and killed the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, then slit his throat and pinned a threatening message to his chest with a knife. Nov. 2, 2004 was the Netherlands' Sept. 11, and after that day many politicians declared that the country was now at war.
It was the day that Geert Wilders' rise to prominence began.
Just the Usual Death Threats
Anyone who wants to meet with Wilders must first pass through an X-ray machine at the entrance to the Dutch parliament building, as well as two security checkpoints in the section where the members have their offices. A bodyguard is sitting in front of Wilders' office door, and the window is covered with a bulletproof film.
Wilders is sitting at the window, drinking orange juice, his peroxide-bleached hair almost glowing in the dim light. It looks like one of Mozart's wigs, or even a protective helmet. Much has been written about his hair, even that he dyes it to hide the influence of a supposedly Indonesian Jewish grandmother. In any case, Wilders doesn't come across as the kind of man who could cause the NATO secretary general to fear retaliation against Dutch troops in Afghanistan, but rather as a rabbit holed up in its dark burrow.
Two death threats, says Wilders by way of a greeting. "Just the usual," he adds. For Wilders, the threatening letters are his way of taking the country's temperature. On this particular morning, it's only slightly above normal.
Wilders has been under police protection for the last five years. The government built him a house that resembles a prison more than a residence, with bomb-proof walls, bullet-proof windows and security cameras everywhere. For the last five years, Wilders has lived in a world of back doors and armored limousines, a world in which he is constantly accompanied by a dozen bodyguards. When he does go out in public, perhaps to hand out flyers in a market square, his appearance seems more like a bank robbery than a demonstration of populism.
Wilders was the target of 303 of the 424 threats made against Dutch politicians last year. People who have written threatening letters or made threatening calls are put on trial somewhere in the country almost every day. The average fine for making threatening or insulting statements against Wilders is about €500. The police have even developed a special form for citizens to file complaints against Wilders.
'I Don't Want to Insult Anyone'
Where does all this hate come from? "I don't want to insult or provoke anyone," says Wilders, adding that in a free society, one ought to be allowed to voice criticisms, even if someone feels insulted as a result.
There are a million Muslims living in the Netherlands today, about six percent of the country's population. Only a few hundred of them are radical Islamists, and perhaps a few thousand have actually committed crimes. But facts like these have taken a back seat to people's emotions and fears. The Dutch have become wary of their own country, where veiled women and men in kaftans are now part of daily life. After the murder of Theo van Gogh, the author Geert Mak spoke of the fearmongering practiced by politicians and the media. Wilders is the biggest fearmonger of all.
The American historian James Kennedy called the Netherlands a "country of discarded epochs." It is a country in which history moves fitfully rather than continuously. One of those fitful movements, the murder on Nov. 2, 2004, brought long suppressed thoughts to the surface.
The country's major parties have also moved to the right since then. For decades, the Netherlands' main center-right and center-left parties said nothing about problems with Moroccans and Turks -- out of helplessness, lack of interest and a sense of tolerance. Now some have copied Wilders' ideas, hoping to win support by being even more right-wing than he is.
Always a Step Ahead
But the original is always a step ahead of his imitators. When members of the government generously offered to include Wilders' party as a junior partner in the coalition government, he told them defiantly to their faces that they reminded him of a rundown old car, stuck in the sand with a dead battery, a dog urinating on its front tires. And then he demanded that they step down immediately.
This is a typical Wilders comparison. He has also likened the government to sour milk that causes diarrhea. He likes to compare himself, on the other hand, to the wind. "Someone has opened the window, and a fresh wind is coming in. Politicians hate the fresh wind. It makes them panic. They try to shut the window, but that's no longer possible."
In the parliament, Wilders is sharp-tongued and outrageous, but during the conversation with SPIEGEL in his office, he sounds more like an elementary school teacher. His sentences are carefully considered and his arguments are polished from repetition. He is not an eccentric intellectual like his predecessor, Pim Fortuyn, nor is he a man of the people with the common touch. Instead, he is a polite crusader against Islam, a right-wing populist who loves Israel, America and Maggie Thatcher, and who strongly opposes discrimination against women and homosexuals.
The Populist without Qualities
Otherwise, not much is known about Wilders. He once worked in a German pickling plant to earn money for a stay in Israel. He studied law and worked for the Dutch social security agency before going into politics. He is married, but all that is known about his wife is that she is a former diplomat from Hungary.
