01.09.2018, Saxony, Chemnitz: Lutz Bachmann, founder of PEGIDA, makes a selfie in front of a photo of the murdered Iulia from Viersen during AfD demonstration. Ralf Hirschberger/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
Four years ago on October 20, 2014, 'Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident' (PEGIDA) staged their first-ever demonstration in the city of Dresden. About 350 people attended. Soon, the weekly PEGIDA protests turned into the most talked about issue in German politics. In the winter of 2014 and 2015, up to 20,000 people joined the 'evening walks' in Dresden. While since then a political party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), has become the key radical right player in German politics, PEGIDA still regularly mobilizes more than 1,000 individuals. By now, their Monday gatherings have become a 'protest ritual'.
Every now and then, PEGIDA re-enters the spotlight, most recently this summer. In Chemnitz, another Saxon city about 50 miles away from the region's capital Dresden, a German-Cuban man was killed on August 26, with two individuals from Middle Eastern countries as suspects. What followed was mobilization by various far-right activists from in and outside Chemnitz, who entered the scene and exploited the death for their own mobilization purposes. Some protests involved violence against immigrants and the showing of the Nazi salute.
While initially, PEGIDA organizers were unrelated to the emerging Chemnitz protests, its founder, Lutz Bachmann, and others soon got involved. Key figures of the AfD, Germany's biggest opposition party, staged a 'silent march' together with PEGIDA, with various other far-right activists present. This was the latest peak in a longterm public rapprochement between PEGIDA and parts of the AfD.
The relationship between PEGIDA and the AfD has always been difficult, for the most part because of different views within the AfD on how to deal with the far-right protest group. Many AfD politicians from the west of Germany have been critical of close relations, fearing that they would endanger the party's legitimacy. But Dresden-born Frauke Petry, former AfD leader and the key figure of the party's radical right turn in summer 2015, remained distant.
At the beginning of 2015, Petry, then regional leader of her party's branch in Saxony, rejected further cooperation with PEGIDA after having personally met with Bachmann, whom she did not find trustworthy. Over the following year, the AfD's national executive stressed their desire to keep their distance on several occasions. However, many within the party were not convinced of this official line. An event in 2017 underlines this point: on May 8, PEGIDA and AfD kept as little distance as possible; in Dresden, both organized two 'separate' demonstrations at the same square, registering their events for two different consecutive time-spots and using different stages.
Pros and cons
In March 2018, reflecting the close relations between some AfD politicians and PEGIDA, the AfD national executive clarified that any member is free to appear at PEGIDA protests in Dresden. Most prominently, Björn Höcke, AfD leader in Thuringia, seized this chance. Höcke is well known for his far-right stances. In January 2017, for example, he denounced Berlin's Holocaust memorial, or at least its central location, thus demanding a '180 degree turn' in the country's politics of memory. In May 2018, he gave a speech at PEGIDA in Dresden – an event widely covered in German media. The AfD leaders of Brandenburg (Andreas Kalbitz) and Saxony (Jörg Urban) were also present. Together, all three joined the 'silent march' in Chemnitz
In recent weeks, some within the AfD have spoken out against a rapprochement between the party and PEGIDA. Chemnitz-born Alexander Gauland, both co-leader of the national party and of the Bundestag parliamentary group, has made several positive remarks about PEGIDA in the past, but spoke out against close relations with Bachmann. Georg Pazderski, AfD leader in Berlin, supports this position, hinting at Bachmann’s criminal record: 'Solange bei Pegida ein Gewohnheitsverbrecher eine führende Rolle spielt, erübrigt sich jedes Nachdenken über eine wie auch immer geartete Verbindung' ('As long as a habitual criminal plays a leading role at Pegida, any reflection on any type of link is unnecessary'). And also in Saxony, after long debates at a party conference in September, a spokesperson emphasized: 'Es gibt keinen Schulterschluss - mit keiner Bewegung' ('there is no closing of ranks – with no movement'), with the practical implications of this statement remaining unclear. At the same event, Urban, AfD leader in Saxony, still stressed that 'die AfD ist der politische Arm aller gewaltfreien, freiheitlich-demokratischen Bürgerbewegungen' ('The AfD is the political arm of all non-violent, liberal-democratic citizen movements').
Next year, Saxony will hold regional elections. At last year’s federal election, the AfD became Saxony's most popular party, causing an upset by ending up 0.1 percent ahead of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Now the party also wants to challenge the longterm dominance of the Christian Democrats in the regional legislature.
The response of AfD Saxony's top figures to PEGIDA's fourth anniversary – scheduled to take place this Sunday, October 21, at the central Neumarkt in Dresden – may provide an indication as to whether they will regard emphasizing friendly relations with PEGIDA as beneficial or detrimental to that aim.
This blog is based on the forthcoming chapter 'Remaining on the Streets: Anti-Islamic PEGIDA Mobilization and its Relationship to Far-Right Party Politics' (co-authored with Lars Erik Berntzen) in Radical Right 'Movement Parties' in Europe (Routledge), edited by Manuela Caiani and Ondřej Císař.