Germany’s anti-Islamic Pegida movement is in tatters after five of its leading members resigned in disgust, fearing it would be hijacked by the extreme right. They announced plans to set up a more moderate rival “direct democracy” protest group.
Pegida’s demise was as sudden as it was dramatic: earlier this month the populist movement, which is an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West, shocked German mainstream parties when a record 25,000 supporters flocked to one of its regular Monday demonstrations in the eastern city of Dresden.
The movement’s adherents, whose number includes neo-Nazis and football hooligans as well as ordinary middle and lower-middle class Germans, say they fear Islam and being “swamped” by foreign immigrants. The protests have coincided with a record annual influx of more than 200,000 asylum-seekers.
Today, however, Pegida’s leadership was forced to cancel the movement’s next protest. It also faced the likelihood of further splits and confrontation with a new breakaway group which appeared to have ditched xenophobic protest in favour of a campaign for direct democracy.
“We want to re-group and re-form,” the five ex-Pegida leaders said following their resignation. “We want to fight for our objectives such as more direct democracy at a federal level,” they added, declaring that their new organisation would be named Movement for Direct Democracy in Europe.
Pegida’s disintegration began just over a week ago after the movement’s 42-year-old leader Lutz Bachmann was forced to resign following the publication of photographs from his Facebook page. They showed him wearing a toothbrush moustache, posing as Adolf Hitler. “He’s back,” read an accompanying caption. Mr Bachmann, a trained cook with convictions for drink-driving and causing bodily harm, was also found to have used racist language on Facebook. He described asylum seekers and foreign immigrants as “cattle”, “riff raff, “a pack of dirt” and concluded: “There is no such thing as real war refugees.”
The revelations and a subsequent decision by state prosecutors to investigate Mr Bachmann for alleged incitement to racial hatred prompted him to resign as Pegida leader last Wednesday. He was replaced by the movement’s more moderate spokeswoman, Kathrin Oertel, 37, the only Pegida functionary to agree to be interviewed on German television.
Today, however, Ms Oertel and four other members of the 12-strong Pegida leadership committee resigned from the organisation. She said one of the main reasons for their decision was Mr Bachmann’s continued presence on the leadership committee despite his racist Facebook comments and Hitler posturing.
“We are not prepared to go on supporting this,” Ms Oertel said. She added that there were fears Pegida was in danger of being taken over by the far right. “We are also clearly distancing ourselves from extreme right-wing tendencies,” she said.
Her remarks were directed at Mr Bachmann and Pegida’s Leipzig-based sister organisation Legida, which is regarded as a militant far-right grouping in which racism and conspiracy-theory doctrine abound. Legida has attracted several thousand supporters to its rallies. Many of its adherents believe in racial supremacy, advocate a rapprochement with Russia and the withdrawal of US forces from Germany.
In recent weeks Pegida’s leadership committee has been immersed in a bitter dispute over whether to join forces with Legida, which is scheduled to hold its next protest in Leipzig on Friday.
The future of Pegida remained uncertain last night. There was speculation that the movement could split again into two groups: one around Mr Bachmann and the other around what was left of Pegida’s leadership committee.
Pegida has plans for further demonstrations in February. The mass circulation Bild newspaper surmised that they could degenerate into farcical rival protests with “Pegida demonstrating against Pegida”. Der Spiegel noted that Pegida would also face competition from the direct democracy movement, which is also planning demonstrations.
Germany’s main parties were scarcely able to conceal their delight at the prospect of Pegida’s total implosion. The movement has deeply worried mainstream politicians, with many MPs at odds over how best to respond to such a spontaneous grassroots, yet xenophobic organisation.
Chancellor Angela Merkel used a New Year’s speech to condemn it. She asked people to stay away from Pegida demonstrations and said the movement’s supporters bore “hatred in their hearts”. However, her Vice-Chancellor, the Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel admitted this week that he had attended a Dresden forum and talked with Pegida supporters.
Germany’s Eurosceptic group, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is the only party to openly court Pegida. It is likely to decide on its future relations with the movement at a party conference in Bremen this weekend. A senior AfD leader said he opposed joining forces with Pegida.