An Adolf in sheep's clothing.

Photographer: Matthias Rietschel

Germans Scratch a Xenophobe, Find a Nazi

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The story of Lutz Bachmann, until yesterday the leader of the "anti-Islamization" Pegida movement in Dresden, Germany, is a cautionary tale for anyone joining anti-immigrant protests or voting for far-right parties in Europe. No matter how hard the leaders of such movements try to masquerade as mainstream politicians, chances are that if you scratch one, you'll find a racist or a Nazi sympathizer.

Bachmann, a former professional soccer player, never pretended to have a perfect record: In his twenties, he served time for burglary and was convicted of cocaine possession. He is also involved in a court battle over unpaid alimony to his son. Articles about his fast-growing organization, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by the German acronym Pegida, have, however, described him as a businessman, and he has done his best to pass himself off as an upstanding, concerned citizen whose checkered past is behind him. In interviews, he emphasized respect for the law (Muslims in Germany, he kept saying, preferred living by Sharia) and rejection of violence (Pegida rallies in Dresden are just peaceful "walks" on which even soccer hooligans behave themselves.)

It worked for a while. Pegida's weekly rallies grew by a few thousand participants every week since October, when they started, peaking at 25,000 10 days ago (the rally planned for last Monday was called off on advice from Dresden police after credible threats were made against one of its organizers). The group became impossible to ignore, though mainstream politicians have mostly treated it as toxic. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers have repeatedly denounced it: Its members, Merkel said, had "hatred in their hearts." Mainstream parties have ruled out dialogue with Pegida. Yet the upstart anti-European Union party, Alternative fuer Deutschland, has embraced the Dresden xenophobic activists, hoping to increase their support nationwide: Last year, AfD failed to get into federal parliament.

There have been strong counter-protests in many German cities. The one in Berlin 10 days ago dwarfed the puny Pegida gathering near the Brandenburg Gate (which nonetheless elicited a major police buildup). In the eastern city of Leipzig yesterday, a Pegida clone calling itself Legida threatened to hold a 40,000-strong march, but only a fraction of that number managed to reach the central square because angry counter-demonstrators wouldn't let Legida supporters pass. Still, the anti-Mulsim movement must be considered a success, if only because the German authorities have been unable to shut it down, despite strong hate-speech laws.

Bachmann quickly emerged as a rising politician who was willing and able to give expression to the widespread fears among Germans that their nation was losing its identity because of a bigger-than-ever influx of immigrants. He devoted himself to building a national organization.

It's an inescapable law of politics, however, that the higher you rise, the more scrutiny you face. Bachmann wasn't ready for it. A reader alerted Dresden's Morgenpost newspaper to a chat Bachmann had with her in September, just before the Pegida rallies began, in which he called refugees "trash" and "dirtbags." After looking at the screenshots, Morgenpost reporters dug further into the Pegida leader's Facebook account and found a Ku-Klux-Klan demotivator poster ("Three K's a Day Keeps the Minorities Away") -- and a picture of Bachmann himself made up as Adolf Hitler. (He's almost a perfect doppelganger, mustache, fringe and all.)

Source: The Guardian

"Is he a wolf in sheep's clothing?" Morgenpost asked. 

This being Germany, few were willing to listen to Bachmann's excuse. -- namely,that he had the picture taken at a barber shop as part of a proposed sleeve illustration for an audiobook about Hitler coming back from the dead and roaming the streets of Berlin. In in a country that has spent the last 70 years picking apart and burying its horrible past, there's a very high bar for Hitler jokes. His verbal attacks on refugees, also showed that Bachmann's primary political concern was racial hatred rather than worry about social injustice. "A politician who masquerades as Hitler is either an idiot or a Nazi," Die Welt quoted Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel as saying. "Everyone who follows such a rabble-rouser should consider that." Even an AfD spokesman described the Hitler photo as being "in bad taste" and the racist comments as "vile."

That was the end of Bachmann. Last night, he resigned from Pegida, apologizing for his "ill-considered statements" that "harmed the interests of our movement." Pegida, in turn, distanced itself from Bachmann, saying it condemned his Facebook posts "in the strongest possible terms."

It's not exactly the end of Pegida itself. It will try to go on, hoping Bachmann's role as its chief spokesman will be forgotten. It is, however, a permanent footnote in the movement's history now, and no political force -- not even the AfD -- will earn any points by trying to cooperate with the disgraced organization. Groups outside Dresden and copycat groups that have sprung up in Austria and Norway are probably considering breaking ties with the Dresden organizers, at least publicly. A conflict is already growing between Pegida and Legida in Leipzig. Merkel no longer has to worry about the xenophobes emerging as an organized political force.

The anti-immigrant sentiment, however, is not going anywhere. It will take Germany's highly efficient education system years, if not decades, to make multiculturalism acceptable to all but a few thousand fringe fanatics. Pegida's example has shown that there is demand in Germany for a far-right unifying force. Even if the movement now collapses, the niche will not remain empty for long. One can only hope that the German press will be as quick to reveal any new leaders for what they will, in all likelihood, turn out to be -- bigots who'd look just like Hitler with only a few cosmetic touches.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net