Editorial: Germany’s Winter of Discontent – and the fallacies of dealing with PEGIDA


What happens in Dresden (PEGIDA) stays in Dresden, right? Well, kind of…

About a week after having published an editorial on the current sentiment and air in Europe, an opportunity arose for GPPW to witness that air in its most picturesque form: a PEGIDA demonstration. Living in Erfurt, Thuringia -the western-most of the formerly GDR German states- we had the opportunity to get a first-hand experience of the German Winter of Discontent in the form of a local version of the famed (and hyped) PEGIDA sort. Thus, GPPW’s Moritz Borchardt and Mario Zorro joined a group of local internationals and headed downtown.

Below you find an initial first-hand report that was originally written and posted on social media as a personal reflection on what we had witnessed, followed by further commentary, while in part two of this article we will feature the thoughts and musings of the initiator of the international ‘free hugs’ activism that started us on our way to fundamental confusion.

The March of the Dazed and Confused (and two and a half Nazis)

Well… that was weird. We started out with our merry band of Free Huggers in the centre of town, confusing and entertaining especially the not-so Anglophone Germans who either thought we were beggars (‘go away, you are already taking our money!’ um… nope) or potentially though we wanted to free some activist called ‘Hugs’ (famous one, that one) but many actually seemed to just be surprised and then happy about that group of English speaking people hugging everyone who didn’t run away in time.

The next step then was to join (counter-) demonstration that was presumed to be the Erfurtian version of PEGIDA, so we were getting ready to duck and cover, but as we closed in, the messages got a bit blurred. Announced under the title ‘EnDgAmE – Engaged Democrats Against the Americanization of Europe’, some of the groups often found on the anti-Nazi side of the fence had joined the pegida-esque groups (leading to me initially mistaking the EnDgAmE folk for the counter-demo, politically literate democrat that I am).

In the end, the messages, especially of the main demo were mixed and generally off-focus. Our good old friends, the Neonazis (50 piece officially, a bit less from what I could see) and the cliché PEGIDAs shouting ‘We are the People!/Wir sind das Volk!’ while waving the Prussian and other German flags were accompanied by people protesting American, Israeli and U$raeli imperialism, promoting ‘peace with our neighbours’ (they were good at hugging, that group), general conspiracy theorists shouting evergreens about 9/11, the moon landing and the mainstream media (Lügenpresse ftw!) and people that seemed generally angry about ‘something’.

While Neonazis and the likes were trying to do their usual thing, they were vastly outnumbered by the odd mixture of discontent people from all walks of life, promoting whatever they think is wrong with the world. I have never seen a demonstration that was as unfocussed and generally confused, not just in terms of content, but also execution of the demo. This led, at least for me to an afternoon well spent in the hilarity and bravery of the Free Huggers, especially Ritu and Amit, that just went for the hugs – and got them. Big time.

I am not entirely sure as to what to think about the palpable, general discontent and (comparably) undirected anger against ‘something’. From what I have read, not too many instances of serious violence (by any side) have been reported and I am incredibly relieved that the best descriptions found to today’s Erfurtian round of ‘Germans taking to the streets’ were odd, confused and weird rather than ‘serious and bloody’ with numbers in the hundreds rather than in the thousands.

Let’s see what happens next.

Democracy is a tricky thing, you have to be careful not to break it and careful how and when to fight for it. Looking back at the demonstration with a week’s worth of refection and still remaining confusion, one thing before all before all becomes clear: Erfurt is not Dresden, at least not the version of Dresden and PEGIDA as it is portrayed in the dominant media. Based on our one experience in Erfurt, the most crucial impression we got was that of complete and utter confusion as to who is demonstrating for or against what – and are the people on the other side of the ‘frontline’ between demonstration and counter-demo the actual target of the respective chants and choruses?

In a situation where the counter-demonstration was implicitly demonstrating for American Imperialism and Israeli disregard for Human Rights, accompanied by the fitting sets of flags, while shouting anti-racist paroles, when at the same time the supposedly xenophobic bunch on the other side were protesting against Gen-modified food, TTIP and the mainstream press and for pacifism, isolationism and conspiracy theories, we ended up feeling uneasy on either side of the fence and spent most of our time between the two.  Surely, there were some Nazis present, some of the chants known from the media-reporting about PEGIDA were repeated and flags reminding us of the ‘good old days’ of German Imperialism were waved alongside, rather ironically, Spanish, Palestinian and Greek flags.

In the light of the general confusion described above, footage of the organiser of the counter-demonstration telling members of the demonstration on camera that ‘We will not speak with people like you.’ seems a bit off its target. It is very well possible that the original context of that statement was such that the person he was talking to was a known Neonazi, far-right activist etc., in which case the interpretation of it would change considerably. Taken as a general statement with regard to that specific demonstration and ‘people like that’ though, it hardly seems to work towards any kind of solution of whatever PEGIDA is for, against, or simply is.

