• World

Meet the German Activist Leading the Movement Against ‘Islamization’

10 minute read

Early on Tuesday afternoon, Lutz Bachmann, a rising star of the German right, stepped out of the Holiday Inn in his hometown of Dresden to take a break from a series of interviews. He lit a cigarette, pulled a smartphone from his pocket and, with a few taps, brought up the Facebook page of the movement he founded in October, “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” better known by its catchy German acronym, Pegida. “Look at that,” he told me, pointing at the screen. “It’s just unbelievable.” The statistics of the page had spiked, with nearly 2.5 million visits in the past week, and almost half a million people liking or sharing it.

Bachmann was elated. Over the past three months, the 41-year-old convicted felon with old ties to German soccer clubs has managed to tap into a potent strain of xenophobia. The weekly marches he has organized in Dresden have united many of the disaffected forces of the right, from Christian conservatives to neo-Nazis, under a sea of anti-Islamic banners, white crosses and German flags. Their growing popularity has unnerved the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel and frightened immigrant communities in many German cities, especially after the latest Pegida rally coincided with the murder of a young Muslim asylum seeker.

On Monday night, just hours after Bachmann led his latest march through the center of Dresden, Khaled Idris Bahray, a 20-year-old native of Eritrea, was stabbed to death outside his apartment block in the south of the city. Dieter Kroll, chief of the Dresden police, concluded on Wednesday that it was a murder. According to a report in the Guardian, a swastika had been scrawled on the door of Bahray’s apartment, where he was living with several other asylum seekers, three days before he was killed. A warning had reportedly been written beside that Nazi symbol: “We’ll get you all.”

Bachmann, who publicly renounces extremist violence of any kind, denies that the killing had anything to with Pegida. What seems clear, however, is that race relations in Germany have reached their tensest point in years since the terrorist attacks last week in neighboring France. That massacre, which saw Islamist gunmen shoot 17 people dead in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, gave Bachmann’s message about Islam a powerful new talking point. But he insists his enemy is not the religion itself. It’s what he calls the “parallel societies” that form in Muslim neighborhoods across Germany and, in his view, pose a threat to Europe’s “Judeo-Christian values.”

“The problem for us is this parallel society, that they don’t accept and respect German law. They say they are living for Sharia law,” he tells TIME in an interview. “We are looking at the world, and we see what happens in Belgium, in Holland, in France, in the U.K.…where they have these parallel societies in schools. They screwed it up, and we don’t want this to happen here.”

That message has struck a chord in Germany. A survey conducted last month found that 30% of respondents had “full and total” sympathy for Pegida’s cause, the same level of support that Merkel’s political party got in the German elections to the European Parliament last year. During Pegida’s latest rally in Dresden on Jan. 12, the group set another attendance record — roughly 25,000 people came out to hear Bachmann speak from a stage built out of a repurposed meat locker.

Wearing a parka against the cold and two weeks’ worth of stubble, he told the crowd that, “Paris is another reason to justify the existence of Pegida.” Billed as a “march of mourning” for the victims of the Paris attacks, the rally began with a moment of silence to honor them. But the Islamist violence in Paris has also been a source of validation for Pegida. “We pulled it off!” Bachmann said. “We and our issues are the main issue around the world!”

The following day, Merkel made a fresh attempt to steal back command of those issues. The Chancellor had already used her televised address on New Year’s Eve to warn that Pegida activists had “coldness and even hatred in their hearts,” and her appearance on Tuesday at the annual Islam Conference in Berlin came with a similar message. “Xenophobia, racism, extremism have no place” in Germany, she told the summit of Muslim community leaders.

A few hours later, she appeared on a stage before Brandenburg Gate, along with nearly every member of her cabinet, to hold a rally for interfaith understanding in the wake of the Paris attacks. It began with an Islamic prayer sung by an imam and, as a light rain fell over the crowd of some 15,000 people on the square, it culminated with Merkel and her ministers standing arm-in-arm with imams and other religious leaders.

But the somber theatrics of that event betrayed just how worried the government is about Pegida’s rise. It’s not hard to see why. Given its history with Nazism, Germany has spent decades developing a kind of social immunity to the far right through education and public discourse. The unwieldy word for this effort in German is Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung — which roughly translates as, “wrestling the past into submission” — and it has proven relatively effective. While nationalist and xenophobic parties have emerged to win strong support in other European states (such as the Front National in France, UKIP in in the UK and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands), the far-right end of the German political spectrum has long been comparatively vacant except for a couple of marginal groups.

