“We Are the People:” Nativism in Germany?

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By Aitana Guia

PEGIDA Rally in Dresden, Fall 2014

PEGIDA Rally in Dresden, Fall 2014

On Mondays for the past 13 weeks, thousands of Germans have marched on Dresden declaring “Wir sind das Volk,” we are the people. Were it 1989 on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, these same protestors might have been those who delivered the message to the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic that its days were numbered. Instead the new menace, as these ordinary Germans see it, is not the power structure, a physical dividing line, or even a political ideology; it’s immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants.

During a televised address to the nation on New Year’s Eve, Chancellor Angela Merkel took the opportunity to criticize the emerging movement Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, PEGIDA). She told Germans that a resounding feature about their country was that “children of the persecuted can grow up here without fear” and asked them to ignore the calls of those who have “prejudice, coldness, and even hatred” in their hearts.

After various terrorist attacks in France in January 2015 that targeted the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket, and French police, and despite repeated calls by German politicians not to join the Islamophobic movement, PEGIDA’s rally in Dresden reached a record number of 25,000 attendees on Monday, January 12, 2015.

The world is sensitive to any efforts by the extreme right in Germany to assert itself given its history in the twentieth century. Is PEGIDA and its quick expansion to other German cities, including Berlin, need for concern in a real sense? During the Berlin Blockade in 1948-49, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, made a point that has proved prescient across European history in the postwar period: “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

While “people’s parties” in Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe have been pushing for decades to reduce immigration and to depict Muslims as alien and incompatible with western democracy, Germany has stood out remarkably for eschewing this attitude and for treading a different course. Several factors have prevented it from falling into the trap of xenophobic populism.

First, German energies following the collapse of the Berlin Wall focused on rebuilding and developing East Germany and bringing together east and west. Germans demanded a strong, unified country, which was reflected in the sleight of hand that had the famous slogan used by pro-democracy activists during Communism, “We are the people,” changed to “we are one people.”

Second, Germany acknowledged officially that is was a country of refuge. How altruistic this was is up for debate; millions of ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe had to be settled in Germany after the Second World War. But relative to other European nations, it did welcome a greater proportion of refugees from all over the world.

Third, outside scrutiny and a preventative attitude about Germany never returning to the days of the Third Reich has made it difficult for extreme right groups to gain a foothold in the mainstream political system, which contrasts sharply with Austria, for instance, where the rise of the Freedom Party was due in large part to a lack of questioning and taking responsibility for historic crimes.

If this consensus, propped up artificially by top-down initiatives of the German federal government and even the European Union, is indeed crumbling, Germany could be morphing into something different.

East Germany still lags behind West Germany in many indicators. Many East Germans are nostalgic for the Communist era and romanticize a time of full employment, less crass materialism, and ethnic homogeneity. In East Germany where PEGIDA is strongest, the movement attributes this feeling of alienation to migrants and religious minorities, and even depicts Dresden, the site of heavy Allied bombing at the end of the Second World War, as victim of undue historical wrongs. It points to the ethnic nationalisms of its European neighbours and questions whether Jürgen Habermas’ theory of “constitutional patriotism” applies in today’s climate of economic uncertainty and religiously-inspired terrorist threats.

Meanwhile, mainstream German politicians have been slow to acknowledge the country’s diversity and to speak in inclusive terms. Rather than Charles Taylor’s “politics of recognition,” Merkel has been ambiguous, stating, on the one hand, that multiculturalism has “utterly failed” in Germany and that it’s on the shoulders of newcomers to integrate themselves into German society; and that, on the other hand, Islam and Muslims belong intimately to Germany.

Perhaps this has been what has allowed the centre-left and centre-right to avoid a politicization of immigration and a resorting to divisive populist discourses for so long.

In addition to warning about PEGIDA, Merkel’s New Year’s Eve speech also reminded Germans that their future was connected with that of other European countries and that it was incumbent upon them to uphold their Eurozone responsibilities. She said the world refugee crisis was as dire today as at the end of the Second World War and, restating the postwar German consensus, it was Germany’s role to “help…and take in people who seek refuge.”

Let’s hope these words are not a defensive, last-ditch effort to maintain a moribund consensus that has made Germany one of Europe’s great success stories in the postwar era and soothe the fears and anxieties of those ordinary Germans who would wish a radical break from that history.


Aitana Guia is Sessional Assistant Professor in Modern European History at York University, Toronto, Canada. Her latest book is The Muslim Struggle for Civil Rights: Promoting Democracy through Migrant Engagement, 1985-2010 (Sussex Academic Press, 2014).

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2 thoughts on ““We Are the People:” Nativism in Germany?

  1. R. B. Young

    I am lay person, and I wonder about the PEGIDA banner, shown in the march photo. There appears to be a swastika and an ISIS flag being dumped into a waste bin. So the group is not very right wing, not racist? I’m confused.

  2. Aitana Guia

    Thanks for your comment. PEGIDA is not a traditional neo-Nazi group and as such has no problem distancing itself from Nazi symbols. PEGIDA is a new breed of the extreme-right in Europe that calls itself an “identity movement.” It supposedly defends ethnic Germans against the “threat” to their culture, identity, and values posed by European Muslim. PEGIDA is perceived to be on the extreme-right due to its nativist and Islamophobic discourse, but many of its supporters probably would not consider themselves to be on the extreme-right.

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