Thousands of police and opponents from across Germany descended on Leipzig on Wednesday in an effort to block thousands of anti-Islamization protesters from reaching a rally in the city known for beginning the movement that led to the collapse of the East German government decades ago.
Wednesday’s effort, which cut the size of the scheduled demonstration by as much as half, was the latest sign that German officials are getting very nervous about a grass-roots movement that critics deride as neo-Nazi but supporters claim represents the common German worker and taxpayer. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that this movement and the countermovement that dogs its every step in the former East Germany represent a battle for the soul of Europe after the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris on Jan. 7.
The German movement, while only loosely organized, is the largest and loudest example of the anti-Muslim fears that are finding a voice across Europe.
“We have to see to it that this country remains our country,” organizer Joerg Hoyer told the 15,000 or so people who managed to make it to the rally, to loud cheers and chants of “Wir sind das Volk” or “We are the people.”
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Standing among the thousands who turned out to protest the rally, Charlotte Steffen, 23, a local resident for the past year, said it was important to let the world know that despite the rally, “we are not racists. We are not fascists. They want to keep Germany just for Germans, but most of us want Germany to be a home to people from all over the world. We don’t want to hide here, behind another wall.”
The rally came nine days after a similar one in Dresden that attracted an estimated 35,000 people. This week’s planned rally in Dresden was canceled after German security services reported death threats against the leadership of what in Dresden is called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Police said they couldn’t guarantee their safety at the rally.
That group, known as PEGIDA by its German initials, is seen as the base of the movement, though the chapters in other cities are said to have separate leaders. The Leipzig chapter, calling itself LEGIDA, instead invited Dresdeners to come to Wednesday’s rally. That led to forecasts of 60,000 anti-Islamization protesters, and 40,000 counterdemonstrators.
But police arrived throughout the day and cordoned off the city, creating difficult routes for arriving protesters to trek to make it to the square where the rally was staged. In addition, vandals damaged train signal equipment, forcing the rerouting of more than a dozen trains thought to be bringing demonstrators. Most of those passengers missed the rally.
The numbers, however, were still significant for Leipzig, which earned fame when weekly demonstrations against the communist government became a national movement that eventually forced the toppling of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. Leipzig authorities said 15,000 made it to the LEGIDA rally, while 20,000 opponents were able to rally nearby.
How much influence the movement will be able to muster in the German political system remains to be seen. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has actively discouraged participation in its rallies, and the founder of the Dresden chapter, Lutz Bachmann, has been a controversial figure. On Wednesday, he stepped down after a barbershop selfie, in which he’d been styled to look a lot like Adolf Hitler, that he’d posted on Facebook a year ago hit the front pages of Germany’s newspapers. Bachmann, whose Facebook posts previously had called asylum seekers “scum,” “garbage” and “cattle,” acknowledged that the photo was real.
Still, Bachmann had never appeared before the Leipzig movement and his resignation passed without mention. Even in Dresden, he’d often been moved out of the lead speaker’s role into a support role in favor of other, less controversial speakers, and the Leipzig speakers felt no need to mention him Wednesday.
Instead, they focused on the fact that the Dresden rally and march had been canceled for exactly what they believe they must stand against: the rise of Islamic extremism in Europe.
“This is not a walk against Islam, it is a walk against those who abuse Islam and use it to justify and commit crimes,” one speaker noted.
Rally participants were nervous about giving their names during interviews. Stephan, 25, said he hoped to work with the city one day, and he thought using his full name might ruin his chances. He said the movement wasn’t Nazi or even radical.
“We’re not against asylum seekers. We just think Germany could do a much better job of integrating those we bring in,” he said. “When we don’t make those who arrive feel part of Germany, they will come to resent us, and we saw the results of that in Paris.”
He was referring to the fact that the three Paris attackers were all French residents – two were born in Paris – who nevertheless thought of themselves as living outside French society.
Alfred and Ursula, Leipzig natives who were born during World War II, said they feared that if their surname were used protesters from the political left would firebomb their house.
But they said it was important – even on a chilly night, and despite the thousands chanting “Nazis out” at them – to make a political stand on this night.
“We don’t hate asylum seekers,” Ursula said. “We hate those who only come here to take from those of us who give. They could show some gratitude, and appreciate becoming part of this nation, and we’d be fine.”
But counterdemonstrator Emilia Rottschy, 21, from Cologne, said she had no doubt about the motivations of the LEGIDA ralliers.
“They’re just acting out of fear,” she said. “That’s no way to live.”