Democracy is – and lives off – a conversation about what is right, wrong and a generalized ‘What ought?’. In the face of a movement as diverse and partially separated by causes (think: Neonazis and anti-gen food activists) as PEGIDA, denying that conversation in general seems fraught with the danger of alienating those that do not follow the built-up cliché of the German-nationalist xenophobe anti-democrat protester. Yes, there seems to be a core of highly visible people that fit that description, but just because they make the best stories that does not automatically mean that they are agreed with by a majority of their fellow protesters or that these opinions are voiced after having put too much of an effort into research.

As said, democracy is conversation – and in many a case a conversation between people that disagree with each other on issues and their solutions. Denying that exchange of information and their interpretation is not just a lost chance to change someone else’s opinion, but same as much a lost chance to challenge your own. Just because we, the seemingly politically educated, think we have read it all, seen it all and are surrounded by people that are as fancily intelligent as we are, we are not exempt from that. We are not exempt from misinterpreting situations, not exempt from group think, prejudices and certainly not exempt from overvaluing our own opinions and not seeking the discourse with those we do not initially know how to talk to.

There is an imperative to seek the conversation with the various sub-groups of movements like PEGIDA – even though and especially because that movement seems to be all over the place, far from able to formulate a message (shared across Germany) or even mobilize significant numbers of protesters in more than one city (in Erfurt, combined the EnDgAmE and counter demonstration brought less than 1% of its overall population to the streets, including those protesters that travelled to Erfurt to take part).

In the end it seems easy, potentially too easy, to paint PEGIDA as a predominantly local, Dresden-based affair that doesn’t reach significant numbers anywhere else and whose loud-mouthed speakers seek to satisfy their need for attention by crossing as many taboos as they can in front of media that willingly oblige. While certain aspects of that description may fit, the story of PEGIDA is not just about the protesters and their 360° spectrum of messages, it is same as much about an inability to make sense of a movement that is predominantly is ‘against’. Against something, anything and everything in-between.

Most of recent public and academic debates showcase how much the world has been changing lately, how little we know about even the immediate to mid-term future: Ranging from trying to mend still straining economies to understanding the ever-greater impact and implication of modern technologies and the side-effects of a ubiquitous access to information. Admitting or not, most of us try to navigate this plethora of challenges by sight and instinct because our instruments are broken and the on-board AI is part of the problem. In the last 10 or so years, the established wisdom and logics of the 20th century have gone out the window all the while the contemporary generations of trained people, thinkers and decision makers are still trying to piece together the general location of ‘up’ and ‘down’. There is no point in denying the existence of groups of people that are more trained, educated and used to the kind of thinking that is called for in the globalized world we live in and thus see the various trade-offs of political deals, coalitions and the frameworks we are all living in more clearly than other parts of our respective societies.

Quite frankly though: if us, the trained people, by now somewhat used to the scale and scope of the mess we are in, are scared of it and have a hard time coming up with anything but intermediary solutions, how the heck can we expect the same of those who don’t have that kind of training? How?

Looking at the demands of movements like PEGIDA, it surely is tempting to just discard many of them as demands by the politically less educated, but does that mean that some of the underlying fears and discontent with political decisions cannot be valid? How irrational is it really to fear the impact of global flows of migration and economic entanglement, should Saxonian farmers really have to compete for milk-prices with those from Cameroon, what are the long-term trade-offs of modified foods? The dominant narrative of the last decade has been about insecurity, economical and otherwise, without any hint of that changing anytime soon. So, at a time where no one has found THE answer yet, maybe it is time to admit it and discuss problem solutions openly rather than publicly ignoring what we don’t want to see? (Little shout out to Angela Merkel and the German Christian Democratic Party in Germany: I have scarcely seen a (legal) electoral strategy that has gone as much against everything a democracy stands for as ‘asymmetrical demobilization’* did, you reap what you sow…).

In the face of PEGIDA, as a starting point this could i.e. mean to start admitting that, yes, global migration flows pose challenges to any and all societies involved (ideally added with a good chunk of information on the positive effects of migration). There is scarcely a problem that does not deserve better explanations and better communication about them, but maybe, just maybe when we are done, when we have done our job of explaining politics and policies, public outrage and discussions will be less about a general dissatisfaction with something/everything but a bit more coherent than what we have been seeing in the most recent past.

Coming back to outbursts like PEGIDA, EnDgAmE and the like, demonstrations have hardly ever been known to be spaces of open, rational discussions between people that are willing to hear each other out. Most recently, several of the most visible heads of PEGIDA have resigned and a number of the bigger demonstrations has been cancelled, so it looks like the fading-out of the movement has begun. Make no mistake though, just because the most visible parts of the protests seem to go away, the general problem and discontent isn’t going anywhere. With a bit of luck, rational thought (on all sides involved) has returned enough to now start having honest and open debates, especially with those we don’t agree with and wouldn’t usually talk to. We’re all just people. Time to get to work.

*asymmetrical demobilization aimed at getting less people from the oppositional party to take part in the elections than from your own, leading to a campaign strategy that was based on boredom and the avoidance of public conflicts / debates throughout campaign season.

Picture: by author

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