Last Wednesday it was revealed that Lutz Bachmann, one of the founders and leaders of the German movement calling itself “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicisition of the Occident” (PEGIDA) thought it would be fun to post photographs of himself posing as Hitler on Facebook. Coming less than a week before this week’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, many are likely to find this revelation particularly chilling.
PEGIDA, Bachmann’s brain child, emerged in the autumn of 2014 and has been organizing weekly demonstrations in Dresden. As the number of demonstrators has grown, peaking at 25,000, PEGIDA has drawn considerable attention and become the cause of increasing domestic and international concern.
Bachmann’s behaviour obviously betrays a shocking and reprehensible lack of sensitivity and judgment. Yet, as is evident from the speed with which PEGIDA has dropped him, it also demonstrates an extraordinary lack of political acumen.
If Germany did opt for a political model comparable to National Socialism again, the similarity would lie in the substance and hardly in outward appearances. If there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain, it is that none of its protagonists would emulate Hitler’s moustache and haircut. Even Hitler himself, if he were somehow resurrected, would doubtless appreciate that any political comeback on his part would have to begin with an extensive personal makeover. Bachmanngate is no more than a distraction. The real problems lie elsewhere.
To be sure, German society remains so over-determined by its Nazi past that most phenomena mean something different in Germany than if they were to happen elsewhere. Yet the rise of PEGIDA is, on the whole, one of the exceptions and speaks primarily to the Europe-wide rise of anti-immigrant populism.
Merkel deserves credit for her determination not to cave in to PEGIDA. She owes her third term as chancellor not only to her pragmatism, but also to a measure of integrity that has impressed even many of her natural opponents. She has consistently criticised the movement in no uncertain terms, not least in her new year’s address to the nation.
Her response to rising anti-immigrant sentiment is markedly different to that of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In the early 1990s, Germany witnessed an appalling wave of deadly pogrom-style riots and arson attacks against foreigners. Scores of asylum seekers and immigrants, some of whom had been living in Germany for decades, lost their lives.
The Kohl government responded to the violence by meeting the racists’ demands to curtail immigration. As a result, Germany eagerly abandoned her hitherto unconditional commitment to the principle of political asylum, previously paraded as a lesson learned from the Nazi past. Kohl’s coalition turned the asylum procedure into an obstacle course. The burden of proof was shifted dramatically from the authorities to the asylum seekers. If an asylum seeker came from a so-called “safe state” (where the government wasn’t guilty of persecution, according to Germany), they were no longer entitled to an evaluation of their individual circumstances.
In many ways, it is this closed immigration system, inherited from Kohl, that allows Merkel to respond to PEGIDA with such firmness. She knows she can censure the group without falling prey to criticism that she is lax on immigration.
While most European states have tightened up their immigration rules in recent years, rarely are they implemented as consistently and rigidly as in Germany. All the rhetoric notwithstanding, Germany ultimately still refuses to accept the reality of immigration.
Merkel’s rhetoric, in other words, is firmly opposed to PEGIDA’s racism, yet at the same time she oversees an immigration system motivated by many of the fears articulated by PEGIDA’s supporters.
Indeed, many of PEGIDA’s establishment opponents doubtless share quite a few of its problematic assumptions about foreigners in general and Muslims in particular. PEGIDA, after all, has not come from outer space. It offers an extreme and distorted representation of ideas that are prevalent in society at large and reflected not least in the German government’s immigration policy.
The rise of PEGIDA leaves the political opposition to the left of the Grand Coalition of Christian and Social Democrats in a pickle. Their room for manoeuvre is massively curtailed by the fact that Merkel is doing the “right thing,” even if she is doing so, in part at least, for the wrong reasons, and underpinned by deeply problematic immigration policies.
It is not without irony that the left tends to deny the legitimacy of any criticism of Islam and hence fails to take the threat of militant Islam seriously. Many of PEGIDA’s supporters, in turn, would presumably be quite attracted to life in the caliphate. After all, it promises clear, timeless, and non-negotiable rules for a simple and authentic existence in a homogeneous community, void of all diversity and dissent. Their racism, however, prevents them from appreciating what they would consider its merits.
As things stand, hope resides exclusively in Merkel’s ability to keep the German political class committed to firm opposition both to PEGIDA and to radical Islam. Yet revolting and reprehensible as PEGIDA is, we should not overrate its significance. Let us not forget that UKIP and the Front National recently won the European Elections in the UK and France with almost a third of the vote. By comparison, PEGIDA has a long way to go.
Lars Fischer teaches History and Jewish Studies at University College London. A former Secretary of the British Association for Jewish Studies, he is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and serves on its Council. He is the author of “The Socialist Response to Antisemitism in Imperial Germany” (Cambridge University Press).