Nearly 15,000 people attend Dresden’s latest march against “Islamisation of the west” – is the movement driven by the middle classes, as claimed – or are there more sinister forces at work?
Can Germany escape the shadow of its history?
A protest in Dresden against “Islamisation” initially attracted 200 people, but has swelled to over 15,000 in a matter of weeks.
The group leading the protests has spawned new branches in other German cities, capitalising on a modern European concern over immigration.
But is this a genuine expression of the national mood, or is Germany playing with fire? We take a closer look at the marches and the people who are really behind them.
According to a federal spokesman, the instigators of the march “are unmistakably right-wing extremists“.
The protests are organised by a group called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), which gains respectability by its links to freedom demonstrations.
But there are hundreds of right-wing extremists in Pegida’s midst – along with two established football hooligan groups, known to German police as Faust des Ostens (Fist of the East) and Hooligans Elbflorenz (Florence of the Elbe Hooligans), according to Germany’s federal office for the protection of the constitution.
I’m just a small cog in a much bigger wheel
Marches are also attended by members of the National Democratic Party – a far right party that claims to be Germany’s “only significant patriotic force”.
Lutz Bachmann, a 41-year-old butcher’s son, who is the head of Pegida and runs a PR agency.
At a recent rally in his home town of Dresden, he said that while older Germans could not afford “a single slice” of Stollen, German Christmas cake, asylum seekers were enjoying affluent homes.
But he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “I’m just a small cog in a much bigger wheel.”
Pegida’s organisers have been branded “Nazis in pinstripes” by the centre-left Social Democrats in the ruling coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
At Pegida’s latest march, protesters were heard chanting Wir sind das Volk – which means “we are the people” – a rallying call heard in Dresden in the weeks leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.
There’s no place for incitement and lies about people who come to us from other countries
Chancellor Angela Merkel
Some carried banners with slogans including “Protect our homeland”, “Zero tolerance towards criminal asylum seekers”, and “Stop the Islamisation”.
Mr Bachmann led the crowds waving German flags or draped in the national colours.
One banner at the latest march proclaimed “No sharia law in Europe!”, although most people attending appeared to be non-radical members of the middle class, protesting against asylum seekers and high levels of immigration.
The marches started about two months ago, when a few hundred people gathered to demonstrate against radical Islam.
Since then, more and more have joined the demonstrations, which are now being held weekly and which last week reached 10,000 people, partly through growth on social media sites such as Facebook.
Pegida has spread beyond Dresden to Bonn, Darmstadt and Leipzig.
Immigration has become a difficult topic in Germany following a surge in asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Germans against being exploited by extremists.
There is a visible rise in xenophobic crime countrywide German police chief
“Everyone [who attends] needs to be careful that they are not taken advantage of by the people who organise such events,” she said in Berlin this week.
“There’s freedom of assembly in Germany, but there’s no place for incitement and lies about people who come to us from other countries.”
Germany expects 200,000 asylum claims in 2014 – up from 127,000 in 2013 – and has more asylum seekers than any other country in the EU.
According to a poll for Spiegel by the TNS institute, almost two-thirds of Germans believe Mrs Merkel’s government is doing too little to meet concerns about asylum seekers and immigration.
About a third – 34 per cent – believe Germany is undergoing a process of “Islamisation”.
In the western city of Cologne, about 15,000 people attended a demonstration on Sunday to promote tolerance and open-mindedness, under the motto: “You are Cologne – no Nazis here.”
Its participants held banners reading “Act against the right” and “Nazis, no thanks”.
Monday’s march was met by a counter-protest comprising about 5,000 people.
As well as Pegida extending its influence to other German cities, the Dresden marches have inspired copycat protests in places like Dusseldorf.
German police chief Holger Muench has warned against the spread of extremism, telling Welt am Sonntag “there is a visible rise in xenophobic crime countrywide”.
Both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment has grown this year, with several attacks on Jews and football hooligans joining forces with right-wingers to fight Salafist Muslims.
The Pegida marches present a dilemma to politicians keen to uncouple strong neo-Nazi elements believed to be at the heart of protests from the bulk of protesters, who are non-radical voters with grievances against the government.
But Mrs Merkel faces a struggle with her own coalition partners in government, who are keen to push her into a difficult corner.
The Social Democrats were angered by Mrs Merkel’s reaction to their alliance with former communists in the eastern state, and challenged her to solve “probably the biggest issue of the next decade”.