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Fear and Loathing: The Migrant Backlash

Introduction

Since October 2014, almost a year before nearly a million migrants and refugees streamed into Germany from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Africa, Monday nights in Dresden’s jewel-box city center were filled with small numbers of demonstrators dead-set against large-scale immigration. Fiercely-felt anti-immigrant politics are broadly shared across the former states of East Germany —Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern— and echoed to varying degree among voters elsewhere in Germany and in every corner of Europe. But in Dresden, anti-immigrant sentiment was especially visible, and especially on Monday nights.

By late fall, 2015, that visibility has come much more into focus as the numbers of demonstrators have ballooned. In particular, the followers of a far-right political group called Pegida, which opposes foreigners and Muslims in Germany, have mobilized by the thousands, dwarfing the two or three hundred people marching in support of migrants. Journalists covering the demonstrations in the city square are threatened and spit upon. Even while filming on balconies, the protesters manage to force the TV cameras off. German police stand on the periphery, careful not to intervene and provoke violence.

This surge in numbers had tapered off by time Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in November 2016 that she will seek a fourth term as head of government. But there is more to anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany than protestor headcounts and Lutz Bachmann, the head of Pegida, whose targets resemble those of Donald J. Trump in the United States, has said Merkel’s decision has galvanized his supporters and attracted many more adherents in their living rooms. Bachmann’s rhetoric is aimed at establishment politicians like Merkel, who is seen as Germany’s indispensable bulwark against anti-immigrant feelings, and the mayor of Dresden, Dirk Hilbert. Ominously, Bachmann told the Saxony newspaper Sächsische Zeitung that he seeks power in the streets, not in the German Parliament.

From Dresden to the National Front in France and Brexit in Great Britain, the influx of millions of migrants and refugees to Europe —including to regions like Saxony with little history of immigration— is convulsing Europe’s politics, Europe’s economies, and Europe’s complex and contested matrix of identities. To see how high the stakes in this fight for Europe’s future, one only needs to go to Dresden’s central square on any given Monday. Follow this current to stay on the story.