He always wears the same black suits and, preferably, a thin red tie. Sometimes he replaces the red tie with an ice-blue, moss-green or rapeseed-yellow tie -- all bold colors, no nuances. The only speck of personality he allows himself to reveal in public is his hair color.
Wilders is a populist without features, without scandals and without a public personal life. It seems as if he were playing a role, the role of the right-wing populist Geert Wilders, an actor playing himself, always remaining at a distance from the world and himself. His habitat is the gray zone between justified criticism of Muslims who are unwilling to integrate into Dutch society and blunt xenophobia. As a result, he seems to be capable of repelling criticism, such as comparisons to the Nazis, like it was drops of water -- the Teflon man of Dutch politics. This is what makes him so successful and so dangerous -- because his intolerance is expanding in the center of Dutch society like an oil slick.
His mementoes and awards, lined up on a sideboard in his office like soccer trophies in a teenager's room, document his slow climb from ostracized parliamentary outsider to head of his party. In 2007, he received the "Clear Speech" prize and the "Politician of the Year" award. " Fitna," his anti-Islam film, was released in 2008. And in 2009, he received the Florida Security Council's Free Speech Award and the American Freedom Alliance's Hero of Conscience award. Wilders likes to see himself as the last man standing in the fight for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
Critics, on the other hand, tend to see him as a dictatorial ruler of his own personal realm, the PVV. The party has only one member: Geert Wilders. He is its parliamentary leader, chairman, chief ideologue and treasurer rolled into one. He has even denied party membership to his eight fellow members of parliament. He also forbids them from going into the parliamentary press club, because the PVV's domestic policy spokesman once punched the bartender there when he refused to serve him any more alcohol.
The Fear of Losing Control
Wilders is obsessed with the fear of losing control: over his party, his members of parliament, the news and his public image. He only appears on talk shows if he is the only guest. He refuses to talk to moderate Muslims, who have invited him to attend discussions countless times. He prefers to attack and then withdraw to observe from afar the indignation his comments elicit. His most effective line of attack is his call for a ban on the Koran. Wilders, like everyone else, knows that he will never achieve a ban on the Koran. But he enjoys the provocation.
His other positions are well known. He supports the values of the majority culture and a ban on immigration. In this respect, Geert Wilders hasn't been more creative than Haider and others, but there is one difference: With Wilders, everything somehow always comes back to Islam. Proposals to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67? "If we had decided against immigration and in favor of older people, we could easily have saved the €4 billion that we're now missing," says Wilders. His biggest political victory is that he has managed to paint the Muslims as the Netherlands' main problem. In doing so, he has probably Islamicized the country more than the Muslims have themselves.
Wilders' latest idea, now, in the midst of the economic crisis, is to calculate the true costs of immigration -- non-Western immigration, to be exact. In other words, he wants to know how much Muslims are costing the government. He has set up a Web site to collect public comments. People write about things like how much the bus driver at an Islamic school earns, or that someone was recently compensated by the government because of the mosque on his street. All of these anecdotes are to become part of Wilders' accounting of immigration, and to lead to a convenient number that concentrates people's fears and anger. It will be Wilders' key number in the 2011 election campaign.
Until then, his goal is to win the smaller elections and to enlarge the trophy collection on his sideboard. On this day he adds a new trophy: the "Bock Beer Prize" of the beer brewers' association. It was awarded to Wilders after the association conducted a survey to find out with which parliamentary floor leader the Dutch would prefer to drink a bock beer. They voted for Wilders. It's a prize awarded by the man in the pub -- for a right-wing populist, perhaps the most important prize of all.
The representative from the brewers' association is waiting in a sterile conference room in the parliament building. He is somewhat agitated and even trembles a little as he holds the trophy in his hand, a beer glass on a plastic base.
The door flies open and Wilders walks in, accompanied by three bodyguards and a spokeswoman. He looks at the trophy, looks at the brewer and looks at a gift basket filled with bottles of bock beer. "Fantastic," he says.
The brewer gives a short speech about the relationship between politics and beer. The men pose for a photo. Fantastic, Wilders says three times, as if he were his own echo. Then he grabs the gift basket and walks out of the room, behind a phalanx of bodyguards.
Geert Wilders, it seems, is unstoppable.