As Dutch populist Geert Wilders urged anti-Islamization group PEGDIA to take a stand against immigration, some 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest his presence. Naomi Conrad reports from Dresden.
The old man pulling a shabby red trolley behind him eyed the two police officers in riot gear standing on the platform in Dresden's main station with apparent suspicion. He shook his head. The police men, he muttered angrily, his voice slightly slurred, should be out fighting crime, "not besieging the city because of a few Nazis."
He was referring to the roughly 1,500 police men and women stationed across the eastern German city on Monday in anticipation of the arrival of Geert Wilders. The Dutch right-wing populist was set to address PEGDIA in the late afternoon, a movement that roughly translates as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.
PEGIDA has been holding regular rallies since it was first launched in October. But with attendance waning in recent weeks, organizers of the movement that has seen recent infighting among its leadership were hopeful that Wilders' presence would boost attendance.
While the old man clearly didn't approve of the heightened security, he did share the movement's sentiments: Dresden, he grumbled, was being overrun by foreigners. "Someone should get rid of them," he said. He shook his hand emphatically, then shuffled off to catch his train.
Demonstrating to 'show the Nazis that this isn't their town'
A few blocks away, at one of three noisy rallies against PEGIDA that, according to a police spokesman, drew some 3,000 demonstrators, Jakob Gralmann, a young student with a long, bushy beard, struggled to make himself heard against the music blaring from the loudspeakers fixed to a small lorry. He was demonstrating, he said, to "show the Nazis that this isn't their town." He wanted to send a signal that they couldn't do as they please.
As organizers turned up the volume and the chorus "What to do with your hatred?" boomed out over the demonstrators, many clutching placards and rainbow-colored flags, Hussein Jinah, a polite, softly-spoken man in his late 50s, asked whether he could possibly give a statement. Jinah, a member of Dresden's Foreigners' Advisory Council, said that he no longer felt safe in "my Dresden."
Since PEGIDA took to the streets Jinah, who moved to Dresden some 30 years ago, had been harassed, he said. "I've been told to leave the country, that I'm a disgrace to Dresden," he said. Once, an old man told him that all Muslims should be thrown out of the country. He shook his head despondently.
As he turned back to the rally, a group of young men, hoods pulled over their heads, slowly made their way past the police vans that cordoned off the road to the field where PEGIDA was set to meet. Several young men waving German flags waited as their friends took a pee by the road side, others picked a fight with policemen in riot gear guarding the fenced-off field.
PEGDIA 'misunderstood by the media'
Beyond the barricades, men and women, far fewer than the 30,000 people organizers had anticipated, filed past the camera crews. They unfurled flags and banners, one depicting Chancellor Angela Merkel as Hitler, another telling asylum seekers that they were not welcome and should go home ASAP.
A stocky man, his hat pulled down low, a self-declared Putin fan clutching a Russian flag, said he had joined the marches because he felt that German politicians refused to "listen to the people." He was here to denounce Germany's "warmongering" in Ukraine and Russia, he said, and because he was against the euro and the EU-US free trade agreement TTIP. The sturdy woman standing beside him leant closer, angrily shaking her head: "We're being labeled fascists, just because we're in favor of peace."
They both agreed that the movement's anti-Islamization agenda didn't feature too highly in their concerns and PEGIDA, whose 19-point plan includes restrictive immigration policies, an end to "gender mainstreaming," "direct democracy" through referenda similar to Switzerland and steps to bar Islamists from entering Germany, is often described as a catch-all movement for those harboring a wide array of grievances and resentment.
A middle-aged man standing close to the stage explained that he fully agreed with PEGIDA's demands, yet was emphatic that he was not a right-wing extremist or neo-Nazi. PEGDIA, he said, was misunderstood by the media, whom he didn't trust. He, too, was unwilling to give his name, as was his younger companion clutching a white flag with the slogan "don't complain, fight."
Wilders condemns 'totalitarian Islam,' political correctness
As PEGIDA co-founder Lutz Bachmann took to the stage to announce that Geert Wilders was on the way from the airport, the man said he was indeed afraid that Germany would soon be "Islamized."
"Do you want to have to wear a headscarf in 20 years time? Do you want to be stoned, just because you're on the street without a male chaperone?" He shook his head, as his companions nodded and grinned.
When, some 20 minutes later, Wilders took to the stage greeted by loud applause and cheers, the Dutch politician denounced foreigners unwilling to take on "our rights." The man leaned over: "That's right. Write that down."
As Wilders continued to condemn "totalitarian Islam," political correctness and the "Islamic State," the crowd cheered and chanted "We are the people" and "Merkel leave." The majority of all Germans, Wilders claimed, did not believe that Islam belonged to Germany - again the crowd cheered and clapped when he claimed "that while not all Muslims are terrorists, the majority of all terrorists are Muslims." A helicopter hovered above the stage, as Wilders called on Europe to give up Schengen and reintroduce national border controls.
When Wilders left the stage, the man turned and smiled. He agreed with everything Wilders had said: "And see, it wasn't racist at all was it?" He grinned. His daughter, he admitted, had joined the counter demonstration; her boyfriend, he said ruefully, had probably influenced her.
Later, as PEGIDA sympathizers filed past the police barricades on their way to the nearest railway station, they were greeted by the cacophony of the counter demonstrators: Whistles shrilled and several young men shook their fists, as the crowd yelled and booed: "PEGIDA f--- off!", to be followed by: "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here."