Resisting the right’s racist rallies in Germany

January 12, 2015

Nora Berneis and Max Manzey are members of Die Linke.SDS, the Socialist Democratic Student League of Germany's Left Party, and they belong to Marx21, a network of revolutionaries within Die Linke. Here, they analyze the emergence of the right-wing PEGIDA--and the counter-mobilizations that outnumbered the right a week ago.

ON JANUARY 5, some 20,000 people took part in racist demonstrations in Germany called by PEGIDA, the self-proclaimed movement of "Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West."

But more than twice as many people mobilized to show their opposition to PEGIDA in the largest anti-racist protests seen in many years. Almost everywhere but the eastern city of Dresden, supporters of the right wing PEGIDA numbered no more than a few hundred--while the ranks of the anti-racists were many times larger. In Dresden, however, the racists turned out a crowd estimated at 18,000.

The PEGIDA rallies are part of a new offensive by right-wing populist and Nazi organizations that has emerged in Germany since last November. In 2010, the forces of the right were dealt one of their worst setbacks in years by a broad coalition called Dresden Nazifrei ("Dresden free of Nazis"), which organized huge blockades and protests against a planned day of right-wing marches last February 13, the anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.

Die Linke members march against the racist PEGIDA movement
Die Linke members march against the racist PEGIDA movement (Enna Lenze)

The weekly PEGIDA demonstrations are the largest racist demonstrations in Germany in a long time. Their strange name was inspired by HoGeSa (Hooligans against Salafists), a collection of Nazi organizations and far-right soccer fans who marched in Cologne and Hannover last autumn. The protests of HoGeSa were marked by outbreaks violence and negative media reaction, and quickly declined in numbers.

But PEGIDA has taken up the tradition of "Monday demonstrations" that took place the East German regime before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of East and West Germany.

The epicenter of PEGIDA is Dresden, but Facebook calls for racist demonstrations have spread to other cities, under names like BerGIDA for Berlin, WüGIDA for Würzburg, KöGIDA for Cologne, and so on. Which each new city, however, has come plans for blockades and counter-protests by anti-racist activists and networks.

The racist demonstrations mark a new strategy of the radical right to find an opening to the broader masses. Their goal is to address growing discontent with the political system, the media and lack of social services, and to deflect this popular anger into mobilizations against Muslims, refugees and migrants in general. Thus, PEGIDA claims to be defending "Western values" against the supposed "Islamization" of Germany.

Fortunately, however, the PEGIDA protests have sparked an opposition, which was clear from the much larger turnout of anti-racist counter-demonstrators in every city but Dresden on January 5.

In at least 12 cities, a broad spectrum, ranging from the radical left to more liberal groups, marched under the slogan "This city stays colorful". The center-left Social Democratic Party, the more radical Die Linke (Left Party), the Green Party and the Confederation of German Trade Unions protested alongside migrant organizations and a many radical left and anti-fascist groups.

In Cologne, the Catholic Church announced in advance of January 5 that the lights would be turned off during evening hours at the city's famous cathedral as KöGIDA held its protest. The city government of Berlin and institutions followed this example. And so some of the most famous sights in Germany, including the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, hid their beauty and meaningfulness in darkness during the PEGIDA gatherings.

Such initiatives, along with the rhetorical rejection of PEGIDA by large parts of the political establishment, including Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has encouraged mobilization of No PEGIDA protests all over the country.

One of the most successful came in Münster, where 10,000 people were part of one of the largest anti racist protests seen in that town of 300,000 inhabitants. The anti-racist mobilization was announced in reaction to the Facebook-sponsored event MüGIDA, whose participants didn't even appear to face such a huge counter-demonstration.

THE SITUATION in Dresden, PEGIDA's birthplace, is very different, however. Here, the petty bourgeoisie in fear of social decline is providing a basis for PEGIDA. On January 5, the proportions of racists to anti-racists were reversed--the 18,000-strong mobilization for PEGIDA outnumbered the counter-demonstration by four to one.

Though well-known Nazis are mobilizing and taking part in the weekly demonstrations, relatively unknown leaders among the core organizers are in the limelight. In addition, during the emergence of the PEGIDA protests in the last months of last year, the left was unprepared and slow to organize counter-mobilizations.

Far-right organizations have traditionally been strong in the state of Saxony, where Dresden is located. The state has been governed by CDU for 24 years, and in federal elections in 2014, 15 percent of the vote went to the far-right National Democratic Party and Alternative for Germany.

In order to seem more moderate, the PEGIDA demonstrators call themselves "patriotic Europeans" and claim to oppose Nazis. Instead of the far-right's typical violence, they march silently or chant, "We are the people!" At the same time, however, the demonstrators march with German flags, which is something only Nazis do, except for soccer events.

Even worse is PEGIDA's exaggeration of the "enemy." It claims to be standubg up against the "Islamization of the West" in a country where just 5 percent of the population is Muslim. In Saxony, where less than 1 percent of the population is Muslim, this sounds even more like a terrible joke.

However, PEGIDA does not oppose only Islamists, but everyone who, in its view, poses a threat to what it calls "Christian-Jewish culture." None of leaders or spokespeople for PEGIDA seem to know how this "culture" is defined, but it's obvious that the impact of Western racism on Muslim communities is much stronger than any "change" Muslims could force in the West.

