Innocently German

By Heinrich Schmitz17.01.2015Culture and Society, Europe, Media

The claim of the Pegida movement – “We are the people” – isn’t just objectively wrong but also dangerously seductive.

In the city of Dresden in Eastern Germany, the crowd of protesters who attend weekly anti-immigration marches is steadily growing. 16,000 turned up in late December, and the organizers expect even more people in the coming weeks. The demonstrations have remained peaceful: Protesters march at a leisurely pace and hold up banners. During the Christmas season, they sang carols together (I wondered: Would the soccer fans who tend to flock to the protests be able to channel the energy of their chants into sweet caroling?). They seem as innocently German as a good piece of Christmas stollen.

Smug West Germans like myself have always cultivated prejudices of our Eastern brethren. During the Cold War, the area around Dresden was known as the “Valley of the Clueless”: While West German TV could be picked up closer to the border, it did not penetrate the hills and forests around Dresden. Thus, the fine folks in Dresden could not dial into “Western propaganda” but had to contend themselves with East German state TV. And look at their name! “Dresden” is derived from the old-Sorbian term _drežďany_, which means “bog dweller”.

A plot from “Lord of the Rings”

Now, the dwellers’ descendants have taken to the streets to fight evil that has appeared in the guise of an alleged “Islamization of the Occident”. It almost sounds like a plot from “Lord of the Rings”: The Shire, home of the Hobbits, was also threatened by hordes of Orcs and by other dangers from afar. In both cases, the danger remains abstract: Few Hobbits had ever seen an Orc, and few people in Dresden have had any direct exposure to radical Islam. Indeed, a mere 20% of inhabitants identify as Christian; up to 80% are agnostics or atheists. They might have faith in _something_, but it’s certainly not religion.

The majority of people in Dresden reject the demonstrations. The self-proclaimed saviors of the Occident are a small minority, although they have effectively seized on the power of us-vs-them rhetoric. The rest of the country watches in horror or secret admiration as the heroic patriots of Dresden step into formation, ready to defend the West against Islamic threats.

The chosen _nom de guerre_ of the protesters is reminiscent of the language of fairy tales: Pegida, an abbreviation of “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident”. When I close my eyes and spell it out, I see elves, dwarves, and white-bearded wizards on horses charging ahead to confront the invading armies of Islam for a final battle. In the Neukölln district of Berlin, the local mayor’s call for help to stop the spread of immigrant crime brings up faint recollections of calls by the rulers of Gondor for help against invading Orcs from Mordor.

The world, it seems, is under threat – at least the world of the so-called Occident, beloved by Dresden’s “European patriots”. A world of alleged peace and harmony, without suffering and crime. Every Monday, they gather with growing enthusiasm to defend it.

Their enemies are manifold. Already, “multiculturalists” have captured and sedated political elites in Berlin, who either deny the danger of an Islamist takeover, call Pegida “a disgrace for Germany”, or brand its participants as “idiots”. Not even the protesters’ natural allies are thrilled by Pegida’s rise: The bog dwellers had hoped for an alliance with the Catholic Church, and had pictured themselves alongside bishops in ornate robes as the defenders of the Occident. None of that has happened. One bishop even had the audacity to call on Christians to avoid the protests. What a spoilsport! Some people have to be dragged to their luck kicking and screaming.

We decide, you oblige

But praise to those who speak truth to power – especially when “power” includes mainstream media. Many of the protesters can still remember a time when all Western media was decried as propaganda, and still treat it accordingly: Journalists lie and deceive, and the public is too stupid to take note. That’s why Pegida’s participants have decided to avoid them altogether. “Lying press shut up”, they chant. Instead, they rely on obscure blogs like “Blaue Narzisse”, “Blu-News”, or “PI-News” – the purest sources of Truth – for information. Their wizards are writers like Thilo Sarrazin or Akif Pirinçci.

