Germany grapples with rise of anti-foreigner movement

Yannick Pasquet
A man holds a German national flag during a rally by a mounting right-wing populist movement called Pegida, on January 5, 2015 in Berlin (AFP Photo/Odd Andersen )

A man holds a German national flag during a rally by a mounting right-wing populist movement called Pegida, on January 5, 2015 in Berlin

A man holds a German national flag during a rally by a mounting right-wing populist movement called Pegida, on January 5, 2015 in Berlin (AFP Photo/Odd Andersen )

Dresden (Germany) (AFP) - Germany's Nazi past has so far prevented the far-right gaining a lasting political foothold but the country now faces an emergent populist movement akin to those in other European countries, analysts say.

Growing weekly anti-immigrant rallies against the supposed "Islamisation" of Europe that drew a record 25,000 people Monday have prompted soul-searching and rekindled a debate about German identity.

The marches under the so-called PEGIDA banner ("Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident") in the eastern city of Dresden have been driven by a refugee influx from conflict-wracked states such as Syria to swell quickly from just a few hundred people in October.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed that "Islam is part of Germany" in a firm riposte to PEGIDA and urged people not to follow those with "hatred in their hearts".

"In Germany, we now have a German National Front (France's far-right party)," Frank Richter, head of Dresden's civic education centre, told AFP.

"We're seeing the emergence of something that other European countries have had for a long time already, a movement that's very conservative in its ideas, or even nationalist," he said, referring to far-right groups in Scandinavian countries, Austria, the Netherlands and France.

The emergence of PEGIDA as a populist movement has been strengthened by tentative efforts to build bridges with the upstart anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which last year notched up successful showings in state elections.

Although several known neo-Nazis have been spotted in the PEGIDA crowds, the vast majority of supporters are disenchanted citizens with an array of gripes.

A study by Dresden University released this week and conducted at three demonstrations in December and this month among around 400 participants, suggested the typical PEGIDA supporter was middle-class and well-educated.

The main driving force for getting people to join the rallies is "a general dissatisfaction with the political system".

- 'Wrath against politicians' -

Dresden's Monday marches -- which call for stricter asylum rules at a time when Germany has become Europe's top haven for people fleeing conflict -- have sparked smaller clone protests in other cities, as well as often larger counter-demonstrations.

Political scientist Werner Patzelt of Dresden's Technical University said PEGIDA demonstrators tended to express "great anger" more than a general fear of Islam.

"Their wrath is directed above all against politicians," he said.

Richter, of Dresden's civic education centre, agreed, saying: "They think that these political leaders are not listening to them, that they say they are idiots and a disgrace for Germany."

Under Merkel, the conservative Christian Democrats have moved to the political centre, insisting, among other things, on the need for immigration to rejuvinate a rapidly ageing population.

"On the right of the political spectrum, we have what one could call a gap in representation," Patzelt said. "People with a right-wing way of thinking don't find political representation to take their fears seriously."

- Sensitive to threat to values -

Democracy and diversity are also not as firmly anchored in regions that were part of communist East Germany until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he said.

Germany, haunted by its Nazi past, has prided itself on efforts to come to terms with its history and is sensitive to any threat to the values and international standing it has fought hard to establish since World War II.

At the national level, no big far-right movement has so far managed to enter parliament. However, an openly neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), has had lawmakers in several eastern states.

Now the AfD, only founded in 2013, has burst onto the political landscape by capturing seats in three eastern regional assemblies last year, and by winning seats in the European Parliament last May.

Initially tapping into German frustration over the bankrolling of bailout packages for ailing eurozone states, the AfD has flirted with populist positions in family policy, law and order and immigration.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas this week drew parallels between the AfD, PEGIDA and even the NPD.

"The AfD isn't much better than PEGIDA or even the NPD," he told the top-selling Bild daily, charging that AfD's policies also reflected "a large degree of xenophobia".