At least 15,000 Germans marched in Dresden on Monday in the largest yet of what have become weekly protests against Europe's "Islamization," a movement that has fueled concerns over rising far right sentiment on the continent.
Brandishing German flags, the marchers paraded down streets in the city center chanting "We are the people!" — a slogan borrowed from anti-Communism protests in the east German city in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. "No sharia law in Europe!" one banner insisted.
Organized by Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), Monday's rally was the ninth so far, and the group's leader hailed the movement's growing numbers as a sign that change was on its way.
But the movement was dismissed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who warned Germans not to be taken in by "incitement and lies about people who come to other countries."
The protests have provoked debate and aggravated tensions across a country that is increasingly worried about growing neo-Nazi and extremist sentiment.
During the march, one demonstrator, who did not give his name, told VICE News that he is aware that only 0.5 percent of the people in Dresden are Muslim, but "that's too many."
"Mind you," he added, "it's not (a protest) against Muslims, it's against radical Muslims."
Another demonstrator told VICE News: "What (Muslims are) trying to do here is establish their culture as dominant, and we can't have that. Look at Berlin, we don't want Dresden to end up like that."
Speaking at the march, Lutz Bachmann, PEGIDA's leader, told attendees not to speak to the mainstream media, claiming it was attempting to defame their movement.
The speedy growth of this movement — with Bachmann at the helm — was unexpected, and his jubilance was evident on Monday.
"The people are with us. Everywhere now, in every news rag, on every senseless talk show, they are debating, and the most important thing is: the politicians can no longer ignore us," he shouted.
"We have shown by taking another 'little stroll,' and by growing in numbers, that we're on the right path, and that slowly, very slowly, something is beginning to change in this country. We are the people."
The marchers — nicknamed the "pinstriped Nazis" — have themselves drawn parallels between their displays and the weekly "Montagsdemonstrationen" that began in east Germany in 1989 as a form of peaceful demonstration against Communism. The original movement's chant of "We are the people" was supposed to remind leaders that a state should be run by its citizens, rather than an elite minority who claim to represent them.
PEGIDA has laid out some of its aims in a document published on its website and Facebook group. The document states that it wants "to preserve and protect our Christian-Jewish dominated Western culture," and that it is supportive of "immigration along the lines of Switzerland, Australia, Canada or South Africa."
Bachmann himself has personal experience of emigration. He has a colorful past that reportedly includes fleeing to South Africa to escape prison for burglary charges, and being arrested for drug-related offenses.
Michael Stürzenberger, leader of Bavarian right-wing party Die Freiheit, told VICE News that it's time for Germany to prioritize who they give asylum to. "Christians living in Islamic countries are the ones in real danger, and they're also the ones who are welcome here as refugees. They integrate themselves, they don't make demands, they don't deal drugs like the Muslims.
"Islam can't be integrated. In its name, millions of people have died, 53 countries have been subjugated — some of them Christian — and now they want us to demonstrate a 'culture of welcoming'? Are we stupid? We are not that stupid!"
A counter-demonstration was also held on Monday, attracting a crowd of up to 5,000, according to the BBC. VICE News observed brief confrontations between the two sets of protesters in Dresden. When a small group from the counter-demonstration headed towards the main march, shouting "Refugees are welcome here," the PEGIDA crowd responded with: "Those who don't love Germany should leave it."
The growing popularity of PEGIDA's demonstrations has prompted serious public debate about the prevalence of racism in German society, and over whether many of those marching are really neo-Nazis or just disenfranchised citizens.
Some of those present insisted they were not racist but had genuine concerns over the social and economic impact of immigration. According to the BBC, one elderly man shouted: "I'm a pensioner. I only get a small pension but I have to pay for all these people (asylum seekers). No-one asked me!"
A Zeit Online survey found that almost half of Germans indicated that they have some sympathy with these demonstrations, while 30 percent of those surveyed said they "fully" understood the concerns of the protesters.
The leader of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, told AFP that he fears PEGIDA could split German society, and that their use of the chant "We are the people" sought to segregate and divide: "You, the bad Muslims, and us, the good Germans."
Mazyek blamed both politicians and the media who, he said, have mainly spoken about Islam and Muslims "in the context of security, threats and danger" in recent years.
Among industrialized countries, Germany receives the most asylum seekers in the world; it overtook the US in 2013. The country also handles about a quarter of asylum cases in the EU — many of them from Syria or Iraq, though Russia and Afghanistan are also high in the list of most common countries of origin.
Dresden is the capital of Saxony, and has a relatively low number of immigrants. In 2011 they had just under 22,000 foreigners out of a total population of 523,000. Only a small percentage of these are Muslim.
Many have pointed to Germany's past and the significance of these marches occurring in Dresden. Antony Loewenstein, an atheist Jew, journalist and Guardian columnist, said that because a lot of his family died in Dresden during World War Two, the thought of "anti-Islam Nazis marching through the streets is shocking."
He told VICE News: "These current marches are a chilling reminder that racism, hatred against minorities… and dishonest appropriation of anti-Communist history is alive and well. PEGIDA panders to ignorance and fear in a population that feels increasingly disconnected from globalization, blaming asylum seekers and Islam for problems of a privatized state."
'Refugees Welcome <3' halle,="" glauchaer="" platz.="" — Daniel von Rhodok (@rhodok)December 16, 2014
Worries of growing xenophobia in Germany were also exacerbated last week when three buildings that had been renovated for use by refugees were vandalized and set fire to in the state of Bavaria. Deutsche Welle reported that racist graffiti had also been scrawled on the walls of another building nearby.
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