On Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours after the massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the newest right-wing movement in neighboring Germany took the chance to declare itself prophetic. Since it was founded in October, the group known as PEGIDA — or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West — had been rallying every Monday in the city of Dresden to warn against the threat it saw from an influx of Muslim immigrants. Now, with Islamic extremists suspected of attacking the Paris newsroom of Charlie Hebdo, the PEGIDA movement felt its cause was validated.
“The Islamists, which PEGIDA has been warning about for 12 weeks, showed France that they are not capable of democracy, but instead look to violence and death as an answer,” the group said on its Facebook page. “Our politicians want us to believe the opposite. Must such a tragedy happen here in Germany first?”
The slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, which was apparently attacked for publishing cartoons that mocked the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, could not have come at a more opportune time for PEGIDA and its activists. Their weekly protests against the perceived “Islamization” of Germany had been gaining momentum for months, but not quite as fast as the public and political backlash against them. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had even used her televised address on New Year’s Eve to condemn PEGIDA’s activists as having “coldness and even hate in their hearts.” Since mid-December, counterdemonstrations calling for tolerance and openness toward Muslim migrants around the country had begun to drown out PEGIDA’s rallies in Dresden.
But that trend could now be reversed. “The movement itself will definitely interpret [the attack on Charlie Hebdo] as a vindication for its very existence,” says Carool Kersten, who studies Islam at King’s College University in London.
That was clear from the reactions coming from the more established forces on Germany’s political right. Frank Franz, the chairman of the far-right National Democratic Party, which has supported the PEGIDA demonstrations, declared on Wednesday in a Facebook post that the terrorist attack in Paris had revealed the “brutal and hateful grimace” of European multiculturalism. The leaders of another right-wing party, Alternative for Germany, also chimed in with their support. Against the background of the massacre in Paris, “the demands of PEGIDA have particular relevance and weight,” said the party’s spokesman and one of its founding members, Alexander Gauland.
Even a week ago PEGIDA’s relevance was still an open question. The region of Saxony, where the movement was formed this fall, is one of the most racially homogenous in the country, with Muslim immigrants making up less than 1% of the population. Its most recent rally on Jan. 5 in the regional capital of Dresden was the largest to date, drawing some 18,000 people. But that showing was dwarfed by the counterdemonstrations held in several cities around the country, including Cologne and Berlin.
“PEGIDA is only a small story,” says Andreas Zick, who studies social conflicts at Germany’s Bielefeld University. And its attempt to gain political heft on the back of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has seemed predictable enough.
The larger question is whether the ploy will work, as it has previously in other parts of Europe. A decade ago, in the fall of 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose works had been harshly critical of Islam, was gunned down in Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist, causing a surge of anti-Islamic feeling throughout the Netherlands, says Kersten, the professor from King’s College London. “Here was a country that always defined itself through tolerance, and suddenly the gloves came off,” he says. “These kinds of atrocities often lead people to cross that threshold.”
The right-wing politician Geert Wilders, then a marginal figure in Dutch politics, drew on that outrage to gain support for his Party of Freedom, which he established within a year of van Gogh’s murder. Today that party is one of the most prominent forces in the national parliament, and its xenophobic rhetoric enjoys strong support.
Given the dark history of World War II, Germany has for years been particularly resistant to the emergence of such political forces from the right. But the mood seems ripe for that to change. A survey conducted in December by the German news outlet Zeit Online found that nearly half of respondents expressed some level of sympathy for the PEGIDA rallies against “Islamization.” And in the wake of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, PEGIDA’s Facebook page has racked up an additional 8,000 supporters, bringing its total list of followers to nearly 122,000.
So when the group holds its next demonstration on Monday in Dresden, it will have a lot more momentum, and a new rallying cry, thanks to the terrorist attack in neighboring France. The coming months could then see the emergence of a powerful new force on the right wing of German politics.