Anti-Islam demo flops in Berlin – but not just thugs

On Monday night, activists tried to bring the so-called "Pegida" movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) to the German capital - and failed miserably.

Anti-Islam demo flops in Berlin - but not just thugs
Anti-Islam protestors outside Berlin town hall Photo: DPA

Some 300 rain-bedraggled "patriotic Germans", xenophobes and outright racists stood forlornly outside Berlin's town hall, hemmed in by around 5,000 anti-racist activists and several hundred riot police, their hopes of a march to the iconic Brandenburg Gate frozen in their tracks – just like the bitterly damp January weather.

It was always going to be an uphill struggle. Whilst the anti-Islam marches in Dresden, which is a neo-Nazi stronghold and has had hard-right politicians elected to its regional parliament, can draw up to 18,000 supporters, Berlin is a different matter altogether.

Known even in Hitler's time as "Red Berlin", for its militant communist network, the capital still hits the headlines with almost monotonous regularity every year as hard-core anarchists torch upmarket cars on May Day.

Despite grumbles over gentrification and 'invasion' by well-heeled Germans from the south, the city is still a hotbed of left-wing and radical politics.

Although there are neo-Nazis and right-wing football hooligans among the deprived communist-built high-rises of outlying neighbourhoods such as Marzahn, Berlin was never likely to prove fertile territory for the mistrust and xenophobia which fuels the Dresden protests.

Curiously, that's despite the capital's having a much higher Turkish and Muslim minority presence than the largely-white Dresden.

Organizers might even see drawing 300 like-minded souls out on a Monday night in freezing temperatures and persistent drizzle as an achievement in itself.

Leader Karl Schmitt, a former Christian Democrat (CDU) activist in the Pankow district, refused point blank to talk to The Local during the three hour stand-off with police and counter-protesters.

A blanket-ban on speaking to the press may make participants feel self-righteous, even persecuted, but it is a counter-productive measure in the longer-term.

Chants  of "Lüge Presse" (Lying Media), make an intimidating atmosphere to try to gauge the views of those participating.

Not least because a good third or so of those taking part on Monday night were the hooded young men who looked as if they would be glad to break through police lines and take on the anti-fascists – despite being outnumbered about 15-1. (Official police figures put the Bärgida demonstration at 300, the counter-demo at 5,000).

But there was another subset of demonstrators who were (relatively) happy to air their views – a more elderly, often Christian, demographic who, while being openly antagonistic toward Islam and asylum-seekers, were not violent, or even vitriolic, racist trouble-makers.

One, 65-year Ludmilla, told The Local: "I'm an opera singer, and I want to protect European culture from Islamisation."

Russian by birth, and a proud member of the Orthodox Church, she had lived in Berlin 20 years. But questions on whether she knew any Muslims personally were met with a blank look.

Indeed, there was even a touch of macabre humour, with one middle-aged man bearing a home-made placard which read "If I like a pork chop on my home barbeque – does that now make me a Nazi?"

Another demonstrator stood out from the crowd in his well-tailored suit, cravat, neatly-cut grey hair and cloud of eau de cologne. A 71-year old retired estate agent, Uwe, politely explained to The Local he had braved the foul weather "because I am opposed to this government's appeasement of Islam. There is no parliamentary opposition to the course of Frau Merkel. "

"This is the first time I have ever been on a demonstration," he beamed proudly – before rather ruining his point by adding he was against women's quotas in the boardroom, the road toll on foreign drivers, child support money and a seemingly endless array of other social welfare payments, concluding gleefully "the cost is going to be too much to bear for future generations."

But his mere presence had made one point clear – the Pegida demonstrations, and their offshoots, cannot be dismissed a just a figleaf for football hooligans and neo-Nazi thugs.

These are real concerns of real citizens, if clouded by age, ignorance or prejudice, which would be echoed by Britain's Ukip, America's Tea Party, and others.

It is not a uniquely German phenomenon – but Germany's unique history of genocidal racism and the Holocaust make it peculiarly troubling, and a minefield for the country's mainstream politicians.