German society and the political establishment have for weeks grappled with the emergence of the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” or PEGIDA, whose ranks in the city of Dresden have quickly grown from just a few hundred in October.
Around 4,000 counter-demonstrators marched through Dresden under the slogan “Nazi-free,” warning there was no place for racism and xenophobia in a country marred by racial hatred during World War II.
Most PEGIDA followers insisted they had no connection to Nazis, calling themselves “patriots” concerned by the “watering down” of Germany’s Christian-rooted culture and traditions. They often accuse mainstream political parties of betraying them, and the media of lying.
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), called Monday for citizens to launch a “rebellion of the decent” against the anti-foreigner movement, telling a weekly magazine “that’s the kind of public reaction we need now.”
Marches across Germany
In Dresden, the PEGIDA followers gathered outside the eastern city’s historic Semper opera house for their pre-Christmas recital. Police said some 17,500 people were present, up from a previous high of 15,000 a week earlier.
The management of the opera house signaled its distaste by turning the building’s lights off and flying flags outside that read: “Open your eyes”, “Open your hearts”, “Open doors” and “The dignity of the human being is inviolable,” the first line of German Basic Law, the country’s constitution.
Copycat demonstations and counterdemonstrations with varying attendance were reported in cities across the country, including Munich, Berlin, Rostock, Würzburg, Düsseldorf, and Bonn.
A DW correspondent in Bonn said the BOGIDA march (Bonn against the Islamization of the Occident) was peaceful, quoting police saying 300 people were present, with some 3,000 counter demonstrators.
In the southern city of Munich, more than 12,000 people rallied to voice their opposition to PEGIDA.
Thorn in many a side
Politicians across the spectrum in Germany have scrambled to come up with ways to deal with the emergence of right-wing nationalists. The PEGIDA movement has emerged at a time when Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has become the continent’s top destination for asylum seekers, and the world’s number two destination for migrants after the United States.
The influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and several African and Balkan countries has strained local governments, which have scrambled to house the newcomers in old schools, office blocks and army barracks.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has cautioned Germans against falling prey to any form of xenophobic “rabble-rousing,” but several conservative politicians have argued the government must “listen” to the people’s concerns about immigration.
Only the fledgling euroskeptic AfD party has openly sympathized with PEGIDA, saying its message has struck a chord in German society.