Reporting from Berlin, Sam Glover examines the rise of far-right movements and parties such as Pegida and the AfD across Germany.
Today, Berlin is a vibrant and diverse city, much like London. Its creative scene is fizzing and popping, full of young artists, musicians, and poets from across Europe (and the world) relocating to this hip town. Stickers for socialist marches are plastered across telephone boxes, and it is hard to go anywhere without seeing posters in support of refugees. Especially in trendy areas such as Friedrichshain, which have large immigrant and student populations, the far-left is making its mark. As you walk from vintage shop to vegan café, you will be hard-pressed not to bump into a street merchant selling traditional soviet-style hats, hammer and sickle included. It is difficult to believe that this is in the area of Berlin that was ravaged by Soviet control, and whose people, until 1989, were captive in their own city.
It is not, however, the prominence of the far-left that is making the biggest impact in German politics. In spite of the fact that Angela Merkel is a centre-right politician, her support for refugees from Syria has led to serious problems with an ever-growing far-right movement. The rise of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) is especially terrifying given Germany’s history with religious persecution. The tropes and racist stereotypes that were trotted out against Jews in the prelude to the Holocaust bear striking similarity to the way that Pegida’s members talk about Muslims. In a short New York Times documentary about the Pegida movement, one protestor is clear with her beliefs about Muslim immigration into Germany: “[Muslims] will take over Europe, and even the whole world. That’s the plan of all Muslim people.”
In London, when you (very occasionally) see a graffitied swastika, you usually don’t think all that much of it, but in Berlin, the graffiti is rather more ominous. In February 2016, Mein Kampf once again became a bestseller after its recent decriminalisation, and although many of its readers will merely be reading out of historical interest, there are some Germans who are still sympathetic to Hitler’s ideas. At German football matches, filled with working class fans, is it still not unheard of to hear anti-Semitic chants, one of the more popular ones including the line, “We’ll build an U-Bahn (underground train) from Jerusalem to Auschwitz.”
This kind of explicit racism is rare, but it would be a mistake to think that Pegida is a fringe movement. Its marches often attract over 10,000 protesters, with some of the marches in Dresden having as many as 25,000. Pegida has expanded across Europe, and its British chapter is led by Tommy Robinson, who founded the English Defence League (EDL). In Berlin, most people have a certain degree of embarrassment about anything to do with national pride, but on Pegida marches, overt jingoism and nationalism is encouraged.
Pegida is not the only far-right force in German politics. The Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, attempts to promote a right-wing agenda through parliamentary means, rather than protests on the streets. Like similar parties across Europe, the AfD are purposefully provocative and court controversy in order to remain in the headlines. Their leader famously commented that German police should shoot at refugees entering the country illegally. The party has achieved moderate success, especially in the European elections, where they won seven Members of the European Parliament. What’s more, exit polls from yesterday’s state elections predict sweeping gains for the AfD, with the party entering state parliaments in three regions for the first time. They sit in the European Conservatives and Reformist grouping in the European Parliament, the same grouping as the British Conservative Party.
It is easy to convince yourself that far-right parties are not a problem, and that they have no chance of ever achieving real political power. However, if the current refugee crisis was coupled with an economic crisis, which many economists fear is looming in the near-future, it is easy to see how the far-right across Europe could surge, and Germany would perhaps be the Western European country in which this is most likely. Right-wing demagogues lie in wait, eager to blame any economic downturn on Muslims and refugees. From Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to the Swedish Democrats in Sweden to Marine Le Pen in France, and finally to Pegida and the AfD in Germany, there is lots of grassroots support and people power for hate-filled populism. Although most Germans will “never forget” the Holocaust, it is not so certain that they will remember the circumstances that fostered the rise of the Nazi Party, and if the battle does not begin soon against these far-right movements, the majority of Germans might not be prepared for the ramping up of anti-Muslim rhetoric and how easily people can be swayed towards hate in times of desperation.
To learn just how easily radical parties exert political influence, Germany need only look to Greece, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party made significant steps towards taking power, and the far-left Syriza are currently in government. During economic turmoil, people turn to radical politicians, of the left and the right. Germany, and other European countries, must be ready to fight against this rhetoric before it is too late.
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