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PEGIDA is 'losing steam'

Gabriel BorrudJanuary 20, 2015

The PEGIDA protest movement has sparked a fundamental debate in Germany: the right to demonstrate. However, the group's drama shouldn't be taken that seriously, says leading sociologist Dieter Rucht.

Bild des Tages 13.01.2015 Anti-Pegida-Demonstrationen
Image: Reuters//H. Hanschke

German news outlets were again jam-packed with commentaries and analysis of the right-wing "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of Europe," or PEGIDA, movement on Monday, this time following a ban on the group because of reported threats to its leader Lutz Bachmann. Politicians of the highest level also joined the debate, with a spokesman for Chancellor Merkel calling the decision to ban PEGIDA a "one-off."

According to a study conducted by the Social Science Research Center in Berlin and presented Monday by its head, Dieter Rucht, PEGIDA could well be on its way out. Rucht and colleagues from the universities of Bochum and Chemnitz had spent the last week poring over data collected online to come to their conclusions.

DW: In your experience with protest movements, have you ever seen anything like PEGIDA?

Dieter Rucht: No, not really. The picture you get from Dresden is very ambivalent. On the one hand, you have what looks like very ordinary people out on the streets. It could be your neighbor from around the corner, for instance, and the marchers also seem to present themselves in that light.

Together in the same group, however, you have what appears to be right-wingers marching alongside these "normal people." We have never seen such a strange mixture like this, no. It makes you wonder why people who claim to be your neighbor and very ordinary middle class citizens would want to go marching with right-wing extremists.

Is this a movement of the people?

That's what they say. "We are the people" is their most popular chant. But this is not the case at all. They have absolutely no claim of representation, and from our data and observations, we could perhaps say that this group is primarily right-wing populist, which contains pockets of genuinely racist and xenophobic people.

Dieter Rucht Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin
Dieter RuchtImage: DW/H. Kiesel

Again, this fits with the incredibly ambivalent nature of the demonstrators and the way the demonstrations are organized. On the stage in Dresden, if you listen to the speakers, you hear very contradictory messages, for instance: "We are the people, and we are ordinary and peaceful, and we have nothing against foreigners and asylum seekers," and in the very next piece you hear the complete opposite.

The results of your study suggest that PEGIDA won't last long, that it may well already be losing momentum. Why is that?

I must preface by saying that our study is not representative; only several hundred people responded to our online requests. From the responses we did receive, and from our experience with such protests, we believe the movement will slowly fade away. If it continues the way it has over the past 13 weeks, it will become very repetitive. In this way, perhaps, we could draw comparisons to the Occupy movement. After a while, a kind of inflationary effect sets in. If nothing new happens, the media will lose its interest, and once the media loses its interests, the people who were motivated by media coverage will no longer be moved to the streets. Then, PEGIDA will have hit its peak.

And nothing could change that?

Well, it's impossible to predict, but perhaps a terrorist attack could galvanize the people. But again, there is no way of predicting what circumstances or events could influence the popularity of such a movement.

Do you think the rapid growth of PEGIDA will thwart its longevity?

I do think that. This is where the comparison to modern protests such as the Occupy movement becomes viable. Despite its complete difference with regard to social composition and political statement, PEGIDA was powered by social networking, communication via the Internet and extraordinary interest in the media. We saw for months the dramatic pictures of the Occupy movements around the world, and as a result, the people who were active in the streets began to feel that they were the center of the world, or of history. These people truly believed they could make a change, and their over-evaluation of their own importance was a deciding factor in their motivation. When the air comes out, that motivation dwindles. This could very well - or may, I must be careful - be the case with PEGIDA.

Pegida Demonstration in Kopenhagen 19.01.2015
PEGIDA has spread beyond German borders: a protest took place in Copenhagen on January 19Image: REUTERS/Sophia Juliane Lydolph/Scanpix Denmark

Are we dealing with a real change in protest culture as a result?

It's very hard to say. There are so many protests in the world, and the movements we've been talking about are just one pattern that is in the public interest at the moment. In two years time, this type of mobilization may already be forgotten history. I'm not saying that people will stop running around on the streets with their ideas and stereotypes, or that they will change their minds. I'm just saying that PEGIDA, as one particular manifestation of this, will most likely fade away. But this could take a few months.

Dieter Rucht is an honorary professor of sociology and leading researcher at Berlin's Freie Universität. He is particularly well known for his research and contributions in the fields of protest and social movements.

Interview conducted by Gabriel Borrud