The future of the German grassroots anti-Islamization movement known as PEGIDA has been thrown into doubt after a leadership split resulted in key members leaving the group.
Only 2,000 people attended a weekly rally held in the eastern German city of Dresden on February 9, a sharp decrease from the 17,000 who assembled at the previous rally held on January 25.
PEGIDA — named after the German abbreviation for "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West" — has been organizing "evening strolls" (Abendspaziergang) through downtown Dresden on Monday evenings since October to protest against runaway immigration and the Islamization of Germany.
PEGIDA was launched by Lutz Bachmann, a 41-year-old Dresden publicity agent with no background in politics, after government officials in the eastern German state of Saxony announced that they would be opening more than a dozen new shelters to house some 2,000 asylum-seekers.
Germany received more than 180,000 asylum-seekers in 2014, a 60% jump from 2013. Most of them are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia, as well as from the Balkans. Many are being housed across Germany in converted schools, shipping container villages and office blocks.
Around 500 people gathered at the first PEGIDA event held on October 20 to protest Germany's lenient asylum policies. From that point on, the number of protesters increased exponentially from week to week, with more than 25,000 people attending a rally on January 12, just days after Islamic terrorists murdered 16 people in Paris.
PEGIDA offshoots have emerged across Germany, including: Bavaria (BAGIDA), Berlin (BAERGIDA), Cologne (KöGIDA), Hamburg (HAGIDA), Kassel (KAGIDA), Leipzig (LEGIDA), Rostock (ROGIDA), Südthüringen (SüGIDA) and Würzburg (WüGIDA).
PEGIDA has also branched out into other European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Norway, Poland and Sweden.
On January 21, however, the German tabloid BILD published a photograph of Bachmann sporting an Adolf Hitler-style haircut and moustache. In Facebook posts, he also referred to asylum seekers as "trash" and "filth." The posts were made on September 19, one month before PEGIDA's first gathering.
PEGIDA's detractors say that the photo, which was taken at least two years before the group's rise to prominence, proves that the movement is motivated by racism.
Bachmann insists that the photograph was an act of satire. In an interview with BILD, he said: "I took the photo at the barbershop for the publication of the audio book of the satire [novel] 'He's Back.' ... You have to be able to joke about things every now and then."
"He's Back" (Er ist wieder da) is a 2012 best-selling satirical novel based on Hitler waking up in modern-day Berlin with no knowledge of anything that has occurred in Germany since the end of World War II. The book has sold more than 1.4 million copies, and the audio book version, which is read by comedian Christoph Maria Herbst, has sold more than 520,000 copies. An English-language translation, Look Who's Back, was published in March 2014.
Bachman stepped down as PEGIDA leader following a meeting of the group's 12-member leadership committee on January 21. "I am sorry that I have damaged the interests of our movement," he said. "I sincerely apologize to anyone who has felt attacked by my online postings. They were comments made without serious reflection, which I would no longer express today."
PEGIDA spokeswoman Kathrin Oertel said that Bachmann's resignation was the "only possibility for the movement." She added: "As an association, we reject in the strongest possible terms the Facebook postings made by Lutz Bachmann in September, which have now come to light. They do nothing to nurture trust in PEGIDA's goals or its supporters."
Less than one week later, however, PEGIDA effectively imploded when Oertel and four other leaders announced that they also were leaving the group to form their own movement, Direct Democracy for Europe (Direkte Demokratie für Europa). They said that from now on their focus would be to seek ways to increase voter participation rather than to protest the Islamization of Germany. Direct Democracy's first rally was held in Dresden on February 8, but only 500 people came, far fewer than the 5,000 for which Oertel had hoped.
PEGIDA's leadership collapse has been welcomed by the guardians of European multiculturalism, who have toiled for months to delegitimize the movement by branding its supporters as racist and "neo-Nazi." Ralf Jäger, the Interior Minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, recently referred to the leaders of PEGIDA as "neo-Nazis in pinstripes."
On February 12, it emerged that senior politicians representing the State of Saxony and the City of Dresden secretly used more than 100,000 euros ($115,000) in taxpayer money to pay for a PEGIDA counter-demonstration that was held in Dresden on January 10. The purpose of that demonstration, for which more than 35,000 people showed up, was aimed at portraying PEGIDA supporters as "intolerant" and "bigoted," in contrast to the majority of Dresdeners, who are "cosmopolitan" and "committed to tolerance."
PEGIDA's supporters — many of whom are middle class young couples and grandparents — have denied that they are racist and insist that they simply want the government to tighten the country's liberal immigration laws. A 19-point "Position Paper" outlining what the group is "for" and "against" includes:
"1. PEGIDA is FOR the acceptance of asylum seekers from war zones, or those who are subject to political and religious persecution. This is a human duty!"
"2. PEGIDA is FOR amending the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany to include a list of the right and the responsibility for immigrants to integrate."
"9. PEGIDA is FOR a zero-tolerance policy vis-à-vis asylum seekers and migrants who commit crimes in Germany."
"13. PEGIDA is FOR maintaining and protecting our Judeo-Christian Western culture."
"16. PEGIDA is AGAINST the establishment of parallel societies/parallel legal systems in our midst, such as Sharia Law, Sharia Police, and Sharia Courts, etc."
"18. PEGIDA is AGAINST religious radicalism, regardless of whether it is religiously or politically motivated."
"19. PEGIDA is AGAINST hate preachers, regardless of religious affiliation."
PEGIDA has sought to distance itself from LEGIDA, an offshoot of the group based in Leipzig, because of the latter's refusal to sign PEGIDA's 19-point manifesto. A LEGIDA rally on January 21 turned violent, although a detailed first-hand account blamed "self-proclaimed anti-fascists" for initiating the unrest.
PEGIDA says it will reorganize itself; the group's next march has been scheduled for February 16. Whether the movement recovers or fizzles remains to be seen. But observers say it has already accomplished what no other movement has been able to do: mobilize tens of thousands of ordinary Europeans who are calling for an end to decades of mass immigration that is changing the face of the continent.
British commentator Oliver Lane concludes:
"Wherever it goes now, in many respects PEGIDA has already served part of its purpose, in starting a debate on immigration, citizenship, and integration that has been silent for decades.
"Many people in Germany are questioning the post-war consensus that unlimited immigration and multiculturalism (or ghettoization) is inevitable and desirable for the first time in their lives, and the freedom of thought bug appears to be spreading. A PEGIDA march has even taken place as far away as Bulgaria, with movements planned in many European countries.
"Now PEGIDA seems set to come to the United Kingdom... if the PEGIDA movement can circumvent a German elite desperate to shut it down, and break through 50 years of silence, perhaps it could even kick-start a new era of openness and discussion in Britain too."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.