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Inside Pegida's bellowing and bitter Dresden rally

Tom Barfield · 20 Oct 2015, 08:35

Published: 20 Oct 2015 08:35 GMT+02:00

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Arriving in Dresden, you might be forgiven for thinking that it's like any other German city.

Shiny, well-kept red and yellow trams thread through lines of German-built cars (there's a luxury Volkswagen factory just outside the city centre) down the clean, orderly streets.

Walking out of the main train station and into the shopping district around Prager Strasse, you'll find kebab stands and people of different ethnic backgrounds whisking by on foot and by bike.


First impressions of #Dresden #sachsen #Saxony #frauenkirche

A photo posted by Tom Barfield (@tombarfield) on

But although the streets around the city centre were filled with people on Monday, as any other day, there was still a thick pall of expectation and nerves over the city ahead of the Pegida demonstration planned for the evening.

Anxious people headed briskly to their destinations, looking around little and saying less.

Groups of heavy-set men who had made the trip from other cities to join the Pegida demo asked for directions.

“The atmosphere in Dresden is very tense,” Eric Hattke, a local student and spokesman for Dresden für alle (Dresden for all), an alliance of over 100 civil society groups which has pulled together grassroots efforts to help refugees, told The Local.

“There's a big sense of not knowing where to go, what to do about [the political situation]. There's a sense in which things are deadlocked.”

"Here, for a long time, people were of the opinion that we were immune from far-right extremism," Valentin Lippmann, a Saxony state parliament representative and interior affairs spokesman for the Green Party, told The Local,

"There was a lack of vigilance against far-right positions... conflicts have built up to the point where they can no longer be resolved with democratic means."

An apathetic city

According to Hattke, around 10 percent of Dresdeners – roughly the proportion that voted for the movement's candidate in mayoral elections earlier this year – can be counted as Pegida supporters.

With an equally-sized group aligned against them in the shape of Dresden für alle and others, that leaves a good 80 percent of the city who don't know what to think about the openly far-right movement that has emerged in their town.

“People don't often go out on the street and call for something,” Hattke said. “They'd rather leave it up to someone else.”

"In Dresden, it's difficult to get a sufficient number of people out onto the street and show a broad social majority," Lippmann agreed.

"There's a fear that all people who protest against the right must be far-left extremists, not serious democrats."

Conversations I had with people around the town confirmed Hattke's sketch of the situation.

For instance, Karsten, my Airbnb host and a cafe owner in the trendy, largely left-wing Neustadt district, was happy to talk about Pegida and asked exactly why I had come to the city.

But he himself had never crossed the river to the Altstadt to see what was going on for himself, never mind join in a counter-demonstration, and he was vague about his own political feelings.

Apart from a single pub in the Neustadt, there was little sign of anyone else mobilizing against Pegida.

Barricades, bangers and bellowing

Arriving at the Theaterplatz outside the city's Semperoper opera house as the sun set, the police looked prepared to keep two factions from descending into street warfare.

A blockade of vans left only a tiny gap, flanked by groups of fully-armoured riot police, for Pegida demonstrators to enter the square.

Some of the many TV crews present to cover the event had clearly decided that it was too dangerous to be among the crowd – mindful of attacks on journalists in past weeks - and set up their tripods at vantage points outside the police line.

Others joined the gathering crowd of people around the bottleneck and joked together nervously as they waited to be let through.

The Pegida crowd itself was made up of a few distinct groups.

A bloc of young men, many bearded and shaven-headed and wearing dark clothing, clustered together under the yellow banners of the Identitarian Movement, a far right youth movement.

Large numbers of those present appeared to be ordinary middle-aged Germans wearing unremarkable clothing – not the much hyped “pinstripe Nazis” of the early days of the movement, but not conspicuously badly-off people either.

The most vocal among the crowd, regularly breaking out into chants of “Widerstand” (resistance) or “Merkel muss weg” (Merkel must go) were largely men in their 50s and 60s. Many of them were carrying a bewildering array of flags – from the Saxon state banner, to the Japanese national flag, via the Confederacy flag of the southern United States.

Over the thousands-strong crowd, the messages hung from the windows on the Semperoper facade and displayed on a large projection screen - “For a Dresden open to the world”/”We won't be a backdrop to intolerance” seemed far distant.

No violence, just hatred

Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann was greeted with enthusiastic applause as he took the stage, his image projected onto an enormous display screen behind him.

Pegida founder Lutz Bachmann takes the stage on October 19th, the one-year anniversary of the movement. Photo: DPA

He announced that he had “goosebumps” to be speaking at the one-year anniversary of the movement he had launched, and reminded the crowd that drinking and violence were not on the agenda for the evening.

