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"The concentration camps are unfortunately out of action": Germany's rising far-right

Pegida's Monday rally.
Pegida's Monday rally.
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 Germans came together in Dresden on Monday evening to celebrate the founding of Germany's new far-right movement, called Pegida, one year ago. One speaker at the rally, writer Akif Pirincci, condemned immigrants "who pump infidels with their Muslim juice." Pirincci said that "there are other alternatives" to allowing Germany's Muslim population to grow, "but the concentration camps are unfortunately out of action at the moment."

The crowd, according to Deutsche Welle, "applauded and laughed at that."

The rally was the largest Pegida had put together since January, showing that a movement many had thought dead was very much alive. German Cabinet members say Pegida's growth is representative of a broader resurgence of xenophobia in Germany — one linked, as many of today's far-right European movements are, to the continent's refugee crisis.

Where the far-right rally came from

This guy, Lutz Bachmann, is their leader.

To understand Monday's rally, you need to understand Pegida itself. The name is an acronym; the full name (in English) is Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. The name makes their grievances pretty obvious: Pegida and its leaders want to stop Muslim immigration into Europe in general, and Germany in particular.

Pegida is a very grassroots movement. It began a year ago as a Facebook page managed by a chef and convicted cocaine dealer named Lutz Bachmann. Bachmann's page attracted enough attention to serve as the organizing base for what has since become a political movement. By January of this year, just months after its founding, Pegida was putting together weekly rallies in Dresden that attracted up to 25,000 people.

During the movement's rise, Bachmann insisted that Pegida wasn't a neo-Nazi or fascist organization. Their concerns, he said, were solely about the influence of Muslims on German society. "The problem for us is this parallel society, that they don’t accept and respect German law," Bachmann told Time in January. "They say they are living for Sharia law." This message apparently resonated with some Germans: Last December, a Die Zeit poll found that 30 percent of Germans had "full and total" sympathy for Pegida's goals.

But for all of Bachmann's insistence that Pegida isn't neo-Nazi, it's seen as having links to them, and for good reason. Its support base includes neo-Nazis and other extremists. Bachmann's inflammatory rhetoric toward immigrants is a bridge too far for most Germans — he has called immigrants seeking welfare "scumbags" and "animals." Most damning by far was the photo above, in which Bachmann appears to pose as Hitler.

The 2013 image, revealed by the newspaper Bild in January of this year, forced him to resign as leader of Pegida. The next month, he began arguing that the mustache had been photoshopped on, and he was reinstated as Pegida's chairman. But the damage was already done — a number of Pegida leaders had quit in the wake of Bachmann's scandal, and the movement's weekly protests had dwindled to a fraction of their January peak. "For a time, the movement had disappeared almost entirely from public view," a group of Der Spiegel reporters explain.

But the movement hadn't died: In June, a Pegida mayoral candidate in Dresden won almost 10 percent of the vote. And Monday's large rally shows that the movement's so-called decline was clearly temporary. "Pegida is back, apparently more powerful than ever," the Der Spiegel piece concludes.

Pegida and the refugee crisis

Pegida's Monday rally.
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

There is little doubt about what brought Pegida back to the German political scene: Chancellor Angela Merkel's relative willingness to let in refugees in response to the growing European refugee crisis.

Historically, Pegida has surged in response to events related to immigration and Islam. Its rallies in January drew strength from the Charlie Hebdo killings, which Bachmann and his supporters sold as proof that Muslims posed a threat to the safety of European states.

Pegida has exploited Merkel's willingness in recent months to maintain a (relatively) open border policy, using it, along with German anxiety about the new arrivals, to drive recruitment. And it may be helping to shift the political mainstream a little further right.

"Pegida currently appears to be profiting from the volatile atmosphere created by the refugee debate in Germany," Der Spiegel's reporters write. "Political positions once the exclusive domain of populist demagogues like Bachmann are now being adopted even by politicians within Merkel's mainstream conservative Christian Democrats, which in turn serves as an invitation for Pegida's supporters to become even more radical."

Worryingly, the movement is starting to get violent. This has been particularly directed at reporters, whom Pegida supporters had long condemned as "lying press" — a Nazi-era phrase accusing the media of bias and disloyalty. Reporters in the German region Saxony have warned of a "growing" number of "insults, vandalism, and physical attacks by Pegida supporters," according to Der Spiegel. At Monday's rally, an attendee hit Deutsche Welle reporter Jaafar Abdul Karim in the head.

So Germany has a real far-right problem on its hands — one linked to a refugee crisis that shows no signs of stopping.

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