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Thursday, 20 August 2015

Sanctuaries Burning: The Impact of Anti-Refugee Activism on German Politics

Refugee and local children under police guard in Freital, Saxony.

A little more than ten months ago the streets of Dresden saw the first demonstration by the Pegida movement. Initially Pegida, short for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, mobilised only a few hundred participants in response to clashes 
over the Battle of Kobane in German cities between Kurdish activists and jihadi sympathizers. For Pegida's organizers, these disturbances symbolized the German government's inability to keep Islamists out of Germany and migrants under control. 

To the surprise of many, perhaps even the Pegida organizers themselves, by October 2014 tens of thousands of demonstrators were taking part in weekly marches directed against the so-called Islamicisation of Europe, mass migration as well as political or media elites many participants believed were directly enabling such perceived threats to German identity. While civil society and local politicians in Saxony were slow to respond for specific regional reasons I have outlined elsewhere, attempts to organise Pegida demonstrations in other German cities they were swiftly confronted by larger numbers of counter-demonstrators opposed to what they considered to be a revival of the worst excesses of the 1990s radical right. With such initiatives in support of diversity enjoying the backing of the main political parties and mobilizing significant numbers not only across the country but even in Leipzig, Saxony's other major city, by March 2015 the Pegida protests seemed to lose momentum. Within months a steep decline in numbers taking part even in Pegida's core events in Dresden raised hopes that the islamophobic and anti-migrant agendas this movement represented were not going to have a transformative effect on the German political system.

Yet while the Pegida demonstrations have largely disappeared from the scene, six months later a continuing wave of street violence and arson attacks directed at migrants and refugee accommodation indicates that this movement emboldened many who feel threatened by mass immigration and cultural diversity. Though the vigorous response of civil society and some politicians in the Green Party, SPD and CDU halted the momentum of the Pegida protests, the sense that they gave expression to widespread discontent with immigrants as well as political elites has given many in the radical right the feeling that they can now challenge the constitutional order of the Federal Republic through direct action. For the newly founded Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), association with Pegida helped national conservatives within a party unsure of its ideological direction to recruit more right wing members and to force out any remaining economic liberals. That leading conservatives in the CDU and the CSU often picked up on such Islamophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric to prevent their voters from shifting to the AfD only further opened a space for the radical right. 

In the years preceding the Pegida protests, social trends seemed to point against the re-emergence of this kind of vicious circle. As the massive migration surge triggered by the collapse of Yugoslavia and the USSR waned in the mid-1990s and more people of migrant origin became German citizens, centre-left and centre-right politicians largely distanced themselves from anti-migrant populism. The bombings and shootings committed by small networks of neo-Nazi terrorists such as the NSU were taken to be a sign of the isolation of an extreme right unable to mobilise large numbers of people rather than its resurgence. Yet crude islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment never disappeared among a sizeable number of voters in the Federal Republic. Crucially, however, the disastrous lack of coordinated resistance against the Pegida movement by local political elites in Saxony created an environment in which such attitudes managed to regain a sheen of respectability. Suddenly, obscure local figures on the radical right realised that they could gain national notoriety with escalatory rhetoric that often tacitly encouraged individuals to use force against migrants and refugees or anyone willing to help them settle.

As a consequence it seems unlikely that a surge of localized protest against refugee housing across Germany will abate any time soon. These protests are often accompanied by violence against migrants as well as volunteers, police and public servants responsible for their protection. In towns such as Saxony's Freital, leading figures from various Pegida splinter groups are now involved in agitating against refugee housing in ways that have focussed the anger of right wing demonstrators as much at local politicians and civil society activists as refugees. It is now clear that despite its implosion, the Pegida movement enabled more radical elements to connect with one another directly or online. This network effect means that what would once have been minor local protests against refugee accommodation now quickly attract right wing activists from other cities or regions to the latest flashpoint. These campaigns have also seen ever greater cooperation between figures who relentlessly support the Kremlin's anti-Western stance, many of whom like the editor of Compact magazine, Jürgen Elsässer, were once part of the pro-Soviet Left, and radical right groups who often still claim that Slavs are racially inferior

Pro-Russian, Anti-Immigrant: Jürgen Elsässer's Compact Magazine

The response of German police and intelligence services to this growing threat is hampered by the way the structures of such radical right networks have evolved. Unlike the more hierarchically structured neo-Nazi groups in the early 1990s, radical right networks now tend to be organized in a networked fashion through social media without any clear central leadership. This means that many attacks on migrants, civil society or representatives of the state are the result of local disgruntled individuals or groupuscules that are difficult to track. As with similar trends in jihadi milieus, it is becoming more difficult for the security services to penetrate and anticipate where the next radical right attack or destabilizing local protest may take place. For many who in the early 1990s witnessed how anti-migrant populism from mainstream politicians helped trigger the anti-foreigner pogroms of Hoyerswerda, Solingen and Rostock and many similar incidents, these are all disturbing signs.  

Yet this is not just about social struggles over repeated waves of mass migration. Rather, the post-1989 radical right has always portrayed mass migration as a symptom of what it considers to be a wider attack by the German state and its Western allies on "traditional Germanic culture"In this context, representatives of established political parties, which accept or at least are willing to discuss immigration reform and the acceptance of refugees are presented by the radical right as "un-German" in accepting greater diversity. It is therefore no coincidence that communities in which the radical right has stoked tension over migration have also seen growing attacks on civil society activists, more mainstream politicians and representatives of the state. Some of the most prominent cases, such as a bomb attack on a Die Linke city councillor in Freital or the burning down of a barn owned by civil society activists in Mecklenburg Vorpommern already hark back to the relentless campaigns of intimidation in the 1990s by radical right groups who hoped to create what they called "National Liberated Zones" (National Befreite Zonen). That a decade later members of the NSU terror group gunned down police officers as well as migrants fits into this underlying ideological pattern. 

The strength of civil society as well as the fact that there are now more politicians and media organizations willing to protect diversity despite the populism of certain tabloids and parts of the CDU/CSU, indicate that the current surge of activity by the radical right won't lead to a broader shift in social attitudes towards migration among most Germans. Of course many people will remain fearful of migration, but they will largely try to communicate their concerns through established civic institutions. Yet small emboldened minorities can still do a lot of damage to community relations and cause security services a lot of trouble. Once again it seems that certain members of the political establishment have forgotten that such radical networks are as much a threat to them as they are to every new migrant and refugee seeking sanctuary in the Federal Republic of Germany.