A burst of exploding fireworks launched from the counter-protesters outside gave him an opportunity to claim the moral high ground, as he told the crowd police were protecting them from violent counter-demonstrators.

And then, off we went.

Speaker after speaker trotted out a catalogue of the far-right hobby horses that have become familiar across Europe, heard from parties ranging from UKIP and the National Front in the UK and France to Greece's Golden Dawn.

Refugees were not refugees at all but fakers coming to live high on the hog at taxpayers' expense. Muslims were a fifth column planning to implement both sharia and Marxism at once and subvert the culture and values of European nations. Immigrants were raping white European women by the thousand.

Speakers from Italy's Liga Nord, the Czech republic, Poland's own Pegida offshoot and the English Defence League insisted that ordinary people must resist cowardly mainstream politicians and defend themselves against the foreign menace – all while insisting they were not racist or xenophobic.

The crowd cheered especially wildly for the repeated salvoes against political incumbents like Merkel and her ministers.

They were “cowards” and “traitors”, one speaker from the Pegida organizing team introduced only as 'Horst' snarled.

“Traitors! Traitors!” thousands of people roared back.

'Shame concentration camps aren't in action'

Only one speaker, Akif Pirinçci, whose graphic descriptions of immigrants' crimes and insistence that all political opponents must be mentally handicapped grew too repulsive for anyone to bear, was booed and whistled from the stage.

But that was long minutes after he had made his comment that “it's a shame the concentration camps aren't up and running” - which had met with applause and laughter.

With the speakers finished rehearsing their familiar themes, Bachmann took to the podium one last time to announce the singing of the national anthem - and praise the police for attempting to clear a way for Pegida supporters to leave past the counter-demonstrators.

'Nazis out! Let us out!'

The Pegida group, around 20,000 strong, had to make its way through a tiny corridor, squeezed between a line of police vans separating them from the counter-demo and the wall of the cathedral.

Some of the young Identitarian Movement group beside me decided to throw back the "Nazis raus" (Nazis get out) chants of the anti-fascist counter-demonstrators - although some didn't seem to quite understand who the Nazis were supposed to be.

"Nazis out! Let us out!" one of the burly men next to me yelled, turning to laugh at his friends.

That's when I ducked away and stood next to the line of riot police protecting cameramen on the cathedral steps.

Until that point, I had been so focused on the action on-stage that I hadn't spoken to the people in the crowd.

But given the reports tweeted earlier that a journalist for Ruptly (a part of Russia Today, the Kremlin-owned TV channel in fact beloved of many European far-right leaders) had been badly beaten by Pegida members, I had also been reluctant to take the chance.

Deutsche Welle reported on Monday night that one of its reporters was also attacked.

Against this background, I ultimately decided that my best option to stay safe at the demo was not to out myself as a journalist in the middle of the crowd - and that's a shame, because it's made for an unbalanced report lacking the views of participants.

I admit that - but I'd also argue that how unsafe I felt as a journalist, as leaders on stage read out newspaper articles whose content they objected to and the crowd booed and howled, is itself a measure of the atmosphere at the demo.

Melting away

By the time I left the Theaterplatz, only the slowest and, often, oldest of Pegida followers - many of them tottering along on walking sticks or staves with furled flags - were waiting at the tram stops.

Beyond a few sharp words en route between one group and a man wearing a badge showing he'd attended the "Herz statt Hetze" (heart not incitement) counter-demo, one would almost never know the evening had been so eventful.

To the fresh-faced students drinking in groups around the Neustadt as I made my exhausted way back to Karsten's, that may as well have been the case.

But for those on the ground at the demo and the rest of Germany watching on the news, it's clear that Pegida has been ratcheting up its rhetoric, if not breaking out into actual violence, to the point where it's far more menacing than it was at its beginning a year ago.

"Pegida has been getting more extreme, now it's clearly a far-right organization, at least in the leadership," Lippmann, the Green party politician, said.

"Political culture [in Dresden] has reached the point where journalists are attacked, people with different political opinions are attacked. There hasn't been a sufficiently large alliance against it until now."

Dresden is a very rare case, and this time Pegida was met with a counter-demonstration of equivalent size to their own for almost the first time.

But standing in the middle of a crowd of Germans cheering for concentration camps, I couldn't help but feel that the political order and the fundamental rights I've always taken to be the hallmark of this country had become precarious.

It will take a deft hand to steer Germany through the overlapping crises that threaten political consent for immigration, Europe and globalization.

We can only hope that Merkel is up to the task.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tom Barfield (tom.barfield@thelocal.com)

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