But Pegida grew quickly. January’s rally drew 25,000. Attendance dropped back to 5,000 or fewer for most of the year. But once asylum applications began to increase, so did Pegida’s attendance, rising to between 15,000 and 20,000 by the first rally’s anniversary on Oct. 19.
Pegida closely resembles other right-wing populist organizations in Europe, but there are growing concerns about a radicalization of the demonstrators and about the growing influence of right-wing extremist groups.
1. The “Europeans” are mostly locals from Dresden and surrounds
Pegida was founded by part-time political activist Lutz Bachmann, his wife, and some of their closest friends. All of them live or lived in the Dresden area. Attempts to set up local chapters in other German towns and cities have largely failed: Pegida is a distinctly regional phenomenon.
Pegida is reaching out to other right-wing movements in Europe. On April 13, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch radical right-wing populist party PVV, spoke at a rally. There are some affiliate “Pegida” organizations outside Germany, but as of today, they are very small.
2. The movement is actually a registered association
In December 2014, the organizers formed a registered association to retain control over the Pegida label. They have also applied for charitable status. If they succeed, donations to Pegida will become tax deductible.
3. Pegida borrows heavily from the GDR’s democratic opposition–and from the English Defence League
In Germany’s collective memory, assemblies on Monday nights, candlelight vigils, and the slogan “We are the people” are all closely associated with the peaceful 1989 revolution in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or the former East Germany). Pegida uses these symbols to appeal to a sense of injustice that is still widespread in the East. It also regularly claims that the “official” media spread lies to do the government’s bidding. Marches against the alleged “Islamization” of neighborhoods, regions, and whole nations, on the other hand, used to be the trademark of the “English Defense League” (EDL). EDL founder Tommy Robinson has addressed a Pegida spinoff meeting in the Netherlands on Oct. 11, and was one of the guest speakers at the anniversary rally in Dresden on Oct. 19.
4. The only building in Dresden that looks like a mosque is actually a former cigarette factory
About 5 percent of the population in Germany are Muslims. Most of them are of Turkish descent and live in the former West Germany, where they or their parents and grandparents settled in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2010, the Muslim population in Saxony, the eastern state of which Dresden is the capital, was 0.1 percent. There is a real mosque in Dresden, but it looks rather nondescript. But there’s an office building that was constructed as a cigarette factory during the early 20th century in the then-popular “oriental” style.
A year ago, just under 14,000 asylum-seekers were living in Saxony, which has a population of slightly more than 4 million people. No more than 40,000 refugees (a high estimate) have arrived since. If all of them were Muslims, that would bring their total share to 1.4 percent.
As has been widely documented, xenophobia often thrives in areas where the native population has very little contact with the objects of their fears. Still, creating a successful anti-Islamization movement in the near-complete absence of Muslims is a particular achievement.
5. Pegida’s main spokesperson is a felon
Lutz Bachmann and some of his co-founders are rather colorful characters with ties to the sex trade. Bachman was convicted for assault, burglary, and possession of cocaine, fled from justice to South Africa where he lived under a false name, was finally extradited as an illegal alien and subsequently imprisoned in Germany.
More recently, Bachmann has been charged with incitement to racial hatred for calling refugees “animals” and “vermin.”
6. Pegida is not a traditional right-wing extremist organization, but …
The right-wing extremist NPD is relatively strong in Saxony. Dresden became a hotspot for neo-Nazi marches after unification, though usually on a much smaller scale. Bachmann chose the “Patriotic European” moniker to avoid these connotations, and the official Pegida logo shows a swastika (along with a red flag, an ISIL flag, and an “anti-fascist” flag) being dumped into a bin.
However, more openly extremist neo-Nazi and hooligan groups regularly show up at Pegida rallies or even act as stewards. Bachmann claims that he cannot legally prevent them from attending.
Moreover, Bachmann himself infamously posed as Hitler on Facebook, which he considered a “joke.” Siegfried Däbritz, another member of the leadership, had his photo taken with NPD party chair Frank Franz in front of the Dresden synagogue. On Oct. 19, one speaker bemoaned–in a statement that was supposed to satirize the attitude of German elites towards ordinary citizens–the fact that “the concentration camps are temporarily closed.”
The Pegida marchers themselves also appear to be turning more radical: On Oct. 12, attendees carried a gallows with a sign stating that it was “reserved for Chancellor Merkel and Vice-Chancellor Gabriel.” Following these events, German elites (which were initially somewhat ambivalent about Pegida) have unanimously ostracized the organization. What’s most likely to to come next: as some members get increasingly radicalized, more moderate adherents will stay away, and Pegida’s numbers will decline.