Could Germany's anti-Islam group actually benefit from 'Hitler selfie'?

Many in Dresden had distanced themselves from the Pegida movement because of the dubious history of Lutz Bachmann, one of its leaders. But now he's out, after a picture emerged of him wearing a Hitler mustache and hairstyle.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters/File
Lutz Bachmann, co-leader of anti-immigration group PEGIDA, a German abbreviation for 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West' resigned on Wednesday after a photo of him posing as Hitler – and reports that he called refugees 'scumbags' – prompted prosecutors to investigate him for inciting hatred.

In posing as Hitler, Lutz Bachmann has only reinforced the idea that the Dresden-based group he founded, Pegida, is a bunch of rabid racists – and thus one many people don't want to associate with.

But the scandal could actually serve to legitimize the organization – by leaving space for a less controversial figure to become its new public face.

Mr. Bachmann stepped down from his leadership position in Pegