Who are the people?: Why Pegida is as much about Germany’s self-image as about Muslim immigration.


By Luuc Brans (Staff Writer)

“Wir sind das Volk!” (We are the people!)

The crowds cheer on a cold winter night in Dresden. The chant—familiar to many from the popular uprising that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than two decades ago—is now being used in demonstrations across Germany in response to the so-called ‘Islamisation of Europe’. In recent weeks, the country has been rattled by a grass-roots, anti-immigration social movement called Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident (Pegida, or Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes)[1]. For months, this movement has organized street marches every Monday evening in cities throughout Germany, most successfully so in the East German city of Dresden[2].

The protesters are rallying against the so-called islamisation of Germany and Europe, warning against what they perceive as the threat to their way of life by immigrants who practice Islam. The movement itself has met considerable protests from the German political establishment[3], media and many German citizens, who impressively organized anti-racist and anti-xenophobic counter-protests far bigger than the original Pegida-demonstrations[4]. Chancellor Merkel denounced Pegida as ‘full of hatred’ in her New Year’s television speech[5], and the Guardian has taken to labelling the protesters “pin-stripe Nazi’s”. However, people from all walks of life have joined Pegida marches, ranging from known neo-fascists and football hooligans to seemingly ordinary middle-class citizens[6]. This makes Pegida a difficult phenomenon to grasp. And although the movement is in an existential crisis after controversy over its leadership and cancelled demonstrations following terror threats, it is important to get a clear understanding of the phenomenon to understand what is happening in German society. [7]

To understand Pegida, it is tempting to focus on problems surrounding multicultural societies. Although anti-Islam and xenophobic sentiments are generally on the rise across the European continent—especially in the wake of recent events in Paris—Pegida fails to gain considerable traction outside Germany. This suggests it might be more interesting to see it as a predominantly German phenomenon and focus on the specifics of Germany rather than on the broad issue of immigrants or Islam across the EU. In doing so, we can see two fairly recent developments regarding Germany’s national identity that might help us explain Pegida.

First, German patriotism has lost much of its taboo. For decades, since the horrors of World War II, any kind of nationalist rhetoric was taboo in Germany.  This was particularly so in liberal, democratic West Germany[8], 9. Waving flags and being proud of national symbols was largely frowned upon as this brought to mind the very nationalism which caused so much terror in the first half of the twentieth century. Consequently, in the latter half of the century, you would very rarely see a national flag hanging from a German balcony. This has changed slowly over the years, but was propelled recently by the successful hosting of the 2006 football World Cup in Germany and last summer’s success of the German national team at the World Cup[9]. Suddenly, one could see German flags hanging from balconies throughout Germany - something considered a rare and distasteful sight only a decade earlier. Germany seemed to have rediscovered itself as a nation and patriotism made its re-entry as popular phenomenon[10]. Pegida has been able to capitalise on this, as can be seen through the prolific presence of German flags in the Pegida crowds.

Secondly, and perhaps closely related, the German nation has often been characterised by nationalism scholars as the archetypical ‘ethnic nation’ as opposed to the ‘civic nation’[11]. Broadly speaking, the first defines membership of the nation as dependent on descent, while the latter does so dependent on place of birth. The ethnic nation was traditionally reflected in Germany’s citizenship policy: children of Germans born abroad are able to obtain German passports, based on their parents’ German descent, while immigrants and their children living and born in Germany were not eligible for German citizenship. But reforms were made to the citizenship laws in 2000 and 2007, which extended the possibilities for immigrants from non-ethnic German origin to obtain the German nationality[12]. German-born children of immigrants are now, although restrictively, granted German nationality. This was accompanied by preconditions for naturalization that emphasized cultural (nationalist) aspects of the German nation, such as knowledge of the German language and the passing of a citizenship test, over ethnic aspects[13].

Adherence to the German culture and language is now considered equally as important as being from ethnic German descent in determining membership in the German nation. This reform of German citizenship law was done in tune with the needs of the German economy, which has become reliant on immigrants to overcome the negative effects of the shrinking German population. It is exactly this de-ethnicised notion of the nation that angers the Pegida-protesters: they oppose the idea of Germany as a nation of immigrants[14]. Seemingly, the image of Germany as a country of immigrants has estranged them from their own country, as they continue to adhere to an ethnic conception of the German nation.

However, the leaders of the Pegida movement are smart enough to dress this ethnic nationalism as cultural nationalism: in their 19-point “Position paper” they not only call for the immediate deportation of criminal immigrants but also for the conservation and protection of the ‘Judaeo-Christian European culture’, signalling that there is no place for non-Europeans in the German nation[15]. As some commentators have rightly pointed out, when the protesters chant “We are the people”, they effectively mean “We are the ethnically German people, and you do not belong to us” [6].

In short then, Pegida is a reactionary movement against the de-ethnicisation of the German nation, further fuelled by the return of German national pride to the mainstream. But to fully grasp the movement, we have to consider one more important dynamic at play here.

