I usually don’t write about modern Germany, but there’s been a development lately I can’t ignore.
In Dresden, people have been gathering for Monday demonstrations, marches that protest immigration from Islamic countries. They apparently fear for the future of European civilization. They call themselves PEGIDA — Patriotic Europeans against the Islamic influence in Europe. Its organizers claim no links with Neo-Nazis and violent football hooligans, though there’s enough crossover to raise more than one eyebrow.
The Pegida movement has spread to other cities in Germany (using similar acronyms), and for the most part run peacefully. The protesters refuse to speak to the media. They are told not to shout any slogans that might be reported falsely in what they call the “Lügenpresse” — the lying press, a word the Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels loved to use in his day. Regular people attend the protests, and men with black scarves over their faces. Nobody could quite figure out what Pegida people want because they never talked to anyone.
A silent protest.
A disillusioned middle class marching with the far right wing is not new in Germany. It happened in the 1930s and it brought down the Weimar Republik.
The German government, local and federal, know that. There are calls to take Pegida’s fears seriously, and of course they enjoy the right of free speech. But on the whole, the official response is counter-protest. Even going so far as to turn off the lights of national landmarks and whole cityscapes.
This might be unique. At least I’ve never heard of it before. For a march in Cologne, the head of the city’s landmark, the Dom, shut off all the lights of the magnificent cathedral. The old city and the bridges over the Rhine also remained dark. The protesters shouldn’t have a photogenic backdrop. In Berlin, the Brandenburger Tor was darkened.
At the same time, tens of thousands of people have gathered in cities across Germany to support tolerance, freedom and the rights of all people. When 18,000 gathered in Dresden alone, several times that gathered around the country.
Yesterday, 5,000 people marched through the pedestrian zone of Essen, the city I live in. It was a march for human rights. I was there, because I know history. The current German government is far stronger than Weimar ever was. The spirit of Nazism won’t take over democratic rights as easily as Hitler did in 1933. But when I heard what some Pegida people said, I had a shiver of recognition. So did Jewish groups in Germany, who warn against Pegida. As one Jewish leader said, scapegoating starts with one group of people, and where does it end?
Pegida and anti-Pegida demos in Dresden have been banned for now because of assassination threats on Pegida organizers. Now the public discourse has shifted to whether the ban cuts Pegida’s right to free speech. Pegida leaders even held a press conference. Or as the national weekly Der Spiegel put it, a “Lying-press conference.”
Back to the real issues. I believe people should talk seriously about the threat radical Muslims and others are to world peace. We should talk about immigration. We should freely critique government policy. But the discussion should be done openly, with level heads. It shouldn’t be hijacked by fear — from the political right or left, or from terrorists. It’s a turbulent moment in Germany, and a test of its democracy. And its people. I have confidence in both.