“Nazi Candy?” And Other Observations from a PEGIDA Rally
BERLIN—German media was not impressed with the recent revival of the protest marches of the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) on April 13 in Dresden. Having been there in person, though, this interpretation might be a bit too premature. Neither the uniting narrative of the protesters nor the widespread public loathing of mainstream German parties is due to PEGIDA organizers or Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders giving a speech in Dresden. Instead, these sentiments can be channeled by whatever political force can forge a message speaking directly to the nearly 30 percent of Germans who completely distrust their political elites.
What was not very impressive about the recent revival of the PEGIDA protest marches was overall attendance. PEGIDA, which is not a political party but rather portrays itself as a “pressure group,” expected 30,000 people to listen to Geert Wilders’ speech. But official figures estimated only 10,000 attendees; my personal estimate is even lower. German media quickly interpreted this as the end of the protest marches, whose organizers show clear ties to right-extremist, neo-fascist groups. However, after speaking with various protesters on the ground in Dresden, I am left with a different impression.
- Around 1,500 policemen are on duty to separate the 10,000 PEGIDA sympathizers from the 3,000 counter-protesters. Heavily armored, all in black, and backed up by armored police vehicles, they contribute to the sense of the city being under siege. In order to enter the street leading to the field of the protesters, I must cross a line of 30 officers.
- At the protest site, the strong presence of German police feels reassuring against a far more disturbing sight: various Neo-Nazis can easily be spotted amongst the protesters. The scene is so intimidating that some ethnic minority spectators prefer to observe the rally from a distance.
- In the crowd, the unified narrative of the protesters pours in from all sides: loathing of German asylum policy, straightforward anti-Semitism, calls for reintroducing the Deutsche Mark, strong sympathies for Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticizing open borders in Europe, and ubiquitous anti-Americanism. I am told that the most important issue is “to finally free Germany from U.S. domination.” They say it is clear that one can no longer trust German politicians as “they are all selling out the country to the multiculturalists, the Eurocrats, and the imperialists in Washington.”
As extreme as these sentiments might sound, they do not come from the obvious Neo-Nazis among the protesters, who account for only one-quarter of the turnout. Instead, the majority of the people who were present are those one meets in the supermarket, who fix your heating system, or you play football with. In short, they are part of the German middle classes.
When I engaged some in conversation, I felt a deep sense of gratitude on their part that I cared about their concerns. Within seconds, I sensed an honest feeling of belonging, of bonding with me simply for listening to their interpretation of the world. They offered candy, drinks, and a ride back to the main station. Along the way, I heard a repetitive chorus: “I spent my life rebuilding this nation from the ruins of World War II, and now look what it has become! I am scared and angry, but old. But you are still young and strong, you can change this country for the better!”
These protesters crave a society without visible multiculturalism. A Germany not committed to international treaties. A country that adheres to “traditional” values and gender roles.
German politicians are not meeting these demands. What is even worse in the protesters’ opinions is that German establishment politicians once promised to tighten asylum and migration laws and to keep Germany out of international cooperation, but then did just the opposite. The conclusion among the protestors? “They are liars. A bunch of liars! That is it!”
“Do you want some candy for on the way?” asked the PEGIDA-sympathizing grandmother with whom I spoke the longest. My friends jokingly took to calling it “Nazi-candy.” As we headed back to the Dresden Main Station, heavily guarded by the men and women in black with “POLIZEI” written on their back, I was certainly left puzzled.
In Dresden, the PEGIDA protesters could mobilize hardly one-third of their sympathizers because their organization is still in its early stages. It also lacks a political program, the ambition to form a party (for now), and it is clearly affiliated with far-right groups under surveillance by German intelligence. Still, the movement can rely on something only very few political movements can count on: A deeply-rooted feeling in substantial parts of the German middle classes that established parties are not taking their concerns seriously, and that mainstream politicians have “sold their beloved country out.”
This feeling of helplessness manifests itself through conspiracy theories, xenophobia, nationalism, and a hatred of all established German parties. Polls show that this feeling is shared by up to 30 percent of the German electorate. Though these protesters have a leader at the present moment in PEGIDA, many German citizens with similar feelings are still largely disconnected to any political establishment. Should an established political party find a message that connects with all them — protesters and disaffected citizens alike — that party could coalesce into a formidable force in German politics.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.