Frank Richter is director of the Center for Political Education, a government-funded organisation in Dresden, the city that is home to the "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West," a group that has held weekly anti-immigrant rallies since October. Pegida's latest demo on Monday attracted 18,000 in Dresden and far smaller numbers in Cologne and Berlin.
Mr. Richter, a native of Saxony, in 1989 co-founded the Group of 20, an opposition cell that negotiated the peaceful transition with the former communist government. In an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition, he warned that Wednesday's Paris terror attack could fuel more fear in Germany and attract more followers to Pegida's next rally. Hours after the attack, Pegida used the killings to issue a call to arms on its Facebook page: "Islamists in France, against whom Pegida has been warning for 12 weeks now, have shown that they are not able to be democratic but aim for a solution of violence and death! Our politicians want to convince us that the opposite is true! Must a similar tragedy take place here in Germany?"
Mr. Richter has attended Pegida rallies for research purposes but is not a member of the organization. He said most Pegida demonstrators are not members of the "extreme right wing," but are concerned about the rise in immigrants in Saxony, which during the former East Germany was largely cut off geographically from all western influence, including western TV. According to Mr. Richter, only 5 percent of Pegida demonstrators are hooligans and neo-Nazis. The rest are citizens "like you and me'' worried about the future, he said.
Only 0.4 percent of Saxony residents are Muslims and Mr. Richter acknowledged that the concerns of his neighbors are overblown and not grounded in fact. Facilities for asylumseekers in Germany have been evenly distributed across the country, and Saxony does not have an disproportional number of new asylum homes or immigrants. Nevertheless, Mr. Richter faults political leaders in Berlin and Brussels for condemning Pegida from afar, which he says will only feed the demonstrations. Political leaders should come to Dresden, he advises.
Just like 25 years ago, when Saxons fought the Communist regime in then-East Berlin, the people of Dresden are again mobilizing against dominance from Berlin and Brussels, he said. Mr. Richter spoke from Dresden by telephone with Handelsblatt Global Edition editor Franziska Scheven.
Mr. Richter, what effect will yesterday's terror attacks in Paris have on the Pegida movement?
This is another event that will fuel fears in Germany. The images in the media are shocking. There is a high degree of emotionalization and a feeling of discontent in Germany and at these (Pegida) rallies we have to try to rationalize to understand it better and to find solutions.
Over the last weeks thousands of members of Pegida have protested against what they fear is a growing "Islamization'' of Germany. What is happening in your city?
Pegida is only a headline that covers a wide range of problems and questions that have been bottled up over the years and are now being released.
Who are the members of Pegida?
The majority of people at Pegida are people like “you and me” – people of different ages and different social backgrounds, even families, but most of them are male. They come from the city of Dresden, but also from the state of Saxony and other parts of Germany.
In Germany, there's a broad perception that most members of Pegida are neo-Nazis.
It is wrong to identify Pegida with neo-Nazis only. There is a group of mostly men dressed in black who are also known “hooligans” and some extreme right-wingers but they make up maybe 5 percent only. If you suggest that Pegida are all neo-Nazis, then you push many participants who are not into the arms of such a group. That will lead to aversion. This is why many blame the press for telling lies. We need a more differentiated (news) coverage.
Do you have any personal friends or acquaintances attending Pegida demos?
I know a few people who participate. But my personal opinion is not the matter here, I represent a bipartisan institution and I want to support democratic values.
A favorite chant Pegida protesters sing is: "We are the people!" This is what you chanted 25 years ago before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Does this movement remind you in any way of what happened back then?
The words are the same, this is true. But Pegida is a very complicated and multi-layered movement. Any form of categorization or putting labels on anything should be forbidden. Many things may seem like 25 years ago, but they are not. We live in a different society now. It is not a question of what I feel about it when I hear it. I just want to find out why people are going into the streets today, and what is troubling them today.
The population of Saxony is less than 1 percent Muslim. Why do people there even care about them?
It is rubbish to think people in Saxony are not supposed to be scared of Islamization in Saxony, only because there are almost no Muslims living here. They are concerned and they express their concern on the street. This concern about foreign infiltration is a reality and can be used and exploited by extreme right wingers. This is dangerous. But we won’t be able to deal with that danger by categorizing all the people in the movement as extreme right. People here have no experience with other religions. Saxony is a very homogeneous state, with people strongly identifying with their culture, traditions and history. This was very positive 25 years ago, when Saxons started the “Peaceful Revolution.” They protested against the centralized communist regime in East Berlin. Saxons fundamentally oppose centralization: It used to be East Berlin, today it is Berlin and Brussels.
Are these demonstrations damaging the image of Dresden and Germany abroad?
Yes, because the movement is being labelled "extreme right," when it actually isn't.
The chancellor, and two former chancellors, as well as many other German celebrities, have publicly denounced the movement as anti-immigrant and hostile to foreigners. What do you think?
There are things that you can understand from looking from far away, but there are also things that you can only understand when you see them close up. I was there at the demonstrations and I can tell you, they are in reality different than what it looks like from afar, like when politicians look at it from Berlin or abroad. You have to come here and talk to the people to understand their concerns.
What are these concerns if not xenophobic?
Problems in Dresden are different from Pegida movements in other German cities, such as Cologne. I can tell you what I heard at yesterday's meeting with some Pegida members of Dresden, who were interested in talking to us. They say: "We have the impression that politicians are no longer listening to us. We think the media is misrepresenting our movement. We think politicians are only doing what they think is right and this is often tied to what the global economy and businesses are dictating. We are not being asked when it comes to asylum. We have nothing against refugees but we want to be involved in the legal immigration process."
Last Sunday, 18,000 turned out for Pegida. Will this number now grow or shrink?
I don’t want to speculate, but I think this movement is not going to calm down. It started to grow a long time ago and is backed by many causes and problems.
Did you see the movement coming?
No, but with my work here, I listened to a lot of discontent among people here and the lack of trust they have in the political elite of our country.
Frank Richter was born in the town of Meissen near Leipzig in former East German and later became a Catholic priest. He played a role before and after the fall of the wall, 25 years ago, as a founding member of the Group of 20, one of the only opposition groups to be accepted by the former communist government as a negotiating partner. Mr. Richter remained a prominent figure from 1988 to 1990 when the first free elections in former East Germany took place.
Mr. Richter eventually left priesthood, married, and started teaching until he joined the Center for Political Education, a bi-partisan, government-supported organization that promotes freedom of speech and democracy thorough events and public outreach.
Video: A Pegida demonstration last December in Dresden, chanting "We are the people."
Franziska Scheven is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, covering companies and markets as well as politics. To contact the author: [email protected]