The anti-Islam movement Pegida, which has thrown a shadow over Germany after a series of high-profile marches in Dresden, descended into disarray Wednesday after several of its high-profile leaders quit suddenly.
The group, formally called the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, cancelled a march planned for Monday, which they said was being rescheduled until Feb. 9 to give time to elect new leaders.
The resignations came a week after the movement’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, stepped down after photographs of him posing as Adolf Hitler on his Facebook page went viral.
Kathrin Oertel, a real estate consultant from Dresden, took over as the public face of the organization, but Pegida said Wednesday she had resigned, saying she had been hounded by photographers camping outside her home.
The Pegida statement on the group's Facebook page said Ms. Oertel quit amid “massive hostility and threats'' that had caused her personal pain and damaged her work. In its statement, Pegida said Ms. Oertel’s real estate work had suffered and photographers “snuck around” near her home.
The statement also said Thomas Tallacker, another founding member of Pegida, is leaving the group’s board after losing several major contracts at his business - an interior design based in Meissen, a town near Leipzig.
Mr. Tallacker runs a small company called Innenausstattung. He is an interior designer and his wife Anne is responsible for sales, according to its website.
When contacted by Handelsblatt Global Edition. Mr. Tallacker’s wife Anne declined to comment on Pegida.
This is the beginning of the end for Pegida. Hajo Funke, Professor of politics at the at Free University in Berlin
Pegida on its website said its vice president, Rene Jahn, had also resigned. Der Spiegel, in its online edition, said Achim Exner, a Pegida member who belongs to a splinter party, the Alternative for Germany, had also stepped down.
Pegida has long complained that it has been unfairly demonized by the German and international media as neo-Nazis. In its marches, supporters have chanted ''Lügenpresse'' or “The Lying Press,” to vent their anger.
Hajo Funke, a professor of politics at Free University in Berlin who has studied the far right, told Handelsblatt Global Edition he believed the recent resignations are “the beginning of the end” for Pegida.
"Even Pegida is not immune to this level of chaos,” he said.
Pegida began organizing weekly Monday night marches in Dresden in October. At its peak, it attracted 25,000 demonstrators, but its popularity has waned amid an organized backlash against the anti-immigrant movement.
Pegida has tried to distance itself from neo-Nazi groups that have joined its marches. But last Wednesday, a march in Leipzig, organized by an offshoot calling itself Legida, attracted aggressive and radical protesters, further damaging the movement's public image.
The daily newspaper Bild reported that Ms. Oertel and other leaders quit because they were unhappy that Mr. Bachmann, the Hitler impersonator, was still involved with the group even after his supposed resignation.
Some were also unhappy about the formation of Legida.
Pegida has sought to present itself as a movement of ordinary people, who have nothing in common with neo-Nazis or far-right football hooligans. Some of its supporters disavow neo-Nazis and say they are merely expressing discontent with Germany's distant political elite.
Dresden is the capital of Saxony, a former East German state that has one of the country's lowest levels of Muslim residents, less than 1 percent. The area along the Czech and Polish borders was one of the most isolated in former East Germany during the Cold War, beyond the range of western radio. Some west Germans like to mock the area as the "Valley of the Clueless.''
Public prosecutors in Dresden are investigating Mr. Bachmann on suspicion of inciting racial hatred for Facebook posts that allegedly referred to asylum seekers as “cattle” and “scumbags.” Mr. Bachmann has not publicly commented on the postings since the controversy broke.
“Mr. Bachmann pretended to have nothing against foreigners, and then we read how he calls them 'cattle.' He uses hate words and posts images of him dressed as Hitler. This shows the real extreme-right background from which he is coming,” said Mr. Funke, the Berlin professor.
A press officer for the public prosecutors office in Dresden told Handelsblatt Global Edition that there were no investigations into Ms. Oertel, Mr. Tallacker or any other member of Pegida's leadership.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and other political leaders have warned against Pegida, saying group members were xenophobic. Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier said its campaigns had damaged Germany’s reputation.
Mr. Funke, the Berlin professor, said German politicians need to address unemployment, poor education and the lack of opportunities many of Pegida's marchers were worried about. “Politicians need to organize townhall meetings, events and listen to peoples fears,'' he said. ''Then you can even talk to skin heads, tell them to stop talking about racism and prejudice, but share your problems with me.”