PEGIDA demonstrations are taking to the streets of Dresden every week to protest against the Islamization of Europe. At the latest one last Monday, nearly 20,000 protestors turned out.
Al Jazeera Every Monday, more and more anti-Islam demonstrators come out to protest in Dresden. Hemmed in by dozens of police vans, more than 17,500 demonstrators stood in the December cold. For an hour and a half, they listened to speeches denouncing Germany’s political class and media institutions, cheered anti-immigrant rhetoric, sang Christmas carols and chanted slogans that rang off the 19th century facade of Dresden’s opera house.
Marchers on Monday carried banners reading “Courage for the truth”, “Stop immigrants abusing our social welfare system” and “We miss our country”.
Michael Stuetzenberger, 55, drove five hours from Munich to join the rally. “We’re being inundated by asylum-seekers and 70 percent of them have no right to be here,” he said. “We want to talk about that. And we’ve got a problem with Islam overrunning us in Germany and Europe. It’s just stupid to say that’s not happening because it is.”
The demonstration was the 10th in as many weeks and the largest to date. Loosely organized under the name PEGIDA, the rallies have shaken Germany’s image of itself as an open, tolerant country.
PEGIDA, Patriotische Europäer gegen eine Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West), has steadily grown from a Facebook page and a march of a few dozen people in late October into weekly demonstrations attracting thousands of people and the rapt, uncomfortable attention of German politicians and the media.
PEGIDA protesters say they’re worried Germany’s doors are too open. Last year the country had more refugee applications than any other country in the world. As 2014 draws to a close, German officials say they expect over 200,000 asylum claims, nearly twice 2013’s tally of 127,000. In the last four years, most of Germany’s refugees have come from Syria and Iraq.
“Germany’s becoming the world’s welfare office,” said Detlev, a 36-year-old German living in Switzerland who traveled to Dresden for the demonstration and declined to give his last name. “That has to change.”
Nearby, a middle-aged man holding a blue-and-white checked Bavarian flag on a long pole said he journeyed from Regensburg, more than 200 miles away, to express his dissatisfaction. “No one’s controlling where these people are coming from,” he said, shaking his head when asked for his name. “I’m just here to show we’re not OK with what’s going on.”
PEGIDA is something different. “It’s more of a cross-section, not a clear-cut right-wing extremist event,” said Michael Minkenberg, a political scientist at Viadrina University in Frankfurt an der Oder, as he surveyed the crowd. “I’m surprised at how many women and older people there are here.”
Local observers, too, have been shocked by the movement’s rapid success. “The repetition and regularity are unusual,” said Kulturbüro Sachsen’s Danilo Starosta, a Dresdener who has worked with the city’s immigrant community for decades. “In the last 20 years, I haven’t seen anything with such frequency or fast growth.”
Experts say protesters are often new to politics. At the rally, some on the square complained of feeling ignored by Germany’s elite and of being dismissed as neo-Nazis for criticizing Germany’s asylum policies. “A lot of people who are showing up aren’t part of any political constellation,” said David Begrich, an expert on the far right at the organization Miteinander e.V in Magdeburg. “They don’t feel represented by traditional institutions or parties.”
The Monday rallies have been widely condemned by German politicians. In mid-December, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Germans not to let themselves be “exploited” by far-right populism. “There’s no place for incitement and lies about people who come to us from other countries,” she said. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas called the demonstrations a “disgrace for Germany.”
“It’s also extremely dangerous for Merkel because a political movement is now opening up to the right of her conservative party and that had never happened before,” he said.
Local immigration activists say the political establishment’s reluctance to talk about asylum policy openly has contributed to the movement’s remarkable success. “It’s been clear for years that the numbers of asylum seekers was growing and was going to keep growing, but no one wanted to deal with it,” says Jakob Gilles, a member of Dresden Nazifrei and a co-organizer of the counterprotest. “Now people out there feel mega-screwed.”
On Monday the rally wrapped up with a halting rendition of the traditional German carol “Oh, du fröhliche” [Oh, You Joyful] and a round of the national anthem. Demonstrators poured out of the square in the direction of Dresden’s historic center. The next rally is scheduled for Jan. 5, after a pause for the holidays.
The demonstrators chanted, “Wir kommen wieder” (We’ll be back).