A new type of anti-immigration protest is sweeping across Germany, as thousands take to the streets against what they say is the growing “Islamisation” of the country.
The new protests, which began in the city of Dresden in the former East Germany, feature no neo-Nazi slogans and have nothing to do with the traditional far right.
Instead the demonstrators have adopted the old rallying call of the protests against the East German communist regime that brought down the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, “Wir sind das Volk”, or “We are the people”. They say they want to preserve Germany’s Judeo-Christian Western culture.
The protests come as Bavaria’s ruling Christian Social Union (CSU) is seeking to distance itself from a draft proposal for its party conference which said that immigrants should speak German not only in public, but at home as well.
Germany is now the second most popular destination in the world for migrants, after the US, and the country is struggling to cope with an unprecedented influx of asylum-seekers.
The protests were started by a local man, Lutz Bachmann, with no background in politics. When he called his first demonstration in October, only a few hundred turned up, but the movement has snowballed, and last week 7,500 came.
Pegida has inspired similar movements across Germany. Though the numbers have not been as high as in Dresden so far, marches have been called in cities from Düsseldorf to Munich.
Demonstrations against Muslim immigration in Cologne earlier this year turned violent, but unlike the far-right groups and self-proclaimed “hooligans” behind those protests, Pegida insists its movement is peaceful.
It has run into opposition, though: last week a counter-demonstration by around 1,000 people succeeded in blocking Pegida’s way through Dresden, and in the city of Kassel, counter-demonstrators actually outnumbered those who marched against immigrants.
Critics contend that known neo-Nazis have infiltrated the protests, while Mr Bachmann, who has called for “zero tolerance for criminal immigrants”, was forced to acknowledge he “has a past”, after a local newspaper reported he has a lengthy criminal record of his own, including convictions for burglary and drug-dealing.
He has been at pains to stress that he is not opposed to genuine political refugees, only to economic migrants who “take advantage” of the German system, and has no problem with Islam but is worried about erosion of German culture.
Concerns for the German culture plunged Bavaria’s ruling CSU into its own controversy, after a draft proposal for the opening motion at the party conference called for immigrants to speak German at home.
“Whoever wants to live here permanently should be encouraged to speak German in public and within the family,” the draft said.
After a storm of criticism, including the Twitter hashtag YallaCSU, Arabic for “Let’s go, CSU”, and questions over how such a policy could possibly be enforced, Andreas Scheuer, the party’s general secretary, sought to limit the damage.
The proposal was only ever intended as “encouragement”, he said. “Obligation, nannying or control are out of the question.”