Just a few months ago, disappointed by the anticlimax that was Scotland's independence movement, looking to recuperate with some likeminded lefties and nauseated by the growing ubiquity of Nigel Farage's face, I decided to get the hell out of the UK. I moved to Dresden, Germany, my home away from home where I spent some time living during my studies. All in a desperate bid to avoid being ground down by the depressing narrative of the bigoted, right-wing populist arseholes which holds sway in the UK.
The tragic irony is that I am now living in the arsehole epicentre of Europe. For months now, I have watched the number of people marching under the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) banner steadily increase. A couple of weeks ago, 18,000 people campaigned against "forced Islamisation" in a city where decent curry is as difficult to find as the mosques. Around 0.4 percent of Saxony's population is Muslim. This week, the number of participants jumped to an alarming 25,000 in what was PEGIDA's 12th "Abendspaziergang", or "evening stroll", which is a lot less innocent than it sounds.
Dresden has become a Mecca for the politically misinformed. In nearby Leipzig, where just a couple of thousand PEGIDA protestors showed up for last Monday's rally, the 30,000 strong counter-demonstration gave a very clear signal to those who think it's acceptable to wander around waving placards that say "Germany for the Germans". But if right-wing extremists aren't welcome there, all it takes is two hours on the Autobahn and they're in PEGIDA paradise. Dresden offers the whole package: like-minded idiots gathering en masse where there are barely any foreigners anyway. One Dresden hotel has even started advising its international guests against venturing into the baroque city centre on a Monday night. This is probably for their own good but it's inadvertently nurturing a new kind of tourism with a very different clientele.
And yet my inner optimist refuses to believe that all pro-PEGIDA protestors are goose-stepping fanatics. In this overwhelmingly white city and in its even whiter suburbs, the movement's popularity is largely based on ignorance. Having moved here from Govanhill, an area in the southside of Glasgow where the constant din of foreign languages is a bigot's worst nightmare, I've become immune to xenophobic propaganda. I know that Muslims aren't monsters because I had them as neighbours. I know that multiculturalism is nothing to be afraid of; it just meant a more exotic selection of spices in my local Tesco.
So why did I move then? Despite how it may look in the media at the moment, Dresden is home to a lot of like-minded lefties. It was here that I learned to almost like tofu. The bohemian Neustadt part of the city might give off a certain UB40 vibe in its attempts at ethnic culture but it's still a good night out. Thanks to the dreadlocked twenty-somethings who inhabit the more cosmopolitan areas of the city, the first anti-PEGIDA demonstrations began taking place months ago. The political middle was late to follow suit, but last Saturday there was finally a major event in front of the city's coveted Frauenkirche that could compete with PEGIDA's numbers. Some 35,000 responded to the mayor's plea and gathered in the city centre to celebrate tolerance, open-mindedness and multiculturalism.
And with that Dresden breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, it had mustered the boots on the ground to convince the world that its citizens are not all racist. It was a step in the right direction, but in a race debate where even the pro-immigration side is lacking in any sizable number of "foreigners", the whole issue is more about image than anything else.
Dresden and the Bundesland of Saxony have had a PR problem with right-wing extremism for some time. Ever since race-riots in the East German has-been town of Hoyerswerda in 1991, the region has been fighting against a reputation that has become synonymous with skinheads. The events shocked Germany, as hordes of neo-Nazis gathered outside a home for refugees, throwing stones and molotov cocktails until, days later, the residents where bused out of the town for their own safety. Many of the town's inhabitants watched the violence unfold, some even applauding. And when the last refugee had left, footage showed people beaming with pride at living in Germany's "first foreigner-free city".
It is the neo-Nazi scene, and certainly not persecuted foreigners, who are offered refuge in Hoyerswerda and other depressed towns in Saxony. These are places were immigration outwith the Soviet bloc only really began when the wall came down in 1989 and where the far-right NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands) can always count on supporters. In a recent interview, Gregor Gysi, head of Germany's left-wing party Die Linke, suggested that PEGIDA's popularity in Saxony was partly down to an "East German mentality" – a mentality fostered by an inward-looking state and the void that was left when it fell.
If I've made living here sound glum, it's only because I'm tired. For three months now, showing face at anti-PEGIDA marches has been like a second full-time job. Getting stuck in the tram on a Monday night because there are too many idiots on the line has become part of my weekly routine. And reading the Tuesday morning papers to analyse the pro and contra numbers game is no longer interesting – it's just plain depressing. It's easy to get bogged down by some socio-geographic theory when the city in which you live is – according to statistics – a dickhead. But East Germany really isn't as bad as it sounds. And Dresden is actually a wonderful city filled with colour, rich history and a diverse cultural programme.
Just don't come on a Monday.
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