Several days ago, I stumbled across “the following text”: https://archive.org/stream/HitlerUndDieDemokratie/Hitler%20und%20die%20Demokratie_djvu.txt. It nicely summarizes the protesters’ view of the press:

bq. “The press is nothing but the subservient and characterless canaille of their owners. It molds and mobilizes public opinion, which then finds its expression in political parties. Those parties can hardly be distinguished from each other, just as they could not be distinguished in the past. We know those old parties: They are all the same. […] Parties, aided by the press, form public opinion.”

Think about who could have written those words. (“This man”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler.) Of course this could be a mere coincidence. Freedom of thought also implies the freedom to spew idiocies. But maybe it’s not a coincidence: Every decent army has a battle cry, and the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” are no exception. They have rallied around a popular slogan that was chanted throughout Eastern Germany in the fall of 1989, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall: “We are the people!”

16,000 protesters aren’t exactly synonymous with “the people”: Around 10 million of Germany’s 80.8 million inhabitants are immigrants or have non-German ancestors. If you count all Pegida protesters, they amount to a mere 0.02 percent of the total population, or 3.02 percent of the population of Dresden. Pegida isn’t Dresden, it isn’t Germany, and it certainly isn’t the Occident. Only an idiot could fail to see those numbers (and we should assume the sanity of our fellow men and women until proven otherwise). Still, they chant.

“We are the people” isn’t just objectively wrong but dangerously seductive. The chant carries several implicit claims: It distinguishes the protesters (“the people”) from others who presumably do not or cannot belong to the same community. “We are the people, and you are not! You don’t have a say here. We decide, and you oblige.” If this were true, the protests would be superfluous. What the self-proclaimed patriots forget is the simple fact that representative democracies understand popular sovereignty as a power that is exercised primarily through elections and not through outbursts of public anger. Here’s Art. 20.2 of the German _Grundgesetz_, the basic law governing the country:

bq. “All state authority is derived from the people. It shall be exercised by the people through elections and other votes and through specific legislative, executive, and judicial bodies.”

Ranks of silent bystanders

The protesters disagree: Why vote? Why prop up a system of deception and manipulation? Perhaps it’s understandable that Germans who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and who experienced decades of sham elections remain skeptical of the utility of the ballot box. But remember that the original Monday Demonstrations in 1989 demanded free and fair elections above all else. Sometimes I wonder: Are today’s protesters the same people who marched for democracy in ’89? Or are Pegida’s participants recruited from the ranks of the silent bystanders who did not speak out against injustices before reunification, and who secretly miss the cushy bosom of the East German socialist state?

The protesters reject “state media” and “mainstream media” as well as political parties and politicians. The dislike is mutual: Almost all democratic parties have rejected Pegida – only the populist “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) has tried to present itself as a natural ally. Until now, the party’s claim to fame has been its stubborn willingness to woo any voter who listened, even if they came from the far-right fringe of the political spectrum. Pegida and AfD are united only in the vagueness of their goals.

We shouldn’t take the protesters’ claims – vague as they are – at face value. Maybe they don’t march because they love their country and want to prevent a foreign takeover. Maybe they don’t cherish the rule of law, the freedom of the press and of religion, equality before the law, and basic rights (although they most definitely value freedom of assembly). Maybe they don’t support current asylum law even if they say otherwise. Maybe they interpret the chant “We are the people” differently: “We are a minority, but we alone want to decide.”

It’s easy for me to polemicize against Pegida. First, I’m writing for a mainstream publication, and am thus inevitably a liar. Second, I’m a social-democratic do-gooder and an environmentalist tree-hugger. Third, I’m a Christian. Fourth, I’m a committed voter who believes in the ballot box. I cannot expect to find much support for my articles among Pegida sympathizers. I’m not particularly interested in their support, either. But I do want to reach those who are on the fence, who might secretly agree with Pegida’s arguments and could be compelled to participate. I want them to reconsider and rethink. The people will take care of the rest during the next election.

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