Can Europe Make It?

PEGIDA: a post-Nazist uprising?

Recent anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany have fused right-wing chauvinism with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and populism.

Christoph Sorg
26 March 2015
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PEGIDA supporters march in Drseden. Demotix/epoca_libera. All rights reserved.

“You have to first enlighten people that we’re not a sovereign country with a sovereign government, that the commands come from Tel Aviv and Washington (people clapping in the background). And the USA is being governed by the Jewish lobby. […] And now I ask you: what right do they have to exchange the population although the preconditions of economy and society are not given? If even academics have to go from internship to internship and that for one job vacancy…that’s the dream of the global economic lobby that there’s not ten applicants but thousands […] I was vilified a couple of days ago because I said you have to catch the refugees in the Mediterranean and disallow their refugee status… do you know what I was told – I was called a Nazi. […] We have neither jobs nor space, just look at the major Western cities: 70%, 80% are not German anymore. Is that a normal trend? I don’t know. I don’t have anything against other cultures, but it’s unacceptable that because of ISIS…because all the civil wars are incited and manipulated by the US. […] And if you air this, then I wonder if you’re going to keep your job”.

Somebody in the background yells: “We are the people”, thereby playing at the 1989 East-German uprising to bring down state socialism. The scene: Dresden, Germany, at the sight of the so-called PEGIDA (patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the occident) demonstrations.

PEGIDA is one in a recent series of anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany, occasionally disguised as anti-Islamist in order to render rampant racism illegible. The contentious process started with HoGeSa, hooligans against Salafists. While a popular satire newspaper reflected public sentiment by titling “radical idiots protest against other radical idiots”, the relatively high number of participants indicated new developments.

Since then, similar demonstrations have flowered in numerous German cities, from Bonn and Hannover to Berlin and Leipzig. Dresden’s PEGIDA proved particularly strong as it fuses popular discontent and xenophobia with East Germany’s sentiment of being a marginalized region. It also draws from the strong fascist networks that have emerged in the former GDR since the end of state socialism. The number of demonstrators successively grew from several hundred in early December to about 18,000 on January 5, and to a record turnout of at least 25,000 on January 12, briefly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Since then, internal conflicts have tremendously weakened the movement, although thousands continue to meet each Monday. Enough of a reason to draw some preliminary conclusions.

PEGIDA and the tradition of German chauvinism

Somewhere else at the demonstration, an old man complains: “I’m against foreigners, that so many of them enter the country, that’s my reason to be here. They get a lot of money. I’m retired, I get a small pension and got a job in addition in order to scrape by.” When at a later point being confronted with the fact that only about 0.2% of the Dresden population are Muslim, he responds: “I don’t care how many they are, that’s already 0.2% too much”. A middle-aged woman worries: “I don’t want us to have to go to a mosque for Christmas…if we’re even allowed to celebrate Christmas at all”. Another one complains: “I’m against Islam being introduced as state-religion.”

These rants may seem completely diffuse to people not familiar with contemporary German political discourse, and PEGIDA is a diffuse movement indeed, but it nonetheless merges several central tropes of resurging German chauvinism: a vague and diffuse discontent with contemporary capitalism and imperialism, the crude perception of which turns the German state from a colonizer into a colonized; the racist and often anti-Semitic targeting of ethnic minorities, especially Muslims, as somehow responsible for social injustice; a fear of losing one’s alleged cultural and/or biological purity; the perception of a conspiracy of US, global and (sometimes implicitly, sometimes more explicitly) Jewish elites behind all social ills (parallel to ethnic minorities); those elites in turn supposedly took complete control over the media, parties and finance (an object of fetish in fascist history), thereby acting as parasites infecting the pure national body.

These themes are present to very different degrees in recent right-wing demonstrations. They merge German fascist history with post-Nazist political culture and reclaim the right to openly use chauvinist rhetoric, which the post-Nazist social contract has banned to the private realm, isolated extremist parties and occasional conservative rants instrumentalizing and nurturing these themes.

The state of social struggles in Germany

Liberal myths hegemonic to public discourse are shocked at the rise of the movement, and respond with a combination of working-class phobia, confusion and ridicule. Neoliberal hegemony in Germany desperately needs to maintain the erroneous narrative that the German economy and thus “Germany” is doing splendidly, while other countries don’t know how to work hard and spend money responsibly. Challenges to these myths might be linked to demands for a social-economic transformation after decades of slashing social welfare, precarisation and destroying social solidarity.

