Germany: What is behind the ‘PEGIDA’ anti-immigrant demonstrations?

Unions and Left must organise against racism and for jobs and decent living standards for all

In recent weeks Germany has seen growing demonstrations in favour and against Pegida (“Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West” or “Occident”), the protest movement that started last October in the east German city of Dresden, in Saxony. Pegida soon developed momentum and their weekly “Monday demonstrations” in Dresden grew from a few hundred strong (on 20 October) to thousands just before the New Year.

While there have been similar, but much smaller, demonstrations in other German towns, there has a much bigger wave of counter demonstrations with up to 35,000 people taking part.

January 12th saw, according to German media, just over 30,000 take part in Pegida demonstrations in different cities while well over 100,000 took part in various anti-Pegida protests. The biggest Pediga rally was in Dresden, where 25,000 attended; but significantly in Leipzig, another Saxon city 115 kilometres away, 4,800 demonstrated for Pedgida and 30,000 against.

“Monday demonstrations”

The Pegida demonstrations began with a mobilisation mainly via social media for “Monday demonstrations”. This was an attempt to copy a tradition from the revolution that began in autumn 1989 in the then Stalinist state in East Germany. Then “Monday demonstrations” started in Leipzig (also in Saxony) and soon became a mass movement throughout East Germany, playing a big role in the overthrow of the Stalinist regime. That movement, which started as a political revolution for democratic rights and against the Stalinist elite, ended with the restoration of capitalism, as the German ruling class seized the opportunity to unite the country in 1990 on the basis of their system.

Since then, there have been several attempts to revitalise this tradition of protest. In 1991 there were mass Monday demonstrations against huge job losses in eastern Germany when the former planned economy was privatised. In 2004 there were mass demonstrations in eastern Germany (and much smaller demonstrations in west Germany) against the introduction of welfare cuts (the notorious ‘Hartz laws’). In the spring of 2014 there were much smaller “Monday peace vigils“ which combined, in many cases, opposition against the aggressive stance of Western imperialism in the Ukrainian conflict with confused and reactionary ideas (conspiracy theories, whitewashing of Putin etc.)

These latest Monday demonstrations in Dresden claim to take up this tradition. They use slogans from 1989 (especially “We are the people”), but they gave a totally new and reactionary content to it.

Lutz Bachmann, their main organiser, has a long criminal record (assault, burglary, theft, possession of illegal drugs etc.) In 1998 he fled to South Africa to avoid a prison sentence but was deported back to Germany. Now he incites hatred against allegedly criminal foreigners.

He claims that he was prompted to call these demonstrations by his opposition to an October 2014 demonstration of Kurdish people in solidarity with the battle against ISIS in Syrian city of Kobane. So this alleged movement against Islamisation was initially motivated by hatred against those very people who were the most determined fighters against reactionary political Islam.

The fear of Islamisation is deeply irrational, anyway. Only about 5 per cent of the German population are Muslims. Demographers expect a rise to 7 per cent until 2030. In Saxony there are less than one per cent Muslims. On the other hand, there is no strong Christian tradition any more in eastern Germany either. More than 75 per cent of the Saxon population were not affiliated with any religion in 2011. It is false for Pegida spokespeople to invoke a tradition of the Christian-Jewish West. Much of the real history of organised Christianity in Europe is coloured by vicious anti-Judaism.

But distortions of history like this show that they try to avoid the traditional far right labels like anti-Semitism. In their original list of demands, they claimed that they were in favour of the right of asylum for people who are persecuted or fleeing from war. The Pegida organisers claim that they are only against economic refugees, criminal foreigners and so on. But reports from these Monday demonstrations are that such claims are only camouflage.

Angry and desperate petty bourgeois

How is such an irrational mass movement to be explained? Many of those protesting in Dresden are from a middle class background. It is a typical movement of middle class people who are afraid of social decline. At the beginning of the 1990s, many people lost their jobs after the restoration of capitalism in East Germany. A layer of them tried to become self-employed. They became craftsmen, freelancers and so on. They work hard to make ends meet and are afraid that their economic situation will worsen and they might go bankrupt. Of course, the economic situation in Germany is still much better than in other parts of Europe, but its economic growth was very meagre over the last few years.

In addition, people can easily get the impression that Germany is an island of stability in a sea of crisis and get afraid that this island might get overwhelmed by the sea. So the fear of individual social decline combines with the fear of a collective social decline of Germany. For people who do not see an answer in class struggle and a socialist solution to the crisis of capitalism, it seems natural to see nationalism as a means to protect the Germans ‘island’ from the crises surrounding it. This is even more the case since nationalism and racism have been presented as solutions for decades by capitalist media and politicians to divide and rule.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a big propaganda campaign against asylum seekers. Since 9/11 there is scaremongering against Muslims. Muslims are depicted as violent and backward. Tabloids publish ludicrous reports about de-Christianisation and Islamisation: allegedly ‘Christmas markets’ are forcibly renamed ‘Winter’ markets, Muslim songs are introduced into Christmas mass, lantern processions on St. Martin’s Day are renamed to “sun, moon and stars” and so on. Since 2010 German media and politicians have also whipped up prejudices against “lazy” southern European (especially Greek) people.

Two years ago a new party was founded, AfD (Alliance for Germany). Its character is not yet fully clear, since it is a new party. There are right wing populist and conservative tendencies inside it. Its original issue was the euro crisis and it demanded Germany leave the euro currency, but not the EU. Since this crisis had subdued temporarily, AfD took up other issues. In the 2013 general election the AFD just missed clearing the five percent hurdle to be elected to parliament. But since then they were elected to the European parliament and to three state parliaments in eastern Germany (including Saxony).

In the first eleven months of 2014 there was a 55% increase of asylum seekers (as a consequence of the civil war in Syria etc.). In several places new shelters for asylum seekers were opened. In many cases fascists and other racists organised protests against these new shelters. Attacks against shelters for asylum seekers tripled in 2014 in Saxony.

An important factor is the feeling in areas of the east that the interests of easterners are not really represented at the top; as the chair of the Migration Council put it, many easterners “feel they have no voice”. The ruling class is overwhelmingly west German, despite the fact that the two top official positions in the formal political structure, the President and Chancellor, are currently held by east Germans.

Unfortunately the Left party, despite its generally strong electoral base in the east, has not been able to lead sustained campaigns that offer a way out. And this is one reason why election results have shown fertile ground for far right ideas in Dresden. In the local elections in May 2014 18,341 people (2.8 per cent) in Dresden voted for far right NPD, while another 46,309 people (7 per cent) voted for AfD.

One reason for racist ideas in eastern Germany is the low percentage of immigrants. This means that many local people have hardly any personal experience of knowing people with foreign roots. So their image is deeply shaped by racist ideas spread by the tabloids and other mass media.

Some pro-Establishment commentators are irritated by the fact that in Dresden the demonstrations go beyond the usual suspects of far right activists. They claim that many demonstrators come “from the middle of society”. This is true. But racism, xenophobia and islamophobia are widespread in this “middle of society”, especially in the middle class.

However it would be wrong to regard the rise of Pegida as inevitable. Petty bourgeois people are not automatically racist reactionaries. In reality, many of the people who participated in counter-demonstrations live in similar economic and social circumstances. If the workers’ movement would offer a solution to the crisis of capitalism, it would rally big parts of the middle class behind it. Unfortunately there has been a low level of class struggle in Germany for years. The Left party offers no clear alternative, either.

In Saxony the Left party is dominated by its right wing. In Dresden the majority of Left party councillors even voted for the sale of all 48,000 council houses in 2006. (This led to the split amongst the Left Party’s councillors, but it discredited the party, as a whole.) Yet left forces and anti-fascists might have choked off Pegida’s development if they had mobilised for counter-protests as long as Pegida was small. But this opportunity was missed.

