Nationalism and role of Pegida

Tina Becker examines the impact of Germany’s new rightwing force

I must admit that the first time I heard of the Patriotischen Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Pegida - Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) I couldn’t help laughing. A country of 80 million like Germany is hardly on the verge of being taken over by its 4.5 million Muslims (about five percent of the population).

But then the so-called Abend-spaziergänge (evening walks) of Pegida in Dresden grew in size, from a couple of hundred in October 2014 to a whopping 25,000 people on its January 12 demonstration, though this was no doubt bolstered by the terror attacks in Paris a few days before. The German media is going crazy over Pegida - it has been a top item on news bulletins for many weeks now. Chancellor Angela Merkel has given interview after interview to warn against “those preaching hate and division” and on January 10 more than 100,000 people came out all across Germany to protest against the new formation.

As I write, news is coming through of the resignation of Lutz Bachmann, Pegida’s founder, after the publication of photos that appear to show him posing as Adolf Hitler.

So what exactly is Pegida? Why has it attracted so many people? What impact has it had on German politics? And how should the left deal with this phenomenon?


Pegida started life as a closed Facebook group in October last year. Bachmann said he took the initiative to set it up after witnessing a demonstration of PKK supporters in Dresden, who demanded weapons for the banned organisation. He was disgusted by such “foreign wars” being fought on German soil. The fact that the PKK is currently fighting Islamic State in Syria seemed to have passed him by.

Nevertheless, he gathered a group of 11 co-thinkers around him, who together have been running the demonstrations. Amongst them are, as you would expect, some rather dubious people with connections to Hooligans Gegen Salafisten (Hooligans Against Salafis), the Islamophobic blog Politically Incorrect, the French nationalist Bloc Identitaire and the beautifully misnamed German Defence League, which cooperates with the English Defence League and really does use an English name to defend everything that is good and true about, well, Germany.1

If you look at the “six key demands” that the Pegida leadership put out at the beginning of January, you could be forgiven for thinking you are reading an excerpt from the programme of the UK Independence Party (and, like Ukip, Pegida is being targeted by the mainstream media: every day, a new spokesperson is outed for having said this or that ridiculous thing 10 years ago).

The six demands are:

1. Introduce new immigration legislation to stop “uncontrolled immigration” and instead promote “quality immigration” along the lines of Switzerland and Canada (ie, only the well-qualified or rich can enter).

2. Amend the Grundgesetz (basic law) to feature integration as “a right and a duty”.

3. Implement a “consistent extradition policy” and re-entry ban for Islamists and religious fanatics.

4. Introduce ‘direct democracy’ through more national referenda.

5. End warmongering against Russia in favour of a “peaceful togetherness of Europeans” without “dictate from Brussels”.

6. Provide more money for internal security and particularly the police.

The threat of the “Islamisation” of Germany itself no longer features in Pegida’s official demands (though it was part of the two longer previous versions). This is mainly because the media had a very easy time demonstrating the absurdity of the idea. Pegida supporters also looked like fools when trying to explain what they mean by it. Instead, the organisers have recently been trying to portray Pegida mainly as a “protest movement” that fights for more “people power”.

In the process, they have been moving closer and closer to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a relatively new political party that caused shockwaves at the 2013 general elections, when it just missed the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament. At the European elections in May 2014 it polled seven percent. Similarly to Ukip, the AfD aims to attract disgruntled conservatives and the petty bourgeoisie; its main aim is to ditch the euro. The former president of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), Hans-Olaf Henkel, is co-chair of the AfD and leads its most pro-business wing.

This wing is not too keen on a fusion with Pegida, mainly because of its wackiness and support from outright neo-Nazis. Which is one reason why the group’s leaders are continually asking demonstrators not to speak to the press. In the only survey conducted so far - at the Dresden demonstration - the ‘typical’ Pegida participant emerged as a middle-aged and “middle class” male, whose earnings are slightly above the average wage. Despite the pollsters admitting that “two out of three” people on the demo refused to participate in the survey, the German media were quick to paint this as the “rebellion of middle class Germany”, something the organisers (and the AfD) would have been very happy with.2

Photographs and video footage from the demonstrations, however, paint a rather different picture: rows of short-haired neo-Nazis waving German flags are on full display. The reality is probably somewhere in between. Most of those who have set up Pegida have a proven record of links with the neo-Nazi scene and can no doubt be described as racist. But most of the participants have probably more in common with a typical Ukip voter than a goose-steppingNazi.

