Pegida is back. The anti-immigrant movement that first formed in the eastern city of Dresden late last year, causing a stir before losing some momentum, appears to have found a new focus for its protests: shelters for asylum seekers.
Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, had seemed disoriented following mayoral elections nearly two months ago in Dresden, its stronghold. Their candidate, Tatjana Festerling, won 9.6 percent of the vote in early June, but momentum seemed to stall since then.
First of all, her supporters announced they would chase the “tainted” left-leaning city council out of office by referendum. Then they wanted to launch a flood of public petitions. None of that happened.
Most recently, Pegida collected signatures trying to force the state of Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital, to terminate a public broadcasting contract.
Since the end of June, Pegida demonstrators have only been marching every other Monday in Dresden. On the first Monday of the summer holidays two weeks ago, about 2,000 people took part.
At the height of the movement’s notoriety, back in January, up to 25,000 protestors regularly attended the marches, which also spread to some other German cities.
The movement claimed to be protesting the Islamization of Western countries, although Muslims only make up 0.1 percent of the population of Saxony. It reached its peak after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January of this year.
In the first half of 2015, there were 202 attacks on refugee housing, already more than for all of 2014, when there were 198 such incidents.
However, the movement split when its leader, Lutz Bachmann, stepped down briefly following photos appearing of him dressed as Hitler. He then rejoined the movement and pushed it further to the right, prompting other leaders to quit.
Since then, the marches have struggled to attract the same number of attendees or attention.
Now they have a new focus: asylum centers.
There has been a surge of refugees to Europe seeking shelter from conflict in Africa and the Middle East and Germany has become one of the most popular destinations. The country registered more than 200,000 asylum applications in 2014, a figure that is expected to double to over 400,000 this year.
The increase has been accompanied by anti-immigrant violence, with frequent attacks on asylum shelters across the country. In the first half of 2015, police reported 202 attacks on refugee housing, already more than the 198 incidents recorded in total for 2014.
Saxony has also seen a number of incidents in recent weeks.
The construction of a tented camp for 1,100 refugees in Dresden has sparked Pegida members’ rage. Attacks on emergency workers, counter-demonstrators and still unoccupied asylum facilities have taken place daily since the camp was set up on Bremer Strasse.
Around 3,000 Pegida supporters took to the streets to march this week – the most since the recent election campaign.
Mr. Bachmann had no comment about the recent violence in Dresden. But he vilified the “lying press” for trying to stir up controversy because of lack of news in the summer period, and again contended that Pegida is a peaceful movement.
Mr. Bachmann said he has called for his supporters not to march on the refugee shelter, which he refers to as a “campsite.”
Mr. Bachmann himself was at the shelter last Friday. However, on learning that the far-right National Democratic Party, or NPD, had called for a protest in front of the area, he warned his followers via Facebook not to join the march. He claimed that the media would only concentrate on Pegida during the protest.
But at the same time, Mr. Bachmann made fun of the new refugee shelter.
“Here’s a small wager,” he offered. “The first police and emergency service deployments will be as early as tonight, as these poor, traumatized doctors and engineers must drink to their arrival in the land of infinite wealth. Then it won’t be long before surgeons start operating on, slaughtering or gutting each other, depending on their faith,” the 42-year-old wrote on Facebook.
He also posted an article about an altercation between refugees at a shelter in Austria, adding “How long until it kicks off like that at Bremer Strasse 25?” and joked about it being trivialized as another “isolated incident.”
Yet the attacks on refugee shelters, emergency workers and asylum supporters are no longer isolated incidents in the region.
As recently as June, a xenophobic mob staged an unchallenged protest in front of a shelter in Freital, ending in violent attacks on asylum supporters.
Later, in the city of Meissen, a planned shelter for asylum seekers went up in flames. After Dresden, the most Pegida organizers come from these cities.
Last Thursday night in Dresden, volunteers from the German Red Cross and Federal Agency for Technical Relief were attacked. They had been clearing space for more than 30 tents in a rundown industrial area that had been neglected for years. Two dozen young men strolled through the area, harassing the volunteers and ultimately had to be driven off by police.
An unknown driver raced head-on toward the volunteers and did not swerve away until the last moment, reported a visibly distressed Rüdiger Unger, head of the Red Cross in Saxony.
Even before the first refugees arrived, more than 200 far-right NPD supporters had been protesting in front of the entrance to the makeshift camp on Friday night. Their message: “Stop the asylum avalanche – no to the tented camp on Bremer Strasse!”
In the crowd were some of the usual Pegida demonstrators, and Pegida slogans were bellowed into the night: “Lying Press!” and “Love Germany or leave Germany!”
About 350 counter-demonstrators opposed the NPD, wanting to show refugees that they were welcome. In the process, anti-asylum demonstrators attacked counter-protesters and police officers, throwing bottles and street signs. One woman was hit by a firecracker and had to be taken to the hospital, along with two other pro-refugee demonstrators.
Elsewhere in Dresden, a few kilometers from the Bremer Strasse camp, the city organized an open house last week at the former Lindenhof hotel. The aim was to show neighbors and others the building where up to 33 asylum seekers would be housed. But many visitors came and immediately started shouting, so much that the head of social welfare, Susanne Cordts, could hardly get a word in.
Then an acrid smell began to spread through the upper stories of the former hotel, which had to be closed while fire officials looked for the cause. They found nothing, but suspected someone had sprayed butyric acid or some such foul concoction.
The incident was immediately posted on Pegida’s website, including photos of rooms with the derisive comment: “Asylum reception center in residential area. Honeymoon suite for male ‘asylum demanders’ only.” These were the words of Tatjana Festerling, Pegida’s former candidate for mayor in Dresden.
Several days later, on Sunday, unknown assailants smashed the windows at the back of the Lindenhof. Police are still investigating.
Meanwhile on Monday morning there was a serious incident in the nearby town of Freital. An explosive device was placed under the car belonging to Michael Richter, leader of the Left Party in the town. Unknown perpetrators activated the device attached to his VW Golf shortly after midnight.
Mr. Richter’s party believes the attack was politically motivated, saying he had received threats in recent weeks over his support for the housing of refugees in the town.
“This casts suspicion on a right-wing extremist origin” of the incident, a Left Party spokesman said.
Fritz Jaeckel, head of the Saxon State chancellery, again proclaimed that the state would not tolerate threats or abuse of fellow citizens who help asylum seekers.
“Anyone using violence against other people will be pursued by the police and made legally accountable,” he said.
The tented camp and increasing displays of racism are also driving Pegida’s opponents onto the streets. On Monday night, more than 2,000 counter-demonstrators assembled close to the camp.
“Open your Mind – Stop Racism,” read one banner. They wanted to prevent Pegida protesters and right-wing extremists from getting to the Bremer Strasse shelter.
About 175 officers were deployed, but there was no confrontation. Police warned, however, that more attacks were possible in coming days, when concerts by a right-wing extremist band are scheduled across the region – on Thursday in Meissen, on Friday in Freital and on Sunday in Dresden.
Alexander Schneider is a reporter based in Dresden. Siobhán Dowling, an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this article. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org