Outside of Dresden

But anti-fascists in the rest of Germany learned the lesson from this mistake. Since December, there have been several attempts to imitate Pegida in other places. In most cases the organisers were people from fascist or right-wing populist organisations. These mobilisations were small (like the first demos of Pegida in Dresden) and they were challenged by counter demonstrations. Often there were blockades of thousands of people that prevented these “Gida” demonstrations from marching – this happened, for example, in Cologne and Berlin on 5 January 2015. Members of Socialist Alternative (SAV/CWI in Germany) participated in these demonstrations from the beginning. In Cologne and Hamburg, comrades had the opportunity to speak to thousands of people at the counter demonstrations.

The position of the ruling class is contradictory. They are interested in maintaining their divide and rule weapon. This is so they can, when they feel it is necessary, instigate islamophobia and racism to distract attention from the real problems. But, at present, they are totally opposed to a racist movement like Pegida. It is can introduce instability, which can get out of control. It can deter foreign tourists and qualified workers, which German capitalism desires as the country’s population declines. Already, despite recent high inward migration, Germany’s population has fallen by over a million since 2008, and employers are stressing their need to import workers, although this may change when the economy next goes into recession. But in a situation where wages have been held down for years and rents are rising rapidly in some cities, while other parts of the country, especially in the east, suffer depopulation, the employers drive to import workers can give rise to resentment.

The main capitalist politicians are afraid of losing votes to the AfD if this party is strengthened by Pegida. Therefore capitalist media and politicians call for counter demonstrations against Pegida (but not for effective blockades of their marches). This is contradictory. On the one hand, it helped to mobilise people, so 35,000 marched against Pegida in Dresden on 10th January 2015. On the other hand, it is not credible when media and politicians attack Pegida if they also participate in deportations, if they are responsible for transforming the Mediterranean into a mass grave for refugees, if they divide immigrants into the ‘good’ (professionally qualified people, whom German capitalism needs) and the ‘bad’ (the rest) etc.

SAV members have been at these demonstrations to expose this hypocrisy. Many other speakers offer mainly moralism, appeals for tolerance and diversity … appeals that tend to convince only those people who do not need to be convinced. This moralism is totally unable to answer the feeling of insecurity as an effect of the many crises of capitalism, which combines with racist prejudices in the Pegida demonstrations. If the movement against Pegida is not able to answer these real concerns, a new economic crisis, new wars, and terror attacks like the ones in Paris, will supply Pegida with new recruits.

After the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo

The Islamophobes of Pegida claim to have been vindicated by last week’s terror attacks in Paris and announced they would use their 12 January Monday demonstrations as ‘memorial marches’ for the victims. Of course, this was a new hypocrisy, since Charlie Hebdo attacked the French counterparts of Pegida. In fact, the Pegida organisers and right-wing political Islam fanatics have a lot in common. Both ignore the class antagonisms and propagate a ‘clash of cultures’ instead. Both hate the left, the organised workers’ movement and democratic rights.

After the terror attacks in Paris, socialists emphasised the necessity to defend the right of expression and the freedom of speech. Some people might see blockades of attempts to launch Pegida marches in new areas as a contradiction to this position. But these marches are not an application of the freedom of speech. During the last weeks, there was an increase of fascist violence against immigrants and against leftist activists. The successes of Pegida encourage this violence. To discourage them with successful counter mobilisations, including mass blockades is absolutely legitimate.

Demands of Socialist Alternative

Last December, Socialist Alternative (SAV/CWI in Germany) decided to take up the issue of war, refugees and racism, as a focus for our activity for the period ahead.

After the big anti-Pegida demonstrations on 5 January we produced a two page special edition of our paper with arguments against Pegida and proposals to build the movement against it. We explain that racism is not only against immigrants but serves to split and weaken the working class. We call on the trade unions and Left Party to organise an information campaign against Pegida and racism with leaflets at workplaces and in housing estates, and for mass rallies and a national demonstration.

We call for a joint fight of German and immigrant workers and unemployed people for education, welfare and housing and for decent jobs. Other demands are against state racism and ‘Fortress Europe’, against arms exports and the foreign deployments of the German military. This culminates in demands for the transfer of banks and corporations into public property, and for democratic cooperation and a sustainable planning and a socialist democracy worldwide.

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January 2015