On Monday, 18,000 people gathered in Dresden to march against the recent influx of refugees into Germany from nearby, war-torn regions. It was the latest—and largest—demonstration in a series of anti-immigration protests that began in October, all organized by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (or Pegida).
The movement has attracted a mix of far-right, anti-immigrant groups; soccer hooligans stand alongside both neo-Nazis and seemingly regular middle-class citizens. Adopting the rallying cry, “We are the people!” from East Germany’s 1989 demonstrations against their communist government, today’s protestors lament what they see as a threat to German society. Namely, they feel abandoned by political leaders that continue to support immigration.
Historically, Germany’s Nazi past has served to buffer anti-foreigner movements from gaining steam. In fact, Germany has been more welcoming than most of its neighbors in allowing in people seeking sanctuary from violence-plagued regions in the Middle East and Africa.
Historically, Germany’s Nazi past has served to buffer anti-foreigner movements from gaining steam. In fact, Germany has been more welcoming than most of its neighbors in allowing in people seeking sanctuary from violence-plagued regions in the Middle East and Africa. Refugees have been pouring into the country by the thousands—last year Germany took in more asylum seekers than any other country in Europe, most of them from Syria and Iraq. But after more than three years of war in Syria, it seems Germany is finally running out of both space and tolerance.
So what’s to blame for this rise in anti-immigration rhetoric?
Fear, for one. According to a 2010 study in Review of Psychology, xenophobia has been shown to develop in response to external threats: physical violence, financial insecurity, and cultural instability among the most prominent. Right now, Germany is experiencing a perfect storm of all three.
A widespread suspicion of Islam continues to spread across Europe after a slew of terrorist attacks, including the most recent attack in Paris on Wednesday. Coupling that mistrust with a growing Muslim population in Germany has created a home-brewed anxiety that some immigrants might have malevolent plans for their adopted home.
On the financial front, the European economic crisis has been dragging on for nearly five years. “Germany has done relatively well economically,” says Thomas Berger, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “But to think that the Germans’ economic machine is essentially this invincible economic juggernaut is a big mistake. And the Germans are well aware of the fragility of their prosperity.” The Pegida protestors fear that the incoming refugees will burden an already strained economic system. Germany was on the brink of a recession just months ago, after sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis threatened both trade and business confidence in Germany. Modest growth in GDP and high consumer confidence at the end of 2014 brought the country’s economy back from the edge, but protestors still worry that immigrants may take advantage of Germany’s welfare system, effectively taking resources away from native Germans.
On a person-by-person level, people have very little economic and political power; to manage these uncertainties, individuals tend to band together, and back a charismatic leader to show the way—in this case, that’s Lutz Bachmann, a previously unknown activist before Pegida.
The Pegida movement also suggests that the incoming immigrants will bring about a disintegration of Germany’s culture and the societal values that accompany it, or what some would call “Islamization.” In other words, a multicultural Germany is no longer Germany.
Despite the fact that these fears are unlikely to come to fruition—Muslims make up just 1.9 percent of Germans—external threats give rise to xenophobic movements and protests in part because they are mostly out of our control.
On a person-by-person level, people have very little economic and political power; to manage these uncertainties, individuals tend to band together, and back a charismatic leader to show the way—in this case, that’s Lutz Bachmann, a previously unknown activist before Pegida. They feel a kinship to their leader’s other followers, creating a sense of community and collective power. But shared fears about terrorism, financial crises, and social decline can breed anti-outsider sentiments within these groups. And ethnic minorities are highly visible within societies and thus ready targets for discrimination, according to a 2011 European Report.
“Having a clearly identifiable and combatable enemy, in the sense of a scapegoat, may help people to perceive the world and their personal hardships as basically controllable and comprehensible,” says Dmitrij Agroskin, a Ph.D. student in the department of psychology at the University of Salzburg, and lead author of the 2010 study on control and xenophobia. “People that are organized within the PEGIDA movement seem to view themselves as defenders of Christian European values against the Islamization of their culture”
A 2014 study in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations involving Native-born German participants found that those who felt socially excluded showed more prejudice toward Muslims, were more likely to believe that immigrants are financial burdens, and were more prone to support strict legislation for naturalization processes.
Social exclusion might also be a factor here. A 2014 study in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations involving Native-born German participants found that those who felt socially excluded showed more prejudice toward Muslims, were more likely to believe that immigrants are financial burdens, and were more prone to support strict legislation for naturalization processes. The study found that social exclusion led to a sense of loss of control, which consequently led to a rejection of outsiders. The demonstrators in Dresden feel ignored by the political parties in power who continue to support immigration. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly denounced the protests in her New Year’s speech.) But Joachim Krueger, a professor of psychology at Brown University and co-author on the study, cautions that it cannot be said that all those who are active in Pegida feel socially isolated.
For now, despite of the heavy media coverage, anti-immigration demonstrators are still in the minority. The German business industry, politicians, and counter-demonstrators have all spoken out against Pegida and in favor of a more immigrant-tolerant Germany.
“Both Pegida and anti-Pegida demonstrators are responding to a perception that society is changing in ways they find threatening,” Krueger says. “And both try to claim the high moral ground.”
“If the past is a guide, this will blow over,” adds Berger, the Boston University professor. He hesitates for a moment: Or these demonstrations could mark the beginning of a sea change in German politics. “There is a real possibility that this could become the breakthrough movement for the right in Germany.”