Consider the odium Ukip attracts from right-thinking pundits – by which I obviously don’t mean right as in conservative – square it, and you’re getting close to the opprobrium that the anti-Islamisation movement, Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident), is attracting in Germany, not to mention outside it. For a group of demonstrators that number around 17,500 at the most in their most popular Monday gatherings in Dresden, it’s remarkable the breadth of the coalition against them: the churches, Angela Merkel (‘there can be no place in Germany for religious hatred’), the employers federation leader, Ulrich Grillo (‘we should welcome more refugees’) and obviously every anti-racism group on the left. The anti-Pegida demonstrations are gaining in numbers too – there were an estimated 25,000 people at one Munich rally against racism. And granted, there’s plainly quite a number of the Pegida demonstrators who are right-wing extremists; any journalist at these gatherings can muster hair-raising quotes from individual demonstrators within a matter of minutes.
Trouble is, though, they’re not just nutters. There’s a reason why the numbers – including pensioners and manual workers – at these anti-Islamisation gatherings – or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West – swelled from around 200 at their inception in October in Dresden to the thousands the Monday meetings attract now in cities around Germany. One is that mainstream politics have not articulated popular concerns about immigration, and notably immigration from outside Europe. Indeed a poll for Der Spiegel suggested that two thirds of Germans feel that Merkel doesn’t adequately reflect concern about it.
If this were simply an anti-immigration movement, though, the title wouldn’t work. Most immigrants to Germany are from Eastern and southern Europe, especially Poland; mostly secular or Christian. So it’s something to do with the advent of significant numbers from outside the EU, many of them Muslims. As in France, that was evident in an attempt to ban the burka in public spaces. The largest group of Muslim migrants, historically, has been the Turks, once guest workers, now longstanding residents. But the destabilisation in Iraq, Syria and the Arab world, has added to the numbers coming to Germany from elsewhere and obviously, migrants from hellish countries like Somalia and Libya are as attracted by the pull of a growing economy as anyone else. The numbers seeking asylum in Germany, again, many of them Muslim, were over 77,000 for the first six months of this year; they have grown since. Germany is the new America so far as migrants are concerned, except so very far from being a land of great empty spaces where everyone’s an ex-migrant , this is a European country with formerly a robust culture of its own – not just the one you’re thinking about.
But immigration numbers do, I think, matter when it comes to tolerance of yet more arrivals – the supersaturation point, if you like. The reality is that there are 16 million people living in Germany already who came from abroad. In 2013, the number of arrivals came to 1,226,000 of which 1,108,000 were non-Germans. A million people in a year; it’s quite something. And even the most welcoming society – Ulrich Grillo urged Germans to welcome immigrants on the Christian basis of loving your neighbour – will find it hard to cope with that many, and remain recognisably the same.
In Germany, as in many European countries including Britain, the uneasy question underlying concerns about Islam is just what constitutes the state, the nation: is it merely the space occupied by a given number of residents with increasingly little in common; an understood legal framework and a given number of employers whose need for cost effective and skilled labour is the one imperative to which policymakers must defer? A common language? All European countries would talk about their cultural traditions but in multi-ethnic Germany it’s hard to know what that would mean any more. If you exclude Christianity and history and Goethe and music from the equation, and focus on the obvious – beer and sausages – well, you can see how alien that is if you’re a Syrian migrant.
The German president, Joachim Gauck, has spoken about ‘a new German us’. But what if the old German ‘us’ isn’t terribly happy about it? And this old German ‘us’ is, I’d say, a critical part of the makeup of the Pegida demonstrators. Because in Germany, as elsewhere, the remaking of the country through large scale immigration has happened by default, not by explicit consent – you only get that in Switzerland. My own instinct is that the only reason the Eurosceptic, immigration-questioning Alternative fuer Deutschland party – who aren’t nutters – hasn’t made more headway is because of the overwhelming popularity of Angle Merkel, the mother of the nation, a maternal Mrs T. But she won’t be running again. And when she’s gone, German politics will, I think, take on a different aspect. Meanwhile, the disquiet over the changing nature of Germany will continue to manifest itself in these Monday demonstrations by Pegida … and both they, and the counter demonstrations, can only get bigger, because the underlying reason for them isn’t going away.