Pegida has now apparently established chapters in Bulgaria, Austria, Italy, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, reports Al-Jazeera.3 And the Daily Record says that there is now even a Scottish group.4 Though it looks very much like they are doing about as well as Pegida does outside Dresden - not very well at all. Groups have been set up all over Germany, but those demonstrations have not managed to attract more than a few hundred people each, most of them from the local neo-Nazi scene. The counterdemonstrations have been far bigger than the anti-Islam marches.

Big in the east

So what is it about Dresden? The fact that Pegida can get 20,000 people out to march has much to do with politics in eastern Germany. Dresden is the capital of the federal state of Saxony, which has been governed by the conservative CDU for 24 years and, although the left party, Die Linke, does consistently well there, polling regularly around 20%, it is a thoroughly conservative state.

In the federal elections last year, 4.9% voted for the far-right National Democratic Party (just missing the threshold for election), while the AfD got 9.7%. Pegida organisers also consciously link their marches to the so-called Montagsdemonstrationen that marked the last days of the German Democratic Republic. Just like in 1989, the protestors now chant “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the people). Although the unemployment rate has fallen over the years and now stands at around 10% (the average in Germany is just over 6%), many undoubtedly still feel they lost out following reunification.

The recession has further increased this feeling. Since the last general election in 2013, Merkel has been heading a coalition of Conservatives (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD), which has been attacking workers’ rights, collective bargaining and wage levels. On paper, the German economy is doing well compared to many others in Europe, but at the expense of a real decrease in living standards for many workers.

No doubt there is also a growing wariness of Islam in the population. This is not so much based on actual, concrete experiences of most people: outside Berlin you do not come across many women in headscarves or see stalls run by Muslim organisations trying to make new recruits. But the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘war on terror’ and the Islamophobia going hand in hand with it have predictably led to an increase in mistrust in Islam and its followers. The subsequent rise of al Qa’eda and IS has further increased this wariness. A recent survey found that 57% of people in Germany find Islam “threatening” or “very threatening”, while 61% thought that Islam “does not belong in the western world”.5

Of course, as with all surveys, it all depends on how the question is phrased and what happened in the news that particular week. A British poll conducted just after the beheading of Lee Rigby showed that “nearly two-thirds of people believe that there will be a ‘clash of civilisations’ between British Muslims and white Britons” (a rise of 9%) and 34% said they believe “British Muslims pose a serious threat to democracy”.6

Still, it must be said that Germany is particularly bad at integrating non-Germans - a factor which has clearly played a role in the current situation. Until 2000, Germany adhered fully to the philosophy of Recht des Blutes - you are German if you can prove that good German blood is flowing through your veins. There are apparently still whole settlements of ‘Germans’ in Russia, for example, even though nobody there speaks a word of German.

But many so-called ‘guest workers’ who arrived in Germany from the mid-1950s were never granted citizenship - and neither were their German-born children. More than 14 million Gastarbeiter came to Germany during the post-World War II boom, many bringing their families. But no attempt was made to integrate them into society. Quite the opposite. For example, a conscious decision was made not to offer them language courses. They were only supposed to be exploited for a few short years and then return to their home country.

But only 11 million did so. Of the 9.4% of foreigners living in Germany today, the biggest group, at over three million are those of Turkish origin. This first generation of immigrants in the main spoke no German at all, neither at home nor at work. Their children were sent to school with only rudimentary knowledge of German. There, they would sit at the back of the class, doing their best to catch up, but most left school without any qualifications: the next generation of cheap labour. There were four Turkish children in my class at primary school and none of them made it to the equivalent of GCSEs.

