An Autopsy of PEGIDA
William Davis, American Renaissance, September 4, 2015
Populist movements have been making steady progress in Europe. A major development of the past year has been PEGIDA, a grassroots movement founded in Dresden, Germany. PEGIDA–a German acronym that stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West–is a textbook case of how a grassroots movement can quickly rise and then flame out even more quickly. It saw participation at its rallies grow from a few hundred in October 2014 to no fewer than 25,000 in January 2015. Spinoffs spread to other German and European cities, such as Cologne, Munich and Copenhagen. At what seemed the height of its popularity the movement collapsed, with attendance at Dresden rallies dropping to just a few thousand. PEGIDA still exists, and announced it will run candidates in the upcoming elections, but its prospects are nothing like what they could have been. What happened?
Who are the activists?
PEGIDA arose in response to mass immigration and waves of Third-World “refugees.” Its demands are modest: more restrictive immigration and asylum policies, stiffer law enforcement, and more “direct democracy” in the form of referenda.
Contrary to the impression given by the media, a PEGIDA rally is generally more civilized than a college graduation. In my experience, the crowd is a mix of people of all ages and walks of life. There are couples with young children holding signs that read “Für die Zukunft unserer Kinder” (“For the future of our children”). These signs are often decorated with their children’s drawing.
Some people pass out flyers calling for direct democracy while others hold signs that read “Echte Meinungsfreiheit jetzt!” (“Real freedom of opinion now!”). The crowd waves a number of flags, including the German national flag, regional and state flags, and some other national banners. People chant slogans such as “Heimat, Freiheit, Tradition! Multi-Kulti, Endstation!” (“Homeland, freedom, traditions! Multi-Culti: final stop!”). These words “homeland, freedom and traditions” truly sum up what the crowd stands for.
Of all the slogans, the most compelling is “Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people!), which is chanted at all PEGIDA rallies. The reverberations of “Wir sind das Volk!” coming towards you like a wave are truly electrifying.
In brief, PEGIDA is a grassroots movement protesting mass immigration and the lack of accountability of governments towards populations they are supposed to represent.
Calumnies and the ‘Lügenpresse’
An expression often heard from people participating in the rallies is ‘Lügenpresse’–the ‘lying press’. It refers to the media distortions about the rallies. The press typically describes the participants as ‘hooligans’, ‘extreme right’, ‘racists’, ‘neo-Nazis’ and so on. From within the crowd, very civilized demonstrators could often be seen talking to journalists with camera crews, but these interviews were rarely aired. The media preferred showing images of the occasional demonstrator with a shaved head, or even of people just waving their hands in a way that might be interpreted in a still shot as a Nazi salute. The press also tended to underestimate the head count.
Many of these perfectly legal demonstrations were planned as marches through cities but were then illegally blocked at their initial meeting point by hooded and masked “anti-fascist” counter-demonstrators. Rather than arrest or disperse the far-left thugs, the police often simply formed a cordon between the two crowds.
Remarks from politicians were childish. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was no place in Germany for agitation against immigrants. She also famously added that the leaders of PEGIDA “have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts!”
Christian leaders have criticized PEGIDA. In one famous symbolic move, the floodlights of the Cologne cathedral were switched off to protest a PEGIDA rally.
Leaders of organized minorities were quick to oppose PEGIDA. Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany said that “right-wing extremists once again give the false impression of a Germany that is hostile to foreigners.”
Joseph Schuster, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said PEGIDA supporters were “neo-Nazis, parties from the far-right and citizens who think that they can finally let out their racism and xenophobia.” This is both sad and silly. European Jews are far more threatened by the Islamization than by any ghosts of fascism. Moreover, one of PEGIDA’s clearly stated positions is the protection of Germany’s Judeo-Christian culture and its logo clearly distances itself from Nazism.
Collapse: what happened?
On January 15th, an Eritrean immigrant was found murdered in his Dresden apartment. Politicians and the media were quick to blame “an atmosphere of hatred and resentment” stirred up by PEGIDA. Later it was reported that the victim’s Eritrean housemate was the killer.
At the peak of the movement’s popularity, on January 19th, the Dresden police stopped a rally, claiming there was a “concrete threat” to PEGIDA’s leadership. This “threat” was apparently an Arabic-language Tweet saying that PEGIDA was an “enemy of Islam.” It is not possible to know if there was a real threat or whether the police simply wanted to halt the growth of a seemingly unstoppable movement.
The fatal blow was the discovery of a picture of PEGIDA’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, with a Hitler mustache. He claimed it was an old picture that was meant as a joke, but the damage was done. A private Facebook conversation also turned up, in which Mr. Bachmann called immigrants “animals” and “trash.” This is considered hate speech in Germany, and the authorities opened an investigation into Volksverhetzung or “incitement of the masses.”
Mr. Bachmann resigned as leader but the movement collapsed. The graph below shows attendance figures at PEGIDA rallies.
The most obvious lesson to be drawn from this catastrophe is that leaders must be morally unassailable. Mr. Bachmann had a criminal record for burglary, drunk driving, drug dealing, and assault. The system will exploit every angle of attack, and it was needless stupidity to give it the extra ammunition of a Hitler pose.
On the other hand, people who go to PEGIDA rallies appeared to be well aware of the Lügenpresse, and were not prisoners of political correctness. PEGIDA never received good press anyway. Why was the movement so fragile?
The main reason is probably the power of the Nazi label. It is poison anywhere in the white world, but especially in Germany. It makes no difference how reasonable or popular someone is today. A swastika in his past can spoil it all.
But there is a more subtle effect. Any opinion about the preservation of Europe is controversial, and people keep their views to themselves. Most of us take refuge on the Internet. We may have only one or two friends and relatives with whom we speak freely. Even at a large PEGIDA rally, most people probably attended with only a few friends.
A loosely-connected community of this kind is vulnerable. To be accused of creating the atmosphere for an anti-immigrant murder; to have a major event canceled because alleged threats of violence; and, finally, to have the movement’s leader tarred as a Nazi–this is enough to increase the perceived risk of participating. As soon as it becomes known that a few people are dropping out, a series of defections can quickly ripple through a movement.
A more interconnected community might have survived. More successful organizations,, such as the National Front in France or the Freedom Party in Austria, are based on a strong local presence. They are active at the municipal and regional levels. Reinforcing the existing community is at least as important as reaching out to new members. More seasoned, multi-layered organizations are less dependent on a single person–though Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jörg Haider played crucial early roles. All these factors must be considered as we move forward.
The continuing disqualification of our rulers in the face of calamities such as mass immigration, financial and economic disaster, geopolitical miscalculations in the Middle East and against Russia can work only in our favor. The inability of European governments to stop the Mediterranean boat people may be a blessing in disguise. The basic trends, and the energy and frustration to which they give rise are on our side. We just need to build community structures that can successfully channel them.