Fiz Garvie reportsIn the last few days and weeks, the ‘Pegida’ phenomenon has been spreading from Germany where it first started in October 2014 to other European countries, including Denmark, Belgium and now the UK where it staged its first demonstration in Newcastle on 1 March with further plans to march in London and Edinburgh. What is it and why is it happening now?
Pegida is an acronym for ‘Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the Occident (West)’. Its leader is Lutz Bachmann who initially had to resign after photos of him in a Hitler outfit appeared on social media; he has since been re-elected amongst ongoing internal faction-fighting and despite (or perhaps because of) his well-known links to the fascist NPD (National Party of Germany).
NPD is the biggest fascist organisation in Germany with 5,000 members but has had very little electoral success in the past few years as right-wing extremists have regrouped around other organisations.
Some of these were electoral parties such as ‘AfD’—Alternative for Germany—set up in 2013 with an anti-EU, anti-immigrant programme, but increasingly, fascists are taking openly to the streets—and Pegida seems to have given them exactly the opportunity they were looking for.
There is a history of brutal attacks on immigrants, asylum-seekers and anti-fascists in both east and western Germany, with 184 people murdered by neo-Nazis between 1990-2012 and 68 arson attacks on refugee hostels.
Pegida originated in Dresden, the capital of Saxony in eastern Germany, with weekly demonstrations of several thousands, and has remained strongest there, with 15,000 marching through the centre of town on 28 February. NPD-councillors marched openly with them plus football hooligans from local club Dynamo, to such an extent that Dresden police said they couldn’t guarantee to prevent violence.
In general, the police doesn’t have a good reputation for clamping down on the extreme right, being ‘blind in the right eye’ as the saying goes.
However, despite the obvious parallels with organisations like the English Defence League, Pegida also draws its support from some middle class voters who fear a loss of social status and the fragile economic gains made in better years; and the usual anti-immigrant rhetoric finds favour with those who already feel themselves second class citizens within Germany as a whole, where the legacy of reunification has meant lower wages and more economic insecurity in the east.
Less than 0.5 per cent of Dresden’s population is Muslim; but the fact that the main left-wing party, Die Linke, has not stood up for its poorer citizens in east Germany is probably more significant.
They have formed local government coalitions with the Christian Democrats (Conservatives) and voted to privatise social housing where there is a shortage. In Saxony too Die Linke lost 15,000 votes to AfD because they were seen as part of the ‘establishment’.
A survey by national television channel ZDF mid-January showed 17 per cent supported the Pegida demos in Dresden while 74 per cent were against. Germany has a proud and strong history of anti-fascist and anti-racist resistance and the Pegida marches were met with counter-demos many times their size all over Germany.
On 28 February, 72,000 people marched in the big cities, organised by trade unions, anti-fascist organisations, youth groups, refugee support agencies, churches and charities.
In Dresden itself, there was a ‘Refugees Welcome’ demo and an immigrants’ camp was set up outside the famous Opera; this was subsequently attacked by Pegida supporters and then taken down by police.
But Germany’s terrible history of fascism in the last century means that there is a huge awareness of the dangers this type of movement presents and a huge willingness on the part of young people, the trade unions and progressive groups in society to ensure fascism can never take hold again.
They also understand that they can’t rely on politicians and police to prevent racists and fascists from raising their ugly heads and must organise themselves.
Germany is now well into its second term of austerity politics, cuts in social services, attacks on workers’ living standards, privatisation and growing social inequality under Angela Merkel.
After the banking crisis, it didn’t suffer as deep a recession as the UK but the economy is slowing down; indeed according to the Bundesbank (German Central Bank) report in December, it is now hampered by a lack of skilled labour and actually calls for 500,000 immigrants to fill the gaps!
So immigration is not a real issue but in countries where there is little difference between left and right, Pegida will find a foothold. And in the UK, where Labour goes along with the Tories’ austerity narrative, disillusioned and desperate voters will turn to the likes of Pegida and UKIP, falling for their lies and racist rhetoric—unless we stop them, get bodies on the ground and promote a socialist alternative to the misery of capitalism.