Two years after the height of the Pegida movement, who’s still demonstrating against the “Islamisation of Europe”? Ben Knight sets off to find out.
They’re there at the Hauptbahnhof every single Monday night. But today, the Berlin offshoot of Pegida, called Bärgida, turns out to be a frayed knot of maybe three dozen middle-aged people standing obediently in the rain with their flags tightly furled.
Policemen in big black padded coats have carefully funnelled them away from the alcoholics at the station entrance into a pen facing the chancellery, where they wait for a man with a megaphone to decide that no, no one else is coming today. While we wait, a black man with other worries has a loud altercation with two cops at the barrier, and is eventually marched past us chuntering loudly. The Bärgida people look over, and one of them, a white-haired man wearing a “Deutschland” baseball cap like he was on his way to a football match, calls over: “Your future’s looking black!” There’s a kind of desultory snigger.
It’s awkward mingling among them, but this bedraggled, damp group seems grateful to see a new face. The numbers have dwindled a bit from the Mondays in early 2015 when over 20,000 people used to march for Pegida in Dresden – which means those left must be the hardcore. These are the ones who say they’re not fooled by Angela Merkel’s new policy of deporting Afghans back to their war zones back home, or the fact that Berlin’s refugee shelters are emptying out. That’s all just “show” and “distraction”. “How many did they deport?” the man in the Deutschland cap says, mocking me. “Three hundred? How many came last year?”
Steffi, a mildly skittish Austrian lady in her sixties, says she’s noticed that migrants have started going to Kaufland when they used to go to Aldi. ‘What’s that all about, then?’
“I’m still coming because nothing has changed,” says Steffi, a mildly skittish Austrian lady in her sixties who claims she’s noticed that migrants have started going to Kaufland when they used to go to Aldi. “What’s that all about, then?” Deutschland cap nods at this and earnestly interjects to tell me that migrants are all being issued smartphones by the state. “They fill up the shopping trolleys up to the brim, walk straight past the Kasse and say ‘Amt bezahlt, Amt bezahlt!’” finishes Steffi.
Tonight, Bärgida are ordinary-looking people. When the police shepherd us onto the S-Bahn to take us two stops to the next meeting point at Hackescher Markt, the other passengers don’t even notice they’re sharing transport space with Berlin’s anti-immigrant “ex-parliamentary opposition”, as they describe themselves. Whenever the cops aren’t looking, a man with a cropped white beard surreptitiously places stickers on advertisements. He has two motifs: Merkel’s face on a wanted poster and an advert for “PI-News”, Germany’s mini-Breibart blog. “Look what I did!” he tells his friend, all delighted. His friend nods.
Two days ago, on a much sunnier and noisier day, these regulars were washed out at the big “Merkel must go” demo at Hauptbahnhof, where several hundred people half-filled Washingtonplatz. There were facial tattoos that extended backwards to half-cover shaved scalps, and costumes – a man in a Donald Trump mask collected donations to fund future rallies, while another had fashioned a burqa out of what looked like beige hoodies and put a paper crown on his head that said: “Is this what women’s equality looks like?” The general attitude of sarcasm towards centrist politics was enhanced by scattered conspiracy theorists, who went round handing out slips of paper saying that Brexit was part of a plan hatched by the World War II Allies (specifically “the USA and England”) to control the people of Europe, or advertising a “WebBot-Programm” that prophesied the future by analysing the “content of the internet”.
But none of these people are there at the regular Monday demo. Not that skittish Steffi minds the Nazis anyway: “They’ve always behaved correctly – they keep to our rules when they’re here,” she says. Knut, a man who has brought along a bullet-pointed placard, explains to me the distinction between hooligans and Nazis – hooligans being just “patriots who like to cause a little bit of trouble.” We run into some Antifa near Alexanderplatz. During the brief hold-up while the police wrangle the lefties back – mostly teenagers who shout and show us their middle finger – Knut explains that the world is ruled by a financial elite: “You can call them Illuminati, Zionists, the Bilderberg group, whatever. Every time one member of a political party speaks out against it, you’ll notice the rest of the party turns against them,” he tells me. “That’s what happened to Wagenknecht and Höcke.”
It takes me a moment to work out where this point is headed. Sahra Wagenknecht is the head of Die Linke, and Björn Höcke is the one out of the AfD who doesn’t think Germany should feel bad about the Holocaust anymore. I’d never considered them the most prominent joint voices in Germany’s resistance against the hegemony of finance. So what about Frauke Petry, the actual leader of the AfD, whom Knut intends to vote for?
“Frauke Petry has been installed by the financial elite,” Knut tells me with a sigh.
“How do you know?”
“It’s on the internet. That’s the irony – all the information is there, it’s just hard to find.”
The young Antifa people keep shouting at us from beyond the police line. One of them has found his own amplifier: “You lost the war! You lost the war!” For Knut, that’s completely beside the point.