Only a few weeks ago, Germany’s Pegida movement attracted tens of thousands of supporters every Monday and was on its way to become a political power.
Then, however, things started to go poorly for the German anti-Muslim protesters. Authorities cancelled one of the marches due to a terror threat, briefly after the attacks in Paris. Then, it was revealed that Pegida’s leader, Lutz Bachmann, had posed as Hitler. Bachmann said he would resign, but then he changed his mind. Instead, Pegida’s more moderate organisers left in protest and founded a new, more moderate movement that has so far failed to attract substantial support.
By February 9, the number of Pegida supporters in Dresden had dropped from 25,000 (on January 12) to 2,000. Monday’s march could mark the beginning of the end of a movement that shocked domestic and foreign observers with its loud, anti-Islamist extremism message, but also with the more hidden, xenophobic and sometimes openly racist remarks of its supporters.
Why did Pegida lose so many supporters so quickly? Here are some possible reasons for the sudden decline:
1. Infighting within Pegida’s leadership. The Pegida march on January 12, which marked the peak of support for the movement, already foreshadowed its decline. Kathrin Oertel — one of the most prominent leaders of the group, who would later resign — said back then in an interview that the goals of Pegida were not directed against Islam itself. Instead, she said, one should try to achieve a more successful assimilation of immigrants, but also try to prevent the supposed “Islamisation” of democratic institutions.
According to multiple studies, many Germans even agreed with some of Oertel’s goals back then. Other Pegida supporters, however, had much more radical ideas. One of them, for instance, proposed to throw refugees out of planes, when talking to a TV crew — and he was not alone with his extreme position, as other interviews showed. On January 12, it became clear that Pegida’s leadership had to decide what it wanted to become: A melting pot for a minority of Right-wing racists or a movement for middle class citizens concerned about the sudden influx of refugees. Unable to make such a decision, Pegida’s 12-strong leadership split amid growing legal challenges and philosophical differences.
2. National opposition was too strong and the gains of the movement were minimal. In January, pro-tolerance demonstrations started to outnumber their anti-Islam counterparts nationally and social movement scholars predicted that Pegida would quickly start to decline. The fact that Pegida was unable to turn the movement’s goals into actual political successes did not help, either.
3. Many Pegida supporters wanted to voice local criticism and were shocked when they found themselves on international front pages. Their message — primarily directed against German Chancellor Angela Merkel and local politicians — suddenly became a concern for Dresden’s tourism sector and its enterprises. Abroad, tourist attraction Dresden started to be portrayed as a xenophobic no-go zone. When authorities prohibited Dresden’s Pegida march on January 19 due to a potential terror attack, the feeling of power many had enjoyed when they joined the protests turned to fear.
4. Similar, smaller protest marches in other cities failed.
5. The protesters could not agree on a common agenda. Recently, confusion had grown about the actual goals of Pegida and other, similar groups. Studies by Dresden’s Technical University as well as the Berlin-based scientific centre WZB had found indications that many protesters marched out of a deeper frustration with Germany’s political elite more generally — and not out of fear of Islam or an Islamisation of German society, specifically.
6. Furthermore, neo-Nazis dominated several Pegida offshoots. More moderate Pegida supporters did not want to be associated with the Right-wing extremist protesters at some smaller marches that were organised in support of the larger Dresden-based movement. The decline of the Pegida movement does not indicate a sudden change of mind of thousands of anti-Muslim protesters, though. Pegida’s arguments will remain a challenge to liberal and conservative German politicians alike. Political scientists say the marches have divided the population of Dresden in particular into Pegida sympathisers and opponents.
Tomorrow, the city will commemorate the 70th anniversary of its bombing by Allied forces, which killed about 25,000 civilians, according to some estimates. Given the trauma of that event, one would think Dresden’s citizens should have a good deal of empathy for refugees displaced by newer wars. For that reason, even as Pegida seems to be in decline, one crucial question remains unanswered: If an anti-refugee and anti-Islam movement could arise in a city with such a tragic history, could it re-emerge elsewhere?
— Washington Post
Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at the Washington Post.