But the social concerns that allow such parties to thrive are as alive in Germany as they are anywhere else in Europe. Last year alone, the number of asylum applications in Germany nearly doubled to about 200,000, many of them from war-torn Syria. In a survey conducted in November and published last week, an astonishing 40% of Germans said they do not feel at home in their own country because of its purported Islamization. A quarter of them said Germany should no longer admit any Muslim migrants at all, while the number of Germans who feel that Islam is incompatible with life in the West has grown from 52% in 2012 to 61% at the end of last year, the survey from the Bertelsmann Stiftung think tank found.

The Paris attacks, the worst in France’s recent history, have meanwhile heightened fears in Germany about the potential for radicalism in immigrant communities. As of late November, more than 500 German citizens had gone to fight alongside the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), and around 180 of them had returned, according to Germany’s domestic security service. One ISIS fighter, who speaks German with no accent, has released several videos urging German Muslims to join the jihad and calling for attacks against his home country. Identified only as Silvio K. by German authorities, the 27-year-old radical was born in the region of Saxony, whose capital is Dresden.

By the standards of the European right, however, Pegida’s proposals for dealing with such problems hardly seem radical. Their 19-point manifesto calls for stricter asylum laws and a constitutional requirement on immigrants to assimilate into German society. “In Idaho this would be mainstream,” says Gerald Praschl, the political editor of the most popular weekly tabloid in the former East Germany. “But here it is considered right wing.”

As a result, Germany’s political parties have tended to sidestep these issues, leading many of Pegida’s supporters to feel that the government ignores their concerns. “The contact got lost between the politicians and the people,” says Bachmann. “We are not at all represented by any parties in Germany.”

But given his past, Bachmann seems like an unlikely spokesman for the Christian values he extols. In 1998, when he was about 25 years old, he was sentenced to several years in prison for burglary and, instead of serving his time, he fled to South Africa to live as a fugitive. “That was like a click in the brain,” he says of his decision to go on the lam. “I became a refugee. But a refugee from German law.”

He arrived in Capetown a few years after the end of apartheid and along with a fellow German expatriate, Bachmann says he opened a nightclub catering to the black majority. “It was scandalous,” he says. “People were shouting at me, ‘How can you do this as a German, as a white? How can you open a night club for blacks?’”

His sojourn lasted about two years before immigration officials caught up with him, and he was deported back to Germany, where he served two years in prison before being let out on parole. In 2008, he was again arrested in Dresden, this time for possession of cocaine, and given a three year suspended sentence. “Everybody knows I did this, because I’m quite a well known person in this city,” he says of his legal troubles. “But it was a long time ago.” And it does not appear to have hurt his standing among the Pegida faithful.

On the contrary, his mottled past and his working-class upbringing – Bachmann is the son of a butcher – seem to have won him sympathy among Germans fed up with their polished political elites. His affiliations with local soccer clubs have also given him another base of support. In his interview with TIME, Bachmann revealed that he played professional soccer for the teams in Dresden and Dusseldorf. But when prodded for details, he turned to Pegida’s spokeswoman, Kathrin Oertel, and asked her in German whether this part of his past could serve as a “reference to hooligans.” Oertel answered: “Exactly,” and Bachmann declined to answer any more questions about soccer.

According to Dresden police, the Pegida rallies have attracted hundreds of violent soccer hooligans and right-wing extremists, and Bachmann admits that they are among the crowds. “But it is less than one percent,” he says. “At the demonstrations against Pegida, there are about 600 left-wing violent people, which means almost 10%.”

That didn’t seem far from the truth in Dresden on Monday night. As the tide of Pegida supporters marched through the city, clusters of counter-protestors lined the route, shouting abuse at the marchers and, at least once, rushing forward to provoke a fight that riot police were able to stop. Nationwide, rallies against Pegida’s brand of xenophobia have far outnumbered the marches that Bachman has organized in Dresden.

The coming weeks and months will tell which current of German society has more momentum. Already Pegida has inspired copycat movements in several European countries, notably Switzerland and Norway, and the group’s marches in Dresden continue to swell by the week. Eventually Bachmann hopes that Merkel and her government will initiate the reforms to asylum law that Pegida is demanding. And what if they continue to denounce the movement as a bunch of hateful quacks? “Well, there was already a revolution in 1989 coming from Eastern Germany, and they know what we are able to do here if we keep on growing,” he says, referring to the popular uprising that overthrew East Germany’s communist government that year. “But we’ll see what happens. As we say in Germany, we don’t know where this train is going.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com