More than 25,000 PEGIDA supporters have marched through Dresden in their biggest turnout yet. But some 9,000 counter protesters were also ready to take a stand, as DW's Kate Brady reports.
What began as a quiet evening on the Elbe turned into the largest PEGIDA demonstration seen so far in Germany. Early on Monday evening, a group of anti-PEGIDA demonstrators gathered around Dresden's Theaterplatz and the city's synagogue, well-supplied with hot tea and potato soup. By 7.15 p.m. local time (1815 GMT), however, over 25,000 PEGIDA supporters were marching through Saxony's capital, where they were met by sporadic groups of counter demonstrators.
Greeting the marchers at the pre-march rally was movement organizer and regular PEGIDA speaker Lutz Bachmann.
Bachmann said that the group had six key aims, each met by raucous applause: "1. Creation of an Immigration Act. 2. Right and duty to integration. 3. Expulsion of Islamists and religious extremists. 4. Federal referendums 5. An end to warmongering. 6. More means for internal security."
As expected, Bachmann also addressed last week's attacks in Paris, which left 17 people dead, including ten journalists from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
"The Paris attacks are testament to the existence of PEGIDA," the 41-year-old Dresdener said, before asking for a minute's silence in remembrance "not only for the victims in Paris, but for all victims of religious motivated crimes."
"We have the right [to remember] too," added PEGIDA co-organizer Kathrin Oertel, referring to
Saturday's counter demonstration where 35,000 anti-PEGIDA supporters held a minute's silence in front of Dresden's Frauenkirche church.
For the first time, the fluttering black, red, and gold of the German flag was also joined by the blue, white, and red of their French neighbors in "solidarity" with the victims of the attacks.
German leaders call for an end
Over the weekend, the PEGIDA movement came under fire from a host of German politicians for promoting their rally with the recent attacks on the French capital.
Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas told German newspaper Bild: "The victims [of the Paris attacks] do not deserve to be misused by such agitators."
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere also accused PEGIDA of misusing the strikes on Charlie Hebdo for its own political means.
Prior to Monday's march, however, PEGIDA organizers posted on their Facebook event page that no "Mr Maas or any anti-patriots spoiling for a fight are going to hold us back!"
As the anti-Islamization group set off on their march or so-called "evening stroll" through Dresden on Monday evening, they were, however, met with sporadic offshoots of the anti-PEGIDA demonstration. At Dresden's Altmarkt, several anti-PEGIDA demonstrators attempted to blockade the road before they were swiftly cleared away by police as the PEGIDA rally drew nearer.
"Nazis out!" and "There's no right to Nazi propaganda!" the small crowds of counter protesters shouted. Their efforts to drown out the passing PEGIDA rally were met, however, by patronizing applause and shouts of "Wir sind das Volk!" from the anti-Islamization marchers.
The slogan, coined by PEGIDA from the anti-communist demonstrations that used to take place on Mondays in East Germany, has become a firm favorite amongst the movement over the last four months - much to the dismay of many of thousands of former GDR citizens.
Sweeping up after PEGIDA
After almost two hours, as PEGIDA headed home to seek shelter from the biting winds, the counter movement was only just getting started.
Hundreds reconvened in Dresden's Postplatz, before a separate counter movement, dubbed the "Dresden New Year Clean-Up," began their own march through the city. Armed only with sweeping brushes the group aimed to demonstrate against PEGIDA with a symbolic clean-up of the city following the anti-Islamization rally. By the end of the march, there were an estimated 7,500 counter demonstrators, with a further 1,200 having protested across the evening.
This wasn't the first time that anti-PEGIDA supporters had confronted the movement with humor. Following Germany's sudden snowfall shortly after Christmas #schneegida was trending all over social media with tongue in cheeks posts such as: "To begin with, there are just a few flakes. That's fine. But at some point you don't recognize your own country anymore."
Despite Monday's huge turnout for PEGIDA in Dresden, however, the movement appears to be failing to achieve its intended national impact. In nearby Leipzig on Monday, the first LEGIDA demonstration pulled in just 4,800 demonstrators, and was faced by a counter movement estimated at 30,000.
Shortly after the PEGIDA marches, de Maiziere restated the figures, telling CNN news channel that PEGIDA remains a "regional phenomenon, which shouldn't be overestimated."