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Dismay over PEGIDA

Annette Walter, DresdenNovember 17, 2015

PEGIDA has dominated the streets of Dresden for over a year. The xenophobic movement has had a dramatic effect on the atmosphere and economy in the city. Local officials are disheartened, Annette Walter reports.

People attend an anti-immigration demonstration organized by PEGIDA
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

Just four days after the Paris attacks, the press release atop the Dresden Islamic community's website reads: "The Muslim community hopes that no one will jump to rash conclusions, turning victims into perpetrators for political reasons." Khaldun Al Saadi, spokesman for the Muslim Center in Dresden, met up with fellow members of the community shortly after the attacks to write the text, because of their concern that "Islamic State" terrorism would trigger a backlash against all Muslims.

Just 10 months ago, they saw a surge in PEGIDA's ranks in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and they hope the same thing won't happen now. Back in January 2015, 25,000 people flooded the square in front of the Dresden opera house, rallied by PEGIDA's calls. So far, the effects have been limited - just 10,000 people turned up on Monday at Dresden's Theaterplatz, the group's traditional meeting place. That's only 2,000 more than the week before the Paris attacks.

Though "anti-Muslim opinions are, since [the emergence of] PEGIDA, more widespread in Dresden than ever before," warned Al Saadi. The 25-year-old Chemnitz-born student said that longtime Muslim community members have been considering leaving Dresden: "There are many Saxon Muslims without a migration background who think of Saxony as their home and who feel driven away."

'Democratic deficit'

"From what they voiced in earlier hate campaigns, we know that PEGIDA abuses such events for the purpose of staking out their own positions," Eva-Maria Stange, Saxony's deputy science minister, told DW. "Democracy hasn't arrived in Dresden yet," she added. "There is no civil society like in other cities, like Leipzig or Munich."

Rico Gebhardt, Left party opposition leader in Saxony's parliament, went a step further: "We have a racist fundamental consensus in Saxony."

The rise in the number of refugees over the last few months has been welcome fuel for PEGIDA's xenophobic propaganda, notwithstanding the fact that the proportion of migrants is low in Dresden - 8.7 percent - compared to other German cities. Around 2,800 asylum-seekers have come to Dresden since January, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan.

A PEGIDA rally on Dresden's Theaterplatz
Turnout on Monday after the Paris attacks was lower than some feared, though still highImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Arno Burgi

'Love letters' from haters

Last week, the demonstration stirred controversy yet again. Around 8,000 people turned up to wave German and Saxon flags, to chant the historically laden term "Lügenpresse" (lying press) with its Nazi overtones, and to listen amid cheers to Lutz Bachmann, PEGIDA's founder, vilify refugees as "invaders." Prior to the rally, Dresden's mayor, Dirk Hilbert, was harshly criticized for not attempting to stop the demonstration. After all, November 9 is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom the Nazis carried out against Jews in 1938, and now, on this very day, opponents of Islam were marching across a square once named after Adolf Hitler.

Among those watching events from a safe distance was Viktor Vincze. He had come on a different mission: to symbolically "clean" the golden cobblestone bearing the name of Alojs Andritzki, a priest murdered by the Nazis in Dachau. Vincze, tall and haggard, was clothed in black for the occasion, looking like a priest himself. His ritual of remembrance did not take long: He quickly wiped across the stone, put down three white roses and lit a candle.

But it was not short enough to keep him from being mocked. "That one was killed," commented a passerby. "And he smiled," Vincze noted, in astonishment. He is used to comments of this kind; he has dubbed the hate mails on his Facebook page "love letters." But he isn't put off. "You must stand up to them," the 38-year-old confides.

That is not always simple. Few know this better than Felipe Mora-Bermudez, 38, a Costa Rican and neurogenetics specialist who works at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. He says he likes living in Dresden, but also that something has changed over the last year "under PEGIDA." There has always been a subtle form of xenophobia, but now people "dare to say more."

'No PEGIDA' graffiti in Dresden
'You must stand up to them,' says VinczeImage: imago/Eibner

A close friend of his was smacked on the head in a tram a few months ago after his attacker noticed he was speaking Portuguese. American scientists were told to shut up and speak German at a soccer match played by local team Dynamo Dresden, Florian Frisch, the press officer at the Max Planck Institute, said. A renowned Japanese biochemist is said to be leaving Dresden for Vienna, because she is afraid to let her children go out on the streets alone.

Xenophobia where few foreigners live

The local economy - especially tourism - is struggling, too, in this atmosphere: Visitors stay away, events are canceled. According to the local "Sächsische Zeitung" newspaper, Microsoft canceled a three-day congress that was expected to draw 1,600 participants this fall. Volkswagen moved its world championship for best mileage to Berlin to prevent the 53 international participants from being confronted by PEGIDA sympathizers outside their five-star hotel. Hotels and tourism officials have noticed a drop in bookings for Monday nights, which is when PEGIDA demonstrations take place. Indeed, between January and August the number of overnight stays fell by 2.6 percent overall.

"All we have achieved over the last few years has been destroyed. PEGIDA has wrecked our image," Mayor Hilbert told DW. He, his Korean wife, singer Su Yeon Hilbert, and their son once smiled from election campaign posters that read "At home in Dresden." That was less than half a year ago, before his election in July. Now he sounds resigned. Why Dresden? "That's what we also wonder." And he's finding it difficult to come up with an answer to that question, or indeed a solution to the malaise which has settled over his city. What does he think of PEGIDA? "A melting pot of the dissatisfied - [dissatisfied] with whatever." Then he becomes more precise: "What kind of nuts are they? We hardly have any foreigners in this region anyway."

But in the words of an expert in the matter, Frank Richter, director of Saxony's agency for civic education, there has been a "continuous escalation." PEGIDA has reached a "stage of radicalization, violence and denial of asylum." And PEGIDA is not going away anytime soon. Yet he puts his hopes in the possibility of dialogue, though he is doubtful of finding a way to communicate with those whose leaders were recently labeled by Germany's interior minister as "hard-line extremists." The members of PEGIDA's inner circle are inaccessible.

Deutschland Pegida Demonstration in Dresden
Anti-PEGIDA demonstrators say enough is enoughImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Killig

But Richter hasn't given up hope that the masses who attend PEGIDA rallies can still be reached. His institute responds to the questions of anxious citizens at town hall meetings taking place across Saxony. They, said Richter, must not be abandoned: "We must win over those who have doubts, the middle ground."