The 1989-1990 reunification of Germany was not as glorious as the anniversary celebrations of the Fall of the Wall, last November, might lead one to believe. It is no coincidence that Pegida is most successful in the East German city of Dresden and that the movement fails to gain considerable support outside former East Germany. Past research in Germany has shown that xenophobia is most prevalent among the unemployed and, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East still lags behind the West in economic terms [1,10,16,17]. Its current GDP per head is only 66 percent of that in West Germany17. Moreover, Pegida protesters largely distrust the political establishment, asking for more direct democracy, and the media, which they brand as “Lügenpresse” (“press of lies”, a term originally coined by the Nazi’s) 1. This distrust is typical for East Germany. Some East Germans tend to blame West Germans for the economic misery that followed reunification, as they feel they have been politically, culturally and economically colonized by the West Germans16,[18].

Pegida’s distrust for the political establishment and the media, which is largely based in the West, therefore resonates at best in the former East, with the exception of the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and Leipzig which have attracted considerable anti-Pegida protests. Moreover, East Germany knew virtually no immigration other than immigration from befriended socialist countries like Vietnam and Cuba. Dresden, the capital of Pegida protests, even now knows virtually no immigration - only 2.5 percent of the regional population are immigrants1. After reunification, the mono-ethnic East was absorbed into the multicultural, multi-ethnic West German Federal Republic. Together with the economic deprivation of the region, it is no wonder that Pegida's xenophobic, anti-immigration message gets so many people out on the streets in East Germany.

The widening of citizenship policies and the reinvention of German national pride, together with the problematic consequences of reunification help us understand the Pegida-movement better. ‘Wir sind das Volk’ is chanted in the streets of Dresden and other East German towns[19]. The protests are met with greater anti-racist counter protest, most notably in West German cities[20]. But if one were to summarize the protesters’ noise into one chant, it would not be ‘Wir sind das Volk’ but “Wer ist das Volk?” (Who is the people?). And although torn down 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall still seems to divide the sides in that debate.

[1] Der Spiegel International (2014) ‘The End of Tolerance? Anti-Muslim movement rattles up Germany’, December 21 (http://bit.ly/1sZIs9f)

[2] The Guardian (2014) ‘Estimated 15.000 people join ‘pinstriped Nazi’s’ on march in Dresden’, December 15 (http://bit.ly/1BOMTWN)

[3] Der Spiegel (2015) ‘Altkanzler Schmidt und Schröder über Pegida: “Dumpfe Vorurteile, Fremdenhass, Intoleranz”, January 6 (http://bit.ly/1Ik4QgI)

[4] The Guardian (2015) Germans take to the streets to oppose rise of far-right ‘pinstripe Nazi’ party, January 5th (http://bit.ly/17fdcZL)

[5] The Guardian (2014) ‘Angela Merkel issues New Year’s warning over rightwing Pegida group’ December 30 (http://bit.ly/1y3Pv0P)

[6] Deutsche Welle (2015) Opinion by Volker Wagener: German parties leave PEGIDA support to AfD, January 5 (http://bit.ly/17AdavE)

[7] The Independent (2015) Pegida Movement on Verge of Implosion as five of its leading members resign in disgust due to fears of being taken over by Germany’s far right, January 29th (http://ind.pn/1zf3Qbu)

[8] James, H. (2000) A German Identity Phoenix Press: London

[9] Kersting, N. (2007) ‘Sport and National Identity: A comparison of the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup’ Politikon 34 (3): pp 277, 293

[10] New York Times (2010) ‘German identity, long dormant, reasserts itself’, September 10 (http://nyti.ms/1KC0dRo)

[11] Brubaker, R. (1992) Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, MA. : Harvard University Press

[12]Aktürk, S. (2011). ‘Regimes of Ethnicity: Comparative Analysis of Germany, the Soviet Union/Post-Soviet Russia, and Turkey’ World Politics 63: pp 115-164

[13] Diehl, C. & Tucci, I. (2011) ‘Who can become German?

Xenophobia and attitudes towards naturalization’ DIW Economic Bulletin 1 (3): pp. 3-8

[14] The Guardian (2015) ‘Dresden crowds tell a chilling tale of Europe’s fear of migrants’, January 4th (http://bit.ly/1w9SuQC)

[15] Pegida - “Positionspaper der Pegida” - undated - http://bit.ly/1BuovZb

[16] Neller, K. (2006) DDR Nostalgie: Dimensionen der Orientierungen der Ostdeutschen gegenüber der ehemaligen DDR. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften

[17] Financial Times (2014) East Germany still lags behind west after fall of Berlin Wall, September 24  (http://on.ft.com/1ss50P8)

[18] Pollack, D. & Pickel, G. (1998) Die ostdeutsche Identität- Erbe des DDR-Sozialismus oder Produkt der Wiedervereinigung. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 48 (41-42) pp 9 - 23

[19] BBC News (2015) Record Pegida Rally in Dresden sparks mass rival protests., January 12 (http://bbc.in/14UMkwI)

[20] http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/zulauf-fuer-pegida-protestieren-in-dresden-gegen-ueberfremdung-1.2301366