On the 70th anniversary of one of the last major World War II bombing raids on Dresden, Alex Clarkson argues that the origins of the recent upswing in racist social movements can be found not in simplistic explanations of the return of wartime Nazism, but instead by tracking the particular social and economic climate of post-reunification Germany, and poor Saxony in particular.
It’s a Friday in 1993 and as a sixteen year old growing up in Germany you are looking forward to a night out with your friends. Your friends, many of whom like you are mixed nationality hip hop fans or aspiring Punk ‘anti-fascists’, have decided to go to the local pool hall to enjoy some beer and school gossip. Joining your friends at the entrance, you’re looking forward to a fun night out, or as fun as it gets in 1990s suburban Germany. Then you open the door and two dozen neo-Nazi skinheads turn from their beer bottles and look at you. Oops.
Such confrontations with neo-Nazi skinhead groups were a common experience for many young people in 1990s Germany. In both West German Bundesländer (provinces) and new Bundesländer that were once part of the old GDR, the early 1990s were a moment when radical right ideologies attracted the interest of many alienated young people. While this form of youth radicalism became less prevalent after 1995, the deep strain of prejudice that underpinned it is still prevalent in various German social milieus. Inundated with vicious letters suffused with such racism, journalists and intellectuals whose parents settled in Germany such as Yassin Musharbash and Hasnain Kazim have taken to organizing ‘Hate Poetry’ nights in Berlin bars. In a party atmosphere the most ridiculous attacks are read out, creating an opportunity to laugh at the ‘hate poets’ who wrote them and reflect on how depressing it is that such racism still lurks just below the surface in many German communities.
It is this contemporary historical context that needs to be kept in mind when trying to decipher the rise and fall of Pegida (Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes). Initially set up by activists from Dresden’s party scene with a taste for right-wing politics, this group called for a demonstration in Dresden against the ‘Islamization of the Occident’. Their first protest in October 2014 was a specific response to street battles in Hamburg between supporters of jihadist movements and various Kurdish and Yazidi groups marching in solidarity with the besieged Syrian town of Kobane. Though clashes between these rival groups in several West German cities died down by early November, the Pegida protests gained a momentum of their own. Taking place in Dresden every Monday, by December 2014 they were attracting over twenty thousand participants. Emboldened by these numbers, by early January the Pegida movement seemed to have an unstoppable momentum. With fears growing of a radical right surge in Germany, international journalists converged on Dresden to see whether this was the beginning of a major political shift.
Yet only three weeks later Pegida fell apart. Moves to establish Pegida nationally stalled even in neighbouring Leipzig, as supporters were overwhelmed by far larger counter-demonstrations organized by leftist groups, Greens, Social Democrats, immigrant organizations and the churches. Revelations in the national tabloid Die Bild Zeitung and local Dresden newspapers that one of the key figureheads of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann, had posted pictures of himself on his Facebook page doing Hitler impressions and condemning all migrants undercut the movement’s rhetoric that it was organized by moderates from the ‘middle of society’ only concerned with a claimed onward march of radical Islam. Though Bachmann was subsequently reinstated, with such bickering and connections between the organizers and Dresden’s radical right wing scene becoming increasingly evident, by mid-February 2015 the Pegida demonstrations had dwindled to barely a few hundred participants. To the surprise of many, a movement that seemed to herald the emergence of radical populism so common elsewhere in Europe imploded with barely a puff of smoke.
In grappling with the emergence of Pegida, scholars and journalists succumbed to the temptation to compare it to increasingly distant examples of mid-twentieth century political extremism. But reading a little less about the 1930s and a little more about the 1990s could have helped observers develop a clearer perspective as to why the movement briefly blossomed in Dresden while failing to gain traction elsewhere in Germany. At a time at which a prosperous and politically stable Germany exerts enormous influence over European affairs, it is often forgotten that until a decade ago it was considered a country in deep social crisis. From the early 1990s right up until 2005, Germany experienced social change at a dizzying pace; establishing political fault lines that still resonate in many regions to this day.
After unification the collapse of the East German economy hit Dresden and the rest of Saxony particularly hard. Staggering levels of unemployment two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall led to deep disillusionment with the new political order. As the GDR’s police and security services fell apart, open borders and crisis in Eastern Europe led to a huge influx of migrants, putting enormous pressure on public services. In this atmosphere of growing crisis a significant proportion of the East German population came close to rejecting the constitutional order of the Federal Republic. In many East German regions such discontent led to a revival of the old East German SED’s successor party as well as various other Green, left-wing or conservative movements. In parts of Saxony, however, many villages and towns quickly became strongholds of the radical right.
The emergence of such extremist networks was not an exclusively Saxon problem. Between 1991 and 1994 neo-Nazi skinhead gangs became a significant threat to public order in several German cities. Yet these groups did not operate unchallenged. In most regions, including Saxony’s Leipzig and its surrounding districts, such extremist networks were regularly pushed off the streets by various left-wing, migrant and church-oriented youth milieus. This oscillation between coexistence and confrontation that I witnessed as a half-British/half-Ukrainian teenager in my own home town of Hanover was part of a wider societal pushback against right wing extremism that gained momentum by 1993. In Dresden, however, left-wing groups that had confronted the extreme right in Leipzig and elsewhere remained quite weak. With a renowned and safe left-alternative scene in Leipzig’s Connewitz and Plagwitz neighbourhoods, many young Dresdeners who could have become the core of anti-Fascist activism were drawn away from their home city.