Even if their father or mother had qualified to take the extremely difficult naturalisation test, the children would then have to choose at the age of 23 whether they wanted to remain Turkish or become German. Only in the last few months has the law been changed, allowing everybody born after 1990 to hold dual nationality.

A few years back, I encountered a young Turkish man who told me he had lived in Germany for over 10 years before returning to Istanbul. I started to speak German to him, but he quickly stopped me, admitting that he could not understand what I was saying. He had socialised exclusively with Turkish people, lived in a Turkish neighbourhood and, despite going to school for a few years, had picked up hardly any German.

Rediscovering their religion is part of this generation’s struggle for identity. So Islam has certainly become more visible in Germany in recent years. And of course, in the wake of the atrocities committed in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, a certain radicalisation has taken place amongst German Muslims, just like those elsewhere.

But there is one last element that helps to explain the rise of Pegida and this cannot be found in Britain, at least not to the same degree: the overwhelming, all-encompassing pro-Israel propaganda of the entire German establishment. Of course, there is a pretty good reason for it. Starting from an early age, German ‘collective guilt’ about the holocaust is drummed into everybody. Any criticism of Israel is condemned as anti-Semitic. Even Die Linke has come out in favour of the right of Israel to “defend itself”. It cannot be overestimated how strong this feeling still is in Germany.


Merkel and other mainstream politicians have quickly jumped onto the anti-Pegida bandwagon. “This is a shame for Germany,” said home secretary Heiko Maas (SPD). Merkel herself has given interview after interview criticising the demonstrations where Pegida supporters exhibit “prejudices, coldness and even hate in their hearts”.

On January 10, the mayor of Dresden and the first minister of Saxony (both from the CDU) jointly organised a demonstration for“open-mindedness and tolerance”, where 35,000 people turned up. Most of the left, as far as I can tell, participated uncritically, effectively lining up with the bourgeoisie. There were certainly plenty of Die Linke flags on display and the German sister organisations of the Socialist Workers Party (Marx 21) and the Socialist Party in England and Wales (Sozialistische Alternative) reported it approvingly. But nowhere on their websites can I find any critical appraisal of the leadership of this and other demonstrations.

Socialist Worker reports that in “at least 12 cities, a broad spectrum, ranging from the radical left to more liberal groups, marched under the slogan, ‘This city stays colourful’. The centre-left Social Democratic Party, the more radical Die Linke (Left Party), the Green Party and the Confederation of German Trade Unions protested alongside migrant organisations and many radical left and anti-fascist groups.”7 Not to mention the conservative CDU and CSU, the churches and other such wonderful participants that Socialist Worker must have forgotten.

While Merkel and co present themselves as tolerant, caring politicians who defend Muslims and foreigners, they have been chipping away at the right to asylum for many years. The Bavarian sister party of the CDU, the CSU, demands even stricter enforcement. The conservative mayor of Dresden, Helma Orosz (the one leading the anti-Pegida demonstration), has initiated a “citizens advice line”, where “concerned citizens” can report problems with refugee hostels or asylum in general. Merkel, having attended a “vigil” called by German Muslim organisations in the wake of the Paris atrocities, now thinks that a “review of the current rules on immigration is appropriate”.8

The problem is not Pegida. The current government is already implementing or could easily implement many of its “key demands” (the clear exception being the scrapping of the euro). The real problem is, as so often, the lack of a clear alternative on the left, which has allowed the bourgeoisie to claim to be leading opposition to prejudice and hatred, while stridently upholding German nationalism.



1. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriotische_Europ%C3%A4er_gegen_die_Islamisierung_des_Abendlandes.

2. www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/pegida-studie-in-dresden-marschiert-die-mittelschicht-a-1012913.html.

3. america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/14/anti-islam-pegidamovementspreadsacrosseurope.html.

4. www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/hateful-here-german-anti-islam-extremists-4998372.

5. www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2015-01/islam-pegida-islamfeindlichkeit-religionsmonitor.

6. www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/may/25/woolwich-attack-islam.

7. Socialist Worker January 12.

8. www.mz-web.de/politik/35-000-menschen-zeigen-flagge-fuer-weltoffenes-dresden,20642162,29527602,view,asTicker.html.