A speech by Lutz Bachmann, one of the leaders of PEGIDA in Dresden, clearly shows the racist character:

We are gathering today in alarm and fear for the future of our home country ("Vaterland"). We understand the misery and horror taking place in all wars around the world. But we Germans and Europeans are unable to provide the detention center of the world, inviting these wars onto our streets...The fanatic and radical religious infiltration of our country and our Christian-Jewish culture is ongoing. We have to stop this. Those who exploit our hospitality and our social system have to be expelled.

AS KARL Marx wrote, the ruling ideas of society are the ideas of the ruling class. At least since 9/11, anti-Muslim prejudices have become an important part of this ruling class ideology.

Romantic orientalist and colonialist views of Islam and the Arab world have been replaced by a scaremongering picture painted in the first place to serve foreign political goals, including the justification of Western wars and occupations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as support for the Israeli government in its war on the Palestinians. With the current coalition government of the CDU and SPD pushing for the re-establishment of Germany's imperialist military power, these goals are more important than ever here.

For years, and increasingly during in the late 2000s, hardliners from both the CDU and SPD have pushed xenophobia and Islamophobia in the msinstream discourse. Thilo Sarrazin, an SPD member and former senator of finance for the state of Berlin, wrote a notorious book in 2010 titled Germany is Abolishing Itself that puts forward the same scenario that PEGIDA does these days:

The Turkish are invading Germany in the same way as the Kosovars invaded the Kosovo: with a higher fertility rate. I would be happy if these invaders were the eastern European Jews, whose IQ is 15 percent higher than the Germans. For those, who do not accept their obligation to integrate themselves in society, I feel differently. This is also because it costs a lot of money while we are facing plenty of other challenges in the coming decades.

Last summer, during Israel's bombing of Gaza, and more recently during the battles in Kobanê in Syria, the German media have been full of anti-Muslim racism, along with German mainstream discourse. Recently, the CDU has discussed prohibiting headscarves and burkas in public, as well as how to prevent German jihadists from traveling to Syria and how to treat those coming back from fighting there. Such a discourse clearly aims at generalizing the targets of the military into the enemies of the people.

In 2003, there was a huge antiwar movement, with 500.000 people marching in Berlin against German participation in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Today, there is PEGIDA.

Even more than al-Qaeda, Afghanistan's Taliban or the Palestinian party Hamas, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been demonized as showing the inherent cruelty and misanthropy of Islam. Polls show that half of Germans are afraid of Islam, and even people who generally oppose military intervention make an exception for ISIS.

This has led to public support for the government sending arms and military trainers to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and provides the basis for further involvement in the U.S. government's "coalition of the willing" to fight ISIS, as well as an increase in the military budget more generally.

Clearly, the CDU has contributed to the legitimization of PEGIDA and its war against "Islamism." In this light, the rejection of PEGIDA by Angela Merkel and other parts of the political establishment is deceptive.

As in other European countries, mistrust of the European Union (EU) has been growing during the crisis--and where the right-wing populists are the main critics of the political establishment and the EU, they are gaining support.

Despite the special role of Germany during the crisis and the widespread support for the Merkel government, Alternative for Germany (AfG) established itself as a new right-wing political force during the elections for European parliament last year--it won around 10 percent of the vote in Saxony, Thüringen and Brandenburg. These days, AfG acts as the parliamentary arm of PEGIDA, though some sections of the party formally distancing themselves from the racist movement.

IN THE mobilization against PEGIDA and a further rise of the new right, Die Linke has a special role to play. Die Linke is a diverse party of reformists, anticapitalists, unionists and some revolutionaries, founded in 2007, positioned to the left of the SPD.

Countering the chauvinism of the AfD, Die Linke can provide answers of solidarity to the growing discontent in society. As the only party of resistance with a clear antiwar and anti-racist position, some of the organizations that participate in it have played a significant role in calling, organizing and building the No PEGIDA demonstrations.

However, anti-Islam sentiments also exist on the left. Some parts of Die Linke don't directly oppose PEGIDA's claims by defending Muslims. Instead, their main slogan is opposition to any kind of racism and religious fundamentalism. This fails to recognize that Muslims are the oppressed in Germany, as in other European countries.

Following the killings at the racist satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, this topic will be a very important question at the demonstrations on Monday, January 12. Organizations of the Turkish community have announced a Monday demonstration in Berlin together with the forces who have organized against PEGIDA before.

Despite this weakness among the forces opposing PEGIDA, the counter-demonstrations are a big step forward, as they are clearly on the side of defending Muslims. PEGIDA in Dresden will probably be able to continue to mobilize, at least until the left is able to mobilize for a joint effort at a counter-demonstration. In the cities where the racist movement was successfully blocked, it will hopefully not be able to re-emerge.

But even if this is the case, the supporters of PEGIDA will not disappear. They may well return to another common strategy of the far right--mobilize against refugees directly in neighborhoods where new accommodations are built for immigrants. These overcrowded places always pose difficulties to neighborhoods' social infrastructure, so the Nazis can build their propaganda on existing fears. By pushing stories about "criminal" and "violent" foreigners, they can mobilize people to their racist protests, claiming to be "concerned citizens."

However, where significant efforts by the left to work with the local people in welcoming refugees are undertaken, the Nazis are unable to mobilize many people. Beyond this, blockades and anti-racist demonstrations called by a broad front of concerned organizations is the best way to confront the right. We cannot get rid of the Nazis completely, but we can split the hardcore Nazis from those who follow them to racist demonstrations like PEGIDA.

So it depends on us. We must address the anti-Muslim propaganda, organize huge No PEGIDA protests, and win significant parts of society--especially Muslims, refugees and migrants--to our side.

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