Germany is a country that continues to make me uncomfortable. I was born and raised here, and even if I lived abroad for almost ten years, my base now is Berlin, the city I grew up in. This spring, it’s been four years exactly since I came back and by all accounts I should have settled back into my German sensibilities and let my Anglo-American mannerisms be all but fond memories of a different time in my life. Why should I still have issues with my home country?
Last month saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. I have studied how the Second World War plays a role in today’s memorial culture. But not much can prepare you for the real thing and the twisted ways in which some aspects of history seem forgotten from one moment to the next.
It was only last autumn that I first visited Dresden, on a spontaneous trip with a friend, the city being just a two-hour drive east. I was struck by the city’s beauty, its Florentine charm and slightly shabby grandeur, a pleasing change from the grey, spread-out architectural mess that Berlin now is for the most part.
It is striking how little of the bombing and the ensuing firestorm is visible today—this part of the city’s past seemed oddly eradicated, at least for the visitor to the recently renovated city centre, despite the fact that more than 25,000 civilians were killed there, many of whom burnt to death. Dresden’s atmosphere seemed prosperous and welcoming, just as the local accent is a soft and warm one.
Then, only weeks later, it all shifted, seemingly like a bolt from the blue. Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) began to march through Dresden’s baroque and rococo streets. The movement had been founded only in October by a fortysomething man (who would later pose as Hitler and then resign as leader) and quickly attracted thousands of supporters, peaking at 25,000 at one point in early January.
Exactly what their agenda was never quite materialised: anti-immigrant, with more hidden, xenophobic and sometimes openly racist undertones, it seemed to straddle a peculiar line between a minority of far-right racists and middle-class citizens concerned about the sudden influx of refugees and the rise of Islamism.
The mainstream quickly raised its concerns about the movement. Chancellor Angela Merkel accused its leaders of promoting hatred, the Council of Jews in Germany called the movement dangerous, the floodlights of Cologne Cathedral were switched off in protest against a Pegida march, the biggest German newspaper, the tabloid Bild, launched a petition. In short, the country was uncharacteristically swift in reacting with strong public opposition.
Just where did Pegida come from? Germany, as is often quoted, is now the world’s second most popular destination for immigrants, and Germans have long been praised for their open-mindedness. Had this come to an end? If so, why? Is it a bout of German angst—in this case a return of the vague fear of being overwhelmed by immigrants that the country experienced in the mid-1990s, or, worse, a return to the sinister times of the early 1930s? Is it a right-wing movement putting its finger on hitherto neglected issues or just an eruption of prejudiced idiocy from a bunch of frustrated East Germans?
Commentators were at a loss to explain it, although I should add that Pegida claimed that a cartel of politicians and media figures is misleading the public over the true state of the country.
This is precisely the unique feature—and danger—of Pegida: it seemed to thrive on some wavering, dark discontent far more sinister than the loud extremist messages that were screamed at its weekly gatherings. Opinion polls show this ambivalent stance: a survey conducted last December by the magazine Der Spiegel showed that 65 per cent of respondents felt that the government did not respond adequately to their concerns about asylum policy and immigration, while 34 per cent observed an increasing Islamisation of Germany. But a different survey suggested that 67 per cent considered the danger of Islamisation exaggerated.
Germany, it seems, just hasn’t found a way to digest the idea of immigration. It seems unlikely that Dresden’s famous opera house and castle will soon be “Islamised”; the fear is an entirely irrational one—and one that feels a bit complacent, too. The country thrived on its giddy, post-unity and happily nationalistic self for too long; now it is time to adopt a stance towards immigration that even Pegida supporters can understand.
History shows how a twisted ideology can quickly turn into a political force. Even if this seems unlikely to happen in today’s Germany, the anniversary of the bombings of Dresden highlights that it did once—and not that long ago.