Although some PEGIDA rallies have seen record numbers, even more German citizens have mobilized against the movement.
“Do not follow people who organize these, for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate.”
These were the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her new year’s speech in response to the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, an anti-Muslim street movement that has sprung up in Germany.
However, since the movement’s formation in mid-October, many Germans have not only chosen not to follow it, they are taking to the streets to oppose it.
As its name suggests, PEGIDA stands against what it calls the “Islamization” of Europe. Its followers are mixed bunch. It has undoubtedly become populated with neo-Nazis, hooligans, and far-Right thugs. However, it has also attracted middle- and working-class German citizens who claim to be frustrated with the country’s political parties and fear that Muslim immigrants are a threat to so-called traditional German values
This comes at a time, too, when Germany is sorting out asylum claims from more than 200,000 refugees in war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq.
PEGIDA is headed by Dresden-native Lutz Bachmann. As Michael Bittner explains at The Guardian, Bachmann has had success selling the demonstrators “an us-versus-them logic,” framing immigrants, politicians, and the media, collectively, as the enemy. Dresden has seen the largest turnout of PEGIDA support with one event drawing more than 17,000 and another on Jan. 5 that drew an estimated 10,000 people.
Although Dresden PEGIDA rallies have seen record numbers, which Bittner explains coincides with the city’s complex history, even more German citizens have mobilized against the movement.
In fact, Germans have shown tremendous pushback and have taken a stand publicly to say that the xenophobia associated with PEGIDA does represent all of Germany. Here’s a round-up of the campaigns to counter PEGIDA:
Counter protests arise
Although PEGIDA saw success in Dresden, the movement’s demonstrators in other parts of Germany were outnumbered by counter-protesters opposed to the group’s message. In Cologne, much to the mayor’s delight, 20,000 citizens showed up against the demonstration and proceed to drown out the 250 PEGIDA supporters, forcing them to cancel the event.
Meanwhile in Berlin, it was reported that 5,000 showed up and blocked about 300 PEGIDA members from marching through the city. Reports said that similar occurrences took place at rallies in Hamburg, Stuttgart and Muenster where an estimated 22,000 citizens showed up to oppose the anti-Muslim movement.
The counter-protesters carried banners that stated, “Nazis, out” as well as signs supporting refugees and immigrants.
Lights go out across Germany
Some of Germany’s largest tourist attractions and institutions also took part in protesting PEGIDA by refusing to provide lights and backdrops to the movement. During the Cologne rally, the city’s world-renowned Cathedral turned off its outer lights in opposition. The cathedral’s provost, Norbert Feldhoff, explained cutting the lights was a symbolic gesture to signal the disapproval of PEGIDA’s message, which he says has “Nazi-ist, racist and extremist” roots.
Bridges over the Rhine and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate also extinguished their lights during the rallies, leaving protesters — both with and against PEGIDA — in darkness. Even corporate entities such as Volkswagen’s plant participated in the blackout to reinforce that the company “stands for an open, free and democratic society.”
Celebrities and politicians speak out
Along with Angela Merkel’s condemnation, many public figures also came out in opposition to the group. A mix of about 80 politicians, celebrities, artists, and athletes signed onto a petition published by the German newspaper Bild, titled, “No to Pegida.”
Ralf Jäger, the interior minister for North Rhein-Westphalia, went far as calling the movement’s leaders “neo-Nazis in pinstripes.” Dilek Kolat, Berlin’s integration leader, called PEGIDA “an attack on peaceful co-existence in our society,” while Stuttgart’s mayor Fritz Kuhn expressed “pride and joy” at the sight of the large turnout against the group.
Far-Right, xenophobic movements such as PEGIDA must be watched closely. Any group who seeks to scapegoat and disparage vulnerable communities needs be exposed and countered. And in Germany, many citizens are doing just that and refusing to let an intolerant few speak on behalf of their country.