Facing significant levels of discrimination and intimidated by the city’s extreme right, immigrants and refugees who arrived in the 1990s quickly left Dresden for other regions. The only exceptions were Vietnamese and Turkish Alevi groups, who were able to establish a community infrastructure that helped to deter direct attacks. Despite their ability to sit tight and at times strike back, these immigrant communities remained too small to exert political influence. With low church-attendance rates in the 1990s, the ability of Christian organizations in Dresden to protect immigrants remained limited. Though neo-Nazi networks weakened in Dresden once the city began to see a return to economic growth in the 2000s, the underlying frustration and prejudice that had enabled their rise was never directly confronted by local political elites.
That a curiously bohemian radical right party scene in Dresden became the incubator of the Pegida movement is therefore no coincidence. For over a decade Dresden regularly experienced radical right protests in memory of the thousands who died when the Royal Air Force bombed the city in 1945. Surrounded by towns struggling with social deprivation, many Dresdeners still feel abandoned by the political class. With signs of an influx of refugees from the Syrian War and the continuing pressures benefit cuts caused by Hartz IV welfare reforms put on the working poor, these local anxieties have been building for some time. By focusing on putative Islamisation, Pegida’s leaders tried to maintain a respectable façade to attract participants who might otherwise have been put off by other aspects of the extreme right more closely associated with neo-Nazi ideology. As the emergence of a new populist party in the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) – which won nearly 5% in the last elections – threatened their dominance, the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) initially avoided criticism of those who joined Pegida protests out of fears that it may lose its hold over conservative voters. This dilemma was particularly acute for the region’s Ministerpräsident (Prime Minister) Stanislaw Tillich. As a member of Saxony’s Sorbian Slavic minority, Tillich has always been under pressure to demonstrate that he can protect the interests of conservative CDU voters, who often have no truck with Sorbian minority rights.
Because of these weaknesses immigrant communities or left-wing and church-based political networks in Dresden were slow to challenge Pegida’s momentum. By contrast, in cities where church organizations, the anti-Fascist left and members of immigrant communities are numerically strong, anti-Pegida demonstrators massively outnumbered participants who wanted to ‘save Germany from Islamization’. As a political space, Dresden therefore has its own unique dynamic with particular pressures and conflicts. In this local context, Pegida is more of a local extreme right-wing bid attempt to regain influence in Saxony rather than a movement with national ambitions. In the 1990s, a key strategic goal of right-wing groups in Saxony was the creation of ‘nationally liberated zones’ (National befreite Zonen) in which they exerted de facto control undercutting state authority. Pegida’s ‘shadow Republic’, whose leaders challenge the legitimacy of political elites, state authority and the media could perhaps be seen as an updated variant of this strategy.
Despite enormous media hype surrounding the peak of these protests in December 2014 and January this year, this bid for renewed influence by Saxony’s radical right has collapsed. Angela Merkel’s condemnation of the Pegida movement in her New Year’s speech attracted considerable international attention. But as a particularly Saxon phenomenon, local developments played a more central role. The relentless pushback experienced by Pegida imitators in Leipzig indicated to the Saxon political class that assuaging particular milieus in districts around Dresden could actually alienate voters in other parts of their Bundesland. Perhaps the key turning point was the response to attempts by Pegida demonstrations to instrumentalize the Charlie Hebdo murders in France for their own purposes. In the wake of these events, on 10 January the CDU finally joined church, left-wing and migrant organizations in a counter-demonstration that outnumbered even the largest Pegida marches. Though Stanislaw Tillich was criticized for a rather anodyne speech, his presence along with that of other government figures acted as a signal to the functionaries that run the Saxon CDU’s party machine that it was now open season on Pegida.
With local journalists discovering the Facebook pages containing Lutz Bachmann’s now notorious Hitler impersonation and xenophobic comments by other Pegida leaders ten days later, there was enough material for local CDU leaders to discredit the movement in the eyes of more conservative Saxons. By undermining Pegida’s attempts to gain respectability, these revelations made it easier for the CDU establishment to pull conservative voters away from a movement many may have felt inclined to support. Fuelling already ferocious mockery of Pegida across the rest of Germany, the press frenzy surrounding Bachmann’s Facebook page clearly marked a point where for much of its potential base the Pegida leaders went from being seen as local heroes to being considered a regional embarrassment.
Once again the fate of the 1990s radical right in Saxony in many ways presaged the final implosion of Pegida. In many Saxon villages and towns in those years, embarrassment at the harm done by neo-Nazis to the region’s image rather than a deep commitment to human rights drove Saxon conservatives to challenge extremists in their midst. Similarly, the perception Pegida was damaging Saxony’s national reputation seems to have spurred many local conservatives and CDU supporters to turn way from the movement rather than any desire to protect vulnerable minorities. Whatever the cause, no doubt the ultimate collapse of Pegida is a positive development for those who want to protect a democratic constitutional order in Saxony. But it will be some time yet before we can be sure that Dresden has truly vanquished its own hate poets.
Alex Clarkson is Lecturer in German and European & International Studies at King’s College, London. His research focuses on the relationship between immigrant communities and German political movements after 1945.