Thousands of supporters of a far-right German anti-immigrant group marched Sunday for the first time since their leader stepped down in disgrace after posing as Adolf Hitler and making remarks that were widely perceived to be racist.
The group, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, widely known by the acronym PEGIDA, had been forced to abandon its weekly Monday march last week after Dresden police announced that "concrete threats" had been made against a member of the movement's organization team.
Then founder Lutz Bachmann resigned in the midst of a furor over remarks he made on Facebook, calling refugees "animals" and "scum." At about the same time, photos surfaced—and were prominently displayed in German newspapers—showing Bachmann sporting a Hitler haircut and mustache.
While PEGIDA spokeswoman Kathrin Oertel acknowledged that Bachmann's comments crossed the line, she played down the significance of the Hitler photo, describing it as "satire, which is every citizen's right."
The gathering Sunday in Dresden’s Theaterplatz was PEGIDA’s 13th demonstration since October. The flags of various European countries, including Germany, Poland, Russia, Austria and France, were waved high by protesters, who carried signs reading “We are the people” and calling on German Chancellor
"The Muslims who come here must understand the culture of the German society and fully integrate in it, but the problem is that they are not doing so. There should be more discussions between us the people and German politicians about the incoming of Muslim immigrants," Rolf Schulze, a 49-year-old marcher, said in an interview.
While the movement has been widely condemned by German politicians, including Merkel and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, PEGIDA supporters have tried to distance themselves from accusations of racism and xenophobia.
They say they are not against the intake of war refugees to Germany, but want the preservation of "Judeo-Christian Western culture" against what they claim is the rise of "radicalism" and "parallel societies with Sharia police."
"We are not Nazis. We are the German people and I am not against Islam as a religion, but I am against some of the radicals who illegally seek refuge in our country. What happened in Paris can happen here and at any other part of the world," said Stefan Gondler, a 27-year-old truck driver taking part in the marches for the seventh time.
While Muslims account for about 5% of Germany's population, they are a much smaller minority in Dresden, which has become a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment. Only 2.5% of Dresden's population is foreign born, and only a small percentage of the migrants are Muslim, according to official figures.
While PEGIDA, formed by Bachmann last October, has managed to draw as many as 25,000 protesters to its marches in Dresden and nearby Leipzig, its followers have been outnumbered by the supporters of counter-rallies organized in Cologne, Berlin and Stuttgart in recent weeks. German observers doubt if the anti-migrant movement will expand significantly beyond the eastern part of Germany.
"It is hard to spread nationwide so long as extreme far-right leaders, who repulse any sort of support, are in charge of its branches," Werner J. Patzelt, a professor of political science at the Dresden University of Technology, said in an interview. He added, however, that most of the protesters in Dresden "are just people who are afraid, but they are not far-right extremists."