A record 15,000 flag-waving, slogan-chanting marchers took to the streets of Germany to protest against immigration to the country.
And the numbers are making the nation and their politicians squirm.
The new grass-roots movement assailing the German government for ignoring its fears of being overrun by Muslims and other immigrants attracted a record 15,000 marchers on Monday in the eastern city of Dresden.
The fast-growing movement that calls itself Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, has drawn support from the far-right as well as some ordinary Germans alarmed by a sharp rise in refugees, many fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
The rallies have spread rapidly across Germany since starting with a local social media appeal in Dresden two months ago.
They are now beginning to unsettle the German political establishment, which has spent decades restoring Germany’s image as an open, tolerant country after the devastation of the Nazis.
“The politicians in Germany have lost touch with the people and that’s why they can’t comprehend what’s happening here,” Lutz Bachmann, the gravel-voiced 41-year-old leader of the movement, told marchers from a makeshift stage.
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In recent weeks, media reports have exposed Bachmann’s own criminal record for, among other things, burglary, drunk driving and drug dealing.
Bachmann started Pegida in October to protest against plans to add 14 centres for roughly 2,000 refugees in Dresden.The number of asylum-seekers in Germany has surged to some 200,000 this year, due in part to an influx of Syrians. Marchers on Monday chanted: “If you don’t love Germany, leave it.” Roughly 6,000 protesters marched in a separate anti-Pegida rally in Dresden on Monday evening.
Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas, a leading figure in the centre-left Social Democrats, has called the movement a disgrace for the country.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned all forms of xenophobia and stressed that Germany needs immigrants to help it cope with a looming demographic crisis resulting from one of the lowest birth rates in Europe.
But she is also keen to avoid alienating voters who might ordinarily support her conservatives. Some are already leaving for a new party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded last year in opposition to the euro currency but now talks tough on immigration and law-and-order issues.
The AfD scored surprisingly well in three eastern state votes, including Saxony, earlier this year, entering regional parliaments for the first time.
“Anyone who goes to such a rally needs to watch out that they are not instrumentalised by the organisers,” Ms Merkel said, adding that her government was working with states and cities to ensure any problems arising from the influx of asylum seekers were resolved.
Experts say that the ferocity of the Pegida movement has caught the country’s political leaders off guard. Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University, said: “It’s extremely dangerous for Merkel because a political movement is now opening up to the right of her conservative party and that had never happened before.”
Dresden is a conservative bastion and the venue for Germany’s biggest annual neo-Nazi march, held on the anniversary of the controversial bombing of the city by Allied forces near the end of the Second World War.
But Thomas Tretz, a 46-year-old chauffeur, who was proudly waving a large German flag in front of the stage before Bachmann’s speech, bristled at the suggestion Pegida was anti-foreign. “We’re not Nazis,” Mr Tretz snapped. “We’re just peaceful citizens against the Islamisation of Germany. We’re not against foreigners who come here to work. We’ve got nothing against the Turks or anyone else.”
However, the rallies are also drawing far-right supporters and sympathisers. A 35-year-old woman who identified herself only as Heidrun was passing out free copies of the far-right weekly Junge Freiheit.
Michael Stuetzenberger, 55, drove five hours from Munich to join the rally.
“We’ve got a problem with Islam overrunning us in Germany and Europe. It’s just stupid to say that’s not happening because it is.”
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