 Along these lines, dominant social forces need to continuously downplay the danger of resurging (counterhegemonic) fascism and transform it into a problem of lack of education and intelligence among the popular classes. In reality, protesters draw from the racist and anti-Semitic legacy of German nationalism, a nationalism that is crucial for ruling forces in order to produce legitimacy and channel popular discontent against ethnic minorities. Before the 2012 parliamentary election, the Bavarian conservative party (CSU) titled “Wer betrügt fliegt” (something like: cheaters get deported), thereby fuelling the imagined fear of an invasion of poor foreign people exploiting the German welfare system. This is but a tiny example of institutionalized German racism.

But Germany is a special case within recent global unrest well beyond the historical legacy of Nazist discourses: the crisis of global capitalism is clearly felt among large parts of society, but slightly soothed by the benefits the German state reaps from international inequality, especially from inner-European imperialism. While Southern and Eastern Europe as well as the Southern Mediterranean are turned into peripheries of one large European-Mediterranean economy led by North-Western Europe, the German state is among the forerunners of imperialist Europeanisation.

Germany uses Europeanizing structures to protect itself from global market pressures and reaps large profits by exporting its products undervalued by the common currency mainly to the BRICS. Grievances, although devastating for some parts of society, are thus somewhat smaller on average than within other states, as regional inequality ensures a continuous flow of surplus-value to Germany. This contradicts the distorted right-wing narrative claiming the occasional subordination of German imperialism under US imperialism means that Germany is not a sovereign state, despite its reality as a driving force of imperialism and neo-colonialism. The complaint about US imperialism thereby becomes one of “we want a bigger share of the imperialist pie”, while continuously harassing the individualized victims of global inequality on German streets.

On the other hand, the left is weakened by the social-democrats’ introduction of neoliberal structural adjustment reforms, thereby reminding us of Walter Benjamin’s famous verdict that the rise of a fascist movement is an indicator of a failed revolution. The left is also historically split against the background of the Israel-Palestine conflict: The so called Anti-German camp is pro-Israeli and pro-American, accusing the rest of the left of anti-Semitism due to an alleged downplaying of Islamic-fundamentalist violence and anti-Semitism.

The anti-imperialist camp stands in solidarity with Palestine, accusing the other side of supposed colonialism and orientalism. While many leftists reject this false binary construction and reject capitalism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism altogether, others find themselves forced to choose between two hostile camps. In any case, this conflict seems to demobilize many progressives in struggles over Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism in Germany.

On the other side of the political spectrum the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) managed to position itself as a new counterhegemonic alternative to the radical left party “Die Linke”. Large parts of AfD openly sympathize with PEGIDA and established AfD members have participated in rallies or maintain contacts to PEGIDA organizers. Head of AfD Bernd Lucke pushed his party to carefully maintain a certain distance from the movement in order to maintain the mirage of a post-political party transcending the left-right-scheme. At the same time, however, he expressed understanding for their fears. Vice versa, preliminary studies found strong affinities of PEGIDA members towards AfD. It remains to be seen if PEGIDA strengthens the right-wing of AfD and how AfD will interact with right-wing movements.

Lineages of a 21st century fascist movement

Let’s return to ideology: The quotations above clearly illustrated that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are by no means a contradiction and are fluidly mixed in resurgent chauvinist movements. Contemporary Islamophobia merges xenophobic fears of the Oriental other with anti-Semitic tropes of the (Islamist) revolutionary disturbing national health and conspiratorial (Gulf) minorities controlling and exploiting Germany, while historical anti-Semitism targeting Jews and Israel is alive and well at the same time.

Recent attacks on refugee centres, anti-Muslim killings by the national socialist underground(NSU) are paralleled by anti-Semitic sentiments and violence extended well beyond the extreme right. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism share the process of blaming ethnic minorities for the contradictions of capitalism, although one represents the attack on lower ranks in social hierarchy, while the other mainly targets alleged conspiratorial elites.

It is this vague fear of the other, the destruction of social security, and an alleged endangering of invented traditions that is explosively fuelled by the social ills of the European age of austerity. In Germany, this dangerous combination merges with contemporary Islamophobia and German post-fascism, and its livid hate against the US and Israel, a mélange to manifest in diffuse movements such as the PEGIDA movement.

The contradictory nature of the PEGIDA is perfectly reflected by its initiator Lutz Bachmann. Bachmann demands no tolerance against criminal immigrants, an issue he is undoubtedly familiar with. Bachmann himself was convicted over drug trafficking, grand theft, multiple burglaries, driving without license, driving under the influence, false accusation and incitement to false testimony. When he was convicted to 3 years and 8 months in 1998, he fled to South Africa, where he lived under false name for two years until he was deported back to Germany.

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