In Angela Merkel’s 2015 New Year address, the German chancellor told the country it should aid Ukrainians, Iraqis and Syrians who have escaped war and death in their countries. “It goes without saying that we help them and take in people who seek refuge with us,” she said.
The chancellor’s comments were in keeping with her recent focus on “immigrant-friendly politics”, argues Dr Gökce Yurdakul, professor of diversity and social conflict at Humboldt University in Berlin. Yurdakul also points out that Merkel has “opened her party to politics which embrace a more diverse society.”
Some Germans, however, are not so keen on the change. In Dresden, the capital of Saxony in the east of the country, protesters gather every Monday to express their dissatisfaction. The rallies are organised by PEGIDA, an anti-immigration movement known un-affectionately as the “pinstriped Nazis” and whose full name sums up their central philosophy: Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”.
As German cities go, Dresden has a low number of immigrants. Why then has this city become the cradle of such protests? Yurdakul says that given its history as part of East Germany, Dresden has suffered from political oppression and lived through all the advantages and disadvantages of the transformation from a communist country to a western democratic society.
“For that reason, Dresden is one of the epicentres of this enormous social change and perhaps that’s why it’s more inclined to politically mobilise,” she suggests. Dresden was also bombed heavily during World War II, and many people lost not only friends and relatives, but also their belongings and properties. “So they have been carrying that trauma over the generations,” she explains.
Either way, argues Yurdakul, the people in the crowds feel that their voices and concerns are not being represented in politics and that political decisions are being made without their consent. Their anger stretches further, too, to the EU, who they accuse of top-down, exclusive decision making on such matters.
This feeling of being shut out of politics has come about in part because of what Yurdakul calls Merkel’s new “refugee accommodating politics”. Her move to the centre, away from the right, has “upset” the more conservative followers of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
“These are things we wouldn’t have heard from the Christian Democrats a few years ago,” Yurdakul reiterates. “Their coming into the mainstream made an opening for another more right-wing party to take the vacated place, which is the Alternative für Deutschland,” she adds in reference to the AfD, a conservative political party who are also against immigration and have openly backed PEGIDA.
PEGIDA may be at the forefront of the rallies, but the crowds are made up of a mixture of AfD supporters, anti-Merkel demonstrators, football hooligans, middle-class Germans, neo-Nazis, anti-left demonstrators and retirees. They have a range of grievances and demands; for example some are protesting against licence fees for public radio and TV. But anti-immigration and anti-Muslim discourse is their core complaint: “The way that it crystallises at the end is a very racist discourse against refugees and against Turks and Muslims,” says Yurdakul.
Critics in the media say those attending such protests are the “losers of globalisation” who are not engaged in the global process as much as the rest of Germany. In the last 20 years, explains Yurdakul, Germany has changed dramatically through an influx of immigrants and, of course, more recently with a relatively larger number of refugees arriving from the Middle East and North Africa compared to other countries in Europe. Last year alone, Germany took in 200,000 immigrants, more than any other country in Europe.
Because of the low immigration percentage in the former German Democratic Republic, the east of the country has had significantly less contact with immigrants themselves, which in turn creates a fear of the unknown. This fear has been translated into chants and slogans that Yurdakul describes as “comedy”. For example, in this video, published on Germany’s public broadcasting station ARD, one protester declares that they do not want to celebrate Christmas in a mosque in 20 years’ time. Others say they don’t want their daughters to be dressed in burqas in 100 years, or that there are too many Turks on the streets. It is “racist, irrational and ignorantly articulated,” says Yurdakul. PEGIDA demonstrators are critical of the German media, label it as “liar-press”, and generally refuse to give media interviews. This YouTube video is one of the few media outings of the demonstrators.
“People are entitled to their own ideas. They can make their claims, but I find the way they make their claims and the words they’re using unacceptable. Using racist words against refugees, or Turks, or immigrants, that’s also unacceptable. They are trying to create scapegoats for their political and social problems, this enemy is constructed as Turks, Muslims or refugees.”
This week’s protest is said to have been the biggest yet, estimated at around 18,000 people (an increase on last month’s record of 17,000). But there are still a far greater number of Germans not showing up to and supporting these meetings. “There are also a lot of movements, public announcements and defamation of different organisations including the representative of the church against this kind of hate speech against immigrants, minorities and refugees in Germany,” says Yurdakul.
On the evening of 5 January, the night following the rally in Dresden, Cologne Cathedral turned off its lights in protest against the march. Dresden’s opera house also turned off its lights in defiance of an earlier march through the city. In the PEGIDA rally in Berlin, which was much smaller, the lights of the Brandenburg Gate was also turned off. This shows that there is no general public support for PEGIDA.
There have also been a number of counter-demonstrations. The largest anti-PEGIDA march so far was held last month in the southern city of Munich, where at least 12,000 people rallied under the banner “Make space – refugees are welcome”.
Because of the demographic of the country, high numbers of elderly population and low fertility rates, Germany has a huge work deficit coming up, says Yurdakul. People are retiring and so it makes sense for Germany to take in more immigrants to fill in for the absence of the workers – it is important for a constant labour force to exist in order to ultimately help fund pensions for the retired. “It’s a bit paradoxical to reject immigrants in that sense, because we need immigrants in Germany,” she points out.
Sadly, racism against immigrants has been taking place for many decades in Germany. It is therefore hard to tell if recent reports of the arson attacks on mosques and assaults on women with headscarves are related to these rallies and protests. Yurdakul explains that after the wall came down in 1989, there have been a range of violent attacks in which Turkish homes were set on fire with fatalities. A member of the National Social Underground, a far-right terror organisation, is still being tried for serial murder of immigrants between 2000-2006 in Germany.
“Racism is a part of many countries in Europe and outside Europe and it’s also a part of German history and German society. This has been happening a little bit more frequently, recently, for example setting fire to mosques, but racist attacks have happened in different ways in the past as well.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.