‘Merkel, Kiss My Ass’ and 7 Other Slogans From Germany’s New Right-Wing Populists
And what they really say about Pegida.
Germany’s latest populist sensation goes by the acronym Pegida, which rolls off the tongue more smoothly than its full name, which translates as “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.” It’s not a political party, and it doesn’t have an official membership; it’s unclear whether it’s a grassroots social movement or more of a flash mob. Based in Dresden, a well-off city in eastern Germany along the Elbe River, Pegida has attracted thousands of partisans to its weekly demonstrations since they began last fall. The biggest one yet came on Jan. 12, when, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, 25,000 people marched in Dresden’s streets.
As its name signifies, Pegida’s central concern is stopping Islam’s run on the Occident, which its supporters claim is in progress across Europe. But at Pegida rallies one can find marchers airing a grab bag of grievances, from high taxes to the conditions of Germany’s postwar treatment. That’s because Pegida and its smaller offshoots across the country are textbook examples of European populism. In contrast to the United States, where populism can have positive connotations, in Europe it doesn’t. Populism at its very worst, for example, conjures memories of Adolf Hitler’s unsuccessful 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, in which the early Nazis attempted to seize power in Bavaria with men culled from Munich’s rathskeller. (It certainly doesn’t help that a photo of Pegida’s leader with a Hitler mustache and haircut has gone viral over the past couple of days.)
Many of the more successful populist movements with right-wing bents don’t usually rely on society’s worst-off to carry their banners. Rather, it’s the middle class, people who have something they’re afraid of losing, who make up the bulk of these movements’ supporters. This is true of Pegida, say social scientists who conducted the first survey of the three-month-old phenomenon in early January. According to the researchers, based at the Technical University of Dresden, the average Pegida supporter is male, 48-years-old, secular, educated, employed, from Dresden or nearby, and earns slightly more than the average German. Moreover, Germany’s purported Islamization is not their foremost concern. Half of those interviewed (and the researchers admit it wasn’t easy to get the Pegida faithful to talk) say they’re deeply dissatisfied with Germany’s political system. In other words: parliamentary democracy and the social welfare state. Others cited Islam, immigration and refugee policies, and media bias as primary reasons for attending the marches.
This brand of populism is generally illiberal and authoritarian-minded, but it claims to be just the opposite: democracy at its purest, voicing the will of ordinary burghers, the little guys — against the stacked interests of political parties, the media, and business interests. In fact, Pegida-type populists are distrustful of politics as such and the processes of democracy. All of Germany’s political parties, they say, are in it together. It’s “we” against “them” — a vague proposition that usually finds expression in vague, catch-all slogans that oversimplify complex issues and offer easy answers, or none at all.
As the survey suggests, understanding populists like the Pegida crowd is not a straightforward business. Here are eight messages — all representing classic populism — that the German media recorded at Pegida rallies between November 2014 and January 2015. I’ll attempt to explain them.
“Merkel, kiss my ass!”
Pegida fans claim that Chancellor Angela Merkel has “betrayed them.” Her modern stripe of conservatism is simply far too progressive for them. In their eyes, Merkel, the foremost symbol of the establishment, has lost sight of the real problems of Germany’s citizens, though Pegida fans’ plentiful and garbled demands make it difficult to ascertain whether there’s a consensus on exactly what those problems are. One main gripe evident from Pegida’s name is Merkel’s accommodating gestures toward Germany’s 3.5 million Muslims, which have won her praise and admiration in Germany and abroad. In her new year’s address, Merkel welcomed refugees into Germany and warned citizens “not to follow” those who preach hatred (a thinly veiled reference to Pegida). Populists can be very direct: At the Pegida Christmas rally, a dressed-up Santa Claus led a traditional carol with made-up lyrics calling Merkel a “dirty whore” and “disgrace for eastern Germany.”
“Media lies, media lies!”
Lügenpresse, or “the lying press,” is a Nazi slogan from the Weimar era that communist East Germany picked up on to brand Western media. Pegida is using it once again to charge that all of the media — from the conservative Die Welt to the left-liberal taz — are somehow in cahoots with the ruling elites. This is why, they claim, one can’t believe anything these days, including independent studies and statistics. When told by a German TV reporter that Dresden, a city of 530,000, has only 21,000 Muslims (about 4 percent of the population), one of Pegida’s organizers shot back: “Sure, that’s what the media says!”
This is pristine populism. The people should grab back power from the elites who are exercising it in their own interests. But what would the people do with power if they ever got it? Hard to say. Pegida says it has no intention of running candidates for office. “We are the people” was the same line the East Germans shouted as they took to the streets in the autumn of 1989 to overthrow communism and join the West’s open societies. Pegida’s use of it is bizarre: Unlike the genuine consensus in 1989 against the communist state, most Germans say Pegida isn’t “the people.” While a worrying 29 percent of Germans sympathize with Pegida in some way, 71 percent definitely don’t. Counterdemonstrations across the country have rallied tens of thousand — many times more than the nationwide marches of Pegida and its allies. So Pegida doesn’t reflect the popular will, even if it does signal worrisome illiberal currents in the volk.
Anti-Islam is the chief theme for Pegida and its branches across Germany (Begida in Berlin, Legida in Leipzig, which think along similar lines but aren’t one organization). “Christian Europe,” they claim, is being threatened by Muslim immigration and the radicalization of Europe’s Muslims. Why do they claim Germany is being “Islamified”? It’s fear of the unknown, exacerbated by the TV images of the Islamic State, the war in Syria, and terrorist attacks in Europe. And unlike anti-Semitism, which is taboo in Germany, Islamophobia isn’t. Mainstream German politicos like Social Democrat Thilo Sarrazin have fed this kind of populism, even if they now distance themselves from the product.
Many analysts, including some of Germany’s best political scientists, say the common denominator of Pegida support is eastern Germany’s much-improved-but-still-shaky economy, even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even though the last decades have witnessed impressive recovery, particularly in boomtowns like Dresden, unemployment is higher in the east (9.3 percent compared with 5.7 percent in the west), and wages, net wealth, social security payments, and welfare checks are all still less than those for their counterparts in western Germany. Moreover, the jobs that new industries in the east have generated are more insecure than those that underpin Germany’s economy in Bavaria in the south and Baden-Württemberg in the southwest. These jobs in the east are the middle-class jobs that could easily be lost, like those in the solar energy industry that disappeared when China flooded the world market with cheap modules.
According to at least some Pegida supporters, foreign nationals, and in particular Muslims, are responsible for a disproportionate share of crime in Germany — even though there are no statistics to support this. What studies do show is that kids with “migration background” wind up at the bottom of the heap when it comes to educational opportunities, ensuring that a disproportionate share of their ranks is either jobless or employed in the worst jobs. Germany’s right-wingers have long called for foreign nationals convicted of a crime to be returned to their country of origin — as if that would solve the problem.
Nationalism is obviously alive and well in pockets of Germany — and that pairs well with populism. Populists like Pegida tend to be proud of Germany as an ethnic nation, rather than embrace what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism.” Most Germans — and most people around the world, for that matter — think it’s perfectly OK now to jump up and down when Germany wins the World Cup, wave black-red-gold tricolor flags, and belt out the national anthem. Germans can express their love for the fatherland as much as they want — just as long as they don’t raise their right arms in the air when doing it.
Like many of Pegida’s slogans, this one has surfaced regularly in far-right campaigns in the past. The contention is that Germany is so swamped with foreign nationals that it’s losing what makes it uniquely German. At the heart of this thinking is the concept of Volksgemeinschaft, or “people’s community,” a close-knit, ethnically homogenous nation that operates according to its own natural laws and rhythms. The idea is central to ethnic nationalists across the world. Indeed, immigration has changed Germany over the postwar decades, making it a more diverse, colorful, and appealing place to live. And, according to studies, more prosperous too: Contrary to prejudices that go far beyond the Pegida crowd, immigrants bring Germany more revenue than they cost. It is true that Germany’s humanitarian resettlement of Syrian refugees in 2014 exceeded the number of refugees Germany has taken in since the early 1990s. But even if all of these Syrians stay in Germany, their numbers (70,000 in 2014) are unlikely to change the texture of Germany (population 83 million) too much.
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Pegida’s illiberal brand of populism isn’t unique to Germany. It exists across Europe, though usually in the form of political parties like Austria’s Freedom Party, France’s National Front, and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom. Central and Eastern Europe are a showcase for national populism, with forces like Fidesz in Hungary even capable of coming to power — and being re-elected. Germany now has a right populist party too, the Alternative for Germany, which has a lot in common with the Pegida movement and is likely to benefit from its rise. It’s unlikely that the Pegida phenomenon will evaporate, as populist movements often do. The Paris terrorist attacks were grist for its mills, as was the German government’s decision to cancel a Jan. 19 rally in Dresden in light of a possible terrorist attack. But Pegida is also unlikely to grow that much bigger — or take off in other cities the way it has in Dresden. On the contrary, it’s the anti-Pegida demonstrations that are snowballing in Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, and elsewhere across Germany. In the end, Pegida may be a sort of populism, but it isn’t the German people.
Photo credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images