Political Disarray Anti-Immigrant Movement's Future Uncertain, Ex-Leader Says

Thomas Tallacker, one of the leaders of a Dresden anti-immigrant movement, quit with four others this week. In an interview, he told Handelsblatt Global Edition why he was distancing himself from the group.
Interior designer Thomas Tallacker.

One of the former leaders of a German anti-immigrant group said Thursday that the controversial movement, in disarray after a series of top-level departures, had been hijacked by neo-Nazis and faced an uncertain future.

“I don’t know what is going to happen with the movement,” said Thomas Tallacker, a founding member of Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident. Mr. Tallacker, who has a small interior design business in Meissen, a town near Dresden, resigned from Pegida this week.

He was one of four top-level Pegida organizers to step down, citing media harassment and the actions of the group's founder, Lutz Bachmann, who was driven out after impersonating Adolf Hitler on his Facebook page.

“It depends on how the remaining members of the panel react and who they decide they want to address,” Mr. Tallacker said in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition.

The other leaders to resign on Wednesday included Kathrin Oertel, who had become the public face of Pegida after the departure earlier this month of Mr. Bachmann.

The group needs to unify again quickly, and vote for a new leadership. But for that, there first needs to be enough members to continue. Thomas Tallacker, Former Pegida member

Mr. Tallacker, in the interview, said there was no obvious successor after this week's departures.

“The group needs to unify again quickly, and vote for a new leadership,” he said. “But for that, there first needs to be enough members to continue.”

Mr. Tallacker said taking on a high profile role at Pegida had negatively affected his personal life and business.

Pegida on its website said Mr. Tallacker’s decorating business had lost clients as a result of his membership of Pegida. In the interview, Mr. Tallacker disputed that, saying his company had not been affected.

But he said his two children had been bullied at their high school, and his neighbors had complained that he was damaging the reputation of Meissen, the home of Germany's famous porcelain.

“Everywhere, people are saying that Mr. Tallacker is becoming a radical right-winger, and this is why Meissen has no more tourists,” he said.

Mr. Tallacker had been a Meissen city councillor as a member of the Christian Democrat party, the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But he was forced to resign in August 2013 for making comments criticized as racist on Facebook about Muslims, Kurds, Turkish people and asylum seekers.

In the interview, Mr. Tallacker said he wanted to distance himself from his earlier comments, and from the views of Mr. Bachmann.

"I resigned because I made that mistake before,'' he said. "I said things on the Internet, and at the time, I distanced myself from the far-right," he said. “And this is why I also distanced myself clearly from Mr. Bachmann.”

Pegida's demonstrations began in October in Dresden. By early January, the group was attracting 25,000 to its weekly rallies, throwing a shadow over Germany and threatening foreign investment and tourism.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris, global scrutiny of the Dresden protests grew more intense. Ms. Merkel publicly criticized the movement as xenophobic and warned Germans not to participate. Last Sunday, the group only attracted 17,000 to its latest rally, a sign of waning influence.

The group appeared to begin disintegrating after the disclosures about Mr. Bachmann, who resigned after his Hitler impersonations were published, but refused to retract Facebook comments he posted referring to asylum seekers as “cattle” and “scumbags.”

In the interview, Mr. Tallacker said Mr. Bachmann still seemed to exert influence over the group, which precipitated his own departure.

“Mr. Bachmann is still in the organisational team, and this is why we left ” Mr. Tallacker said, referring to the other ex-organizers. “ We want to distance ourselves from Mr. Backmann and what he has said.”

“He didn’t distance himself from what he had posted, and this is something that became unbearable for us,” Mr. Tallacker said.

In the wake of the departures, Pegida cancelled the march planned for next Monday. The group says the rally has been rescheduled for Feb. 9 to give it time to elect new leaders, but it is unclear how many people will show up.

Pegida went from being a group protesting against Islamification to a right-wing group stirring up hatred, in the public eye. It appears to have wilted under concerted campaign of Germany's mainstream political establishment.

“Gradually, it has become clear how hollow the idea of Islam as an enemy is,” Hajo Funke said, a professor of political science at Free University in Berlin said. “This is reflected'' in the declines of people attending its rallies.


Franziska Scheven is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, covering companies and markets. To contact the author: [email protected]