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What does Dresden have against Muslims?

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The baroque skyline of Dresden Photo: DPA
16:11 CET+01:00
The Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) was unknown three months ago. Now it's making Dresden famous - for all the wrong reasons.

Many outside Germany must this week have been trying to reconcile their image of Dresden - that "Florence on the Elbe" as it was known, famous for its eponymous fine porcelain - with the ugly (if so far peaceful) scenes of thousands of Germans rallying  against Muslims, asylum-seekers and the supposed threat of the Islamification of the country.

After all, the city was, before the Second World War, one of the stops on The Grand Tour for the educated upper classes, and boasted one of the finest collection of Baroque architecture in the world.

And yet - almost out of nowhere and in the space of three months - the city has become synonymous with Pegida, and their weekly Monday night rallies.

At the first such rally on October 20th, only a few hundred turned up, almost unnoticed by the media. By last week, that figure had snowballed to 10,000 and  rose 50 percent again this Monday, to 15,000.

Whether those numbers can continue to grow exponentially (especially during the long, icy, German winters) remains to be seen. But they have outnumbered those activists and anti-racists travelling to Dresden to hold counter-rallies, and matched the 15,000 who attended a pro-immigration mass rally held in Cologne on Saturday.

So why Dresden, in particular? After all, it has a large student population (the Technical University of Dresden is one of Germany's major universities) and a booming tourist industry which draws thousands to the intricately rebuilt Baroque palaces of the city centre, and its splendid location on banks of the River Elbe.

There are any number of cities which more obviously fit the stereotype of the blighted and economically depressed cities of the former East Germany (the stock answer to why so many might feel attracted to the right-wing, populist xenophobia of Pegida).

Rostock, once the shipbuilding port for most of the USSR, and home to a hard-core of hooligans who follow the local football club FC Hans Rostock.

Eisenhuttenstadt, home to East Germany's major steel plant, which saw thousands of redundancies after the fall of the Wall.

Halle, which beyond its historic city centre, was expanded by the communist regime into a grid of high-rise concrete tower blocks to house the then mighty chemical works - all largely now standing empty and desolate.

All far more obvious candidates for the far-right extremism that has sent unwelcome headlines around the world, just as Germany appeared to have faced up to its problems with a resurgent neo-Nazi movement.

The first thing to say, of course, is that it isn't just Dresden. There have been firebomb attacks in the heart of the German capital, Berlin, on the Reichstag and the CDU headquarters, none of which caused any damage, but claimed by the far-right.

Cologne, a prosperous city in the heart of West Germany, saw a major riot by neo-Nazis and football hooligans in October, which took police by surprise and left 40 officers injured and saw 17 arrests - far worse than anything yet seen in Dresden. That group go by the name of HoGeSa (Hooligans Against Salafists).

And at the weekend arson attacks left three buildings planned as asylum-seeker centres gutted in wealthy Bavaria. Swastikas were daubed at the scene of the attack.

In total, there were some 86 attacks against refugees in the first nine months of this year, nationwide, according to the National Crime Office.

But Dresden is a hotspot, and there at least some historical reasons why.

In 2004, the neo-Nazi NPD party (National Party of Germany) won nearly 10 percent of the vote in Saxony. It still has eight elected members of the state parliament in Dresden. In 2012, several wore Thor Steiner clothing - popular with skinheads - to a parliamentary session as a stunt.

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The local football side, Dynamo Dresden, still has a hardcore "ultras" following, leading to mass police operations when they play traditional rivals such as Berlin's FC Union.

And the city has an - entirely understandable - lingering grief at the Allied air bombing of two nights in February 1945, which left some 20,000 civilians dead in a city which had little military significance.

Whilst historians still debate the rights and wrongs of what is undoubtedly the most controversial Allied action in the European theatre of war, far-right groups use the anniversary to exaggerate the numbers killed and stoke grievances.

Perhaps it's only a coincidence, but during the long years of communist rule Dresden was known as the "Valley of the Clueless" (Tal des Ahnunglosen), as one of the few places in the GDR where western TV programmes were out of reach, due to a hilly range on the western side of the city.

Zwickau, home to the so-called National Socialist Underground trio of killers who conducted a nine-year murderous rampage against Turks, is not far away, and smaller towns just outside Dresden such as Pirna are known neo-Nazi hotspots.

None of which is to say the Pegida rallies are a uniquely Dresden phenomenon - just that ugly sentiments are never far beneath the surface in even the most superficially beautiful of cities.

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