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What is PEGIDA?

This is a guest post by Jurek Molnar

It is a great opportunity for me to provide for the readers and commentators of Harry’s Place some useful insights into the widely recognized but nevertheless often misunderstood phenomenon of PEGIDA. The purpose of this little essay is to introduce those readers who are not so familiar with the German political landscape to the circumstances in which PEGIDA was created and what kind of political motivation is behind this movement. I will not compare PEGIDA and its goals to other anti immigration parties like the English Defence League or the Front National. I have no substantial expertise regarding these parties. Instead I will try to give a balanced report what PEGIDA is, what it stands for and how it fits into the current political landscape of Germany.

Let’s check some facts first.

PEGIDA is the abbreviation for “Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlands“, a literal English translation would sound like: “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the occident.”

It is fundamental for the understanding of PEGIDA, that the important word here is not so much “Islamisation”, but the term “Abendland”. Usually translated as “occident”, “Abendland” has a deep connection to the debate over whether Germany and the Germans belong to the West or instead have a different place in history, echoing the influential philosophy of Oswalt Spengler and his magnum opus “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” (The decline of the west). Historically the German bourgeoisie is not rooted in the liberal tradition of Western Europe but is, due to the late nation building of the German feudal states in the late 19th century, connected to an anti-Western narrative. All German right wing parties in the 20th century rejected the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Anglo Saxon rationalism as a corrupt, foreign and therefore Jewish influence. The Nazis were just one particular extremist group among many others that favoured a special German way in history (“Deutscher Sonderweg”), opposing democracy, individual liberty and reason as the main source of political consensus.  The German historian Heinrich August Winkler has written an epochal work, “History of the West” (as far as I know it is still not translated into English), in which he describes in detail how Germans and German thinking has made the turn from an anti-western narrative into a leading Western power, that understands itself nowadays as a stronghold of Western values.

The fact that PEGIDA is referring to “Abendland” as something that has to be saved from Islam and Islamic extremism does tell us that the extreme right in Germany (and Austria for that matter) is no longer pursuing a special place for Germany in history. There is no “Deutscher Sonderweg” anymore. While the overwhelming majority of western Germany has internalised this paradigm long ago, Eastern Germans have had their struggles and problems with such a state of mind. PEGIDA is therefore a clear sign that Eastern Germany has also made some important steps forward in that matter. The term “Abendland” refers in the German tradition to the whole of Western Europe and its culture of reason, democracy and individual liberty. The official program of PEGIDA, consisting of 19 points is therefore a reasonable document that demands a stricter application of Immigration laws and the expulsion of all criminal immigrants. Additionally PEGIDA demands, that Germany should not allow immigrants to enter the country, who do not follow the constitutional principles of the German “Grundgesetz”. All in all, it is not a program I personally would support but there is nothing racist about it. There is no derogatory terminology or a wish to get rid of all the foreigners. It is interesting to note that this paper does not mention Islam, or the term “Islamisation” at all. Only one time there is reference to “Muslims”, saying that every Muslim has a right to live in Germany as long he or she is following the law. Nothing unusual, so why is there so much fuss about PEGIDA?

Let’s continue with the facts, before I will offer an explanation.

The founders of PEGIDA are mainly three persons. One is a man called Lutz Bachmann, who started a Facebook campaign in early 2014 to protest against the support of Kurdish rebels in Syria and Iraq by the German government. This facebook campaign was the starting point that grew into the foundation of PEGIDA. Germany, like other Western states, delivered throughout 2014 weapons to Kurds who belong to the PKK, the left wing Kurdish fighters in Turkey and Iraq led by Abdullah Öcalan, who is the most prominent detainee in a Turkish prison for almost a decade. Contrary to Bachmann’s claims, it wasn’t only the PKK which received weaponry from Germany, but that should not bother us for now. Bachmann was honoured last year by authorities in Saxony for his voluntary help in the great floods of 2013 that devastated Eastern German cities. He also is a convicted criminal who served a prison sentence for drug possession and he was charged several times with assault, burglary and theft. And he is also known as a frequent visitor of right extremist and Neo Nazi events. Bachmann shuns public appearances and refuses interviews.

The face of PEGIDA during their demonstrations is Kathrin Oertel, a 36 year old woman from a little town nearby Dresden who also oversees the financial issues of PEGIDA in the function of a treasurer. Like her organisational colleague Rene Jahn, the third important individual in the group, she comes from a settled professional career and represents a stable middle class background. Unlike Bachmann, Oertel and Jahn have no known connections to the right extremist scenes of Saxony and Thuringia. All PEGIDA demonstrations, small or big, have been peaceful, although extremist voices have also been heard. At the first look it seems to be a democratic movement, obedient of the law, attracting reasonable people and expressing relevant protest.

Nevertheless, there are some serious doubts about PEGIDA’s motives. Before the mighty appearance of 18,000 people in the city of Dresden thousands of protestors were mobilized from the whole of Germany by right wing extremist groups. Some came from neighbour cities, like Jena, Zwickau and Chemnitz, others from Cologne and Dortmund. While PEGIDA does have only little or no attraction for protestors in Western Germany or for that matter in most Eastern German cities, Dresden seems to be a home game for right wingers right now. Dresden is a city with history. The bombardment of Dresden at the end of WWII is still a powerful myth inside the circles of German Nazism. Every year a small demonstration celebrates the German victimhood, countered by left wing demonstrators and monitored with sceptical distance by ruling German politicians. While no right extremist party has representation in the German Bundestag, local bodies in Eastern Germany have elected right extremists with substantial votes up to 15% in German Federal states.

One remarkable aspect of Eastern Germany is that even 25 years after the reunification with West Germany, most areas suffer from economic crisis, unemployment, the demise of bankrupt cities and communities, and hence the emigration of youth into the prospect of Western cities, like Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hamburg or Vienna. (The biggest group of immigrants in Austria are former residents of Eastern Germany.) Eastern Germany is older than the rest of the country and is the stronghold of Germany’s “Die Linke” (The Left). Most votes the party gained for her 64 seats (out of 631) in the German Bundestag, come from the Eastern parts, where the former Party of Democratic Socialism, the PDS, now being part of “Die Linke”, has survived as a clone of the GDRs Communist party SED. But there is another detail that strikes the observer. By contrast with Western Germany, in the Eastern parts – in Saxony, Thuringia, Brandenburg for example – Muslims make no remarkable part of the population. In Dresden only 0.1% Muslims are even registered.  In Eastern Germany there has never been any substantial working immigration. The hotspots of Muslim population are in Berlin, in Hamburg, in Munich and in the coal mining areas of the Ruhrgebiet, around the cities of Dortmund, Leverkusen, Bochum, Köln (Cologne) or Gelsenkirchen. Immigrants and foreigners in Eastern Germany are mostly Asylum seekers, and residents of asylum homes or refugee facilities which the government had built in the last 25 years nearby residential areas and which have caused riots and public outrage. While in Western Germany working immigration has made Germans and Turks, Greeks, Spaniards or Yugoslavs colleagues and friends, in Eastern Germany immigrants who take part in the everyday life are still rare. Immigrants in the East – Roma, Africans, Albanians and Kurds – are associated, rightly or wrongly, with various kinds of criminality and disruptive behaviour.   People in the towns and villages of the East are only confronted with foreigners who are poor, not integrated and sometimes may even appear dangerous. There is no culture of colleagues working in the factories, but a paranoid fear that asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and refugees may endanger the little perspectives of wealth and luxury Eastern Germans dream so intensively of.  In 1992 mostly Asian asylum seekers were the subject of the notorious Rostock-Liechtenhagen riots. In the seaport of Rostock a mob of murderous residents attacked a group of immigrants from Asia, among them Vietnamese who had immigrated in the times of the GDR. The angry people of Rostock tried to burn the facility where the Asians hid, and the terrorized waited two days for the police to protect them. In Eastern Germany no radical Islamist group is currently operating in a visible manner and since the domestic intelligence has prevented several terror attacks by home grown terrorists, it is assured that the authorities have not ignored such threats.

If anything then the people of Eastern Germany may have many problems but radical Islam or the imposition of Islamic culture into their society is not one of them. The main problem of Eastern Germany is not Muslim immigration, or radical Islam or the Islamisation of society, but simple and well organised Neonazism.

I have to explain something to readers who locate in the UK, or France. Both countries suffer from Islamist fanatics; the latest chapter of horror in Paris is still shocking us.

An interesting difference between the UK, the USA (and to some degree also France) and Germany is that in Germany the social pressure that forces immigrants to integrate themselves is much higher. The more one gets North the higher social constraints dominate people’s interactions. Even stricter than Germany in terms of requirements that immigrants have to match are only Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden. It is one paradoxical consequence of Britain’s and France’s dedication to personal freedom and individual liberty that Islamists found a safe haven in London or Paris, at least in the nearer past. I have no meaningful answer to the problem and find myself not competent enough to give advice, how this problem can be tackled.  Although there are enough Islamic radicals in Germany they do not represent a terrorist threat, at least not in the cruel dimensions of the assault on Charlie Hebdo or the murder of Lee Rigby or the 7/7 attacks. Germany, it should be noticed, has sold Israel valuable submarines that can carry nukes and has substantially contributed to Israel’s naval capacities. Islamists have the same motivation to attack Germany as they have reasons to attack France or Great Britain, both, like Germany, supporter of Kurds, and enemies of ISIS. Germany’s Muslim population still has its problems with integration but the intense radicalisation that is rampant in Great Britain, from “Trojan Horse” to Rotherham is still not in any way comparable to the German situation.

But let’s get back to the subject.

Eastern Germany has a deep rooted problem with Nazism. For more than 20 years the German domestic intelligence, the “Verfassungsschutz” has tried to infiltrate the Neo Nazi scenes by paying informants who happened to be leaders and major figures of Nazi groups all over the place. In reality Neo Nazis infiltrated the intelligence, providing information about scheduled police raids, and offering organisational protection under the umbrella of state security for politicians of the extreme right. The terror group “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) operated more or less unchecked since 1999 by authorities and murdered at least 11 people, mostly little shopkeepers of foreign descent in all parts of Germany. The law enforcement authorities suspected criminal elements inside migrant communities and stayed completely blind to the criminal activities of paid agents of the “Verfassungsschutz”. The only surviving member of the NSU, a woman named Beate Zschäpe faces currently her trial in Munich. It is still unclear if the trial also tries to uncover the total failure of the authorities. The amount of corruption and involvement was so shocking that half of the staff of the “Verfassungschutz” in Saxony and Thuringia had to resign.

But the NSU is not the only example of Eastern Germany’s Nazi problem. Every year African immigrants are attacked, beaten up, some are even murdered by thugs who established in some areas “No Go Zones” for immigrants. Riots against existing asylum seeker facilities or planned ones are a constant companion of political struggle. While interestingly polls show that anti-Semitism is lower in Eastern Germany, all sorts of racist hatred and extreme resentment against all non German residents are much higher rated than elsewhere in the country. The Left is in most of these areas the strongest political contender, but the Left has cultivated a narrative in which East Germans are the victims of capitalism, Western ignorance, social crisis and loss of identity. Politicians of the Left who dare to criticise the racist atmosphere are rare, they have to compete with right wing extremists who play this victim game much better. The Left has no particular recipe for this problem except to ignore it or to feed racist and paranoid vibrations herself, in order to maintain the status of a popular party that gains substantial support in the next election.

In this story of thugs, murders and Nazi criminals, the PEGIDA slogan that demands the protection for the occident against Islamisation seem rather inaccurate. Although their form of protest expresses a lot of legitimate concern, the true motivation for doing so is merely tactical. The grand narrative of Eastern Germans is still their victimhood. While PEGIDA favours foreigners and Muslims as the main culprits for their misery, the left wing extremists who participate in the “Montagsmahnwachen” (Monday pickets) sympathize with Putin and Assad, want the West to stop all sanctions against Russia, and accuse the USA and Israel of all possible crimes that are told in the catalogue of conspiracy theories. Both, the left and the right version, consider the population of Eastern Germany as victims who face danger from outside, no absurd argument left out. And the people of Dresden, Leipzig and Jena are still prone to hear more of the same.

Neither PEGIDA nor the crazy conspiracy theorists from the Monday pickets are a majority in absolute numbers, but they have managed to win some battles over East Germans’ identity that the ruling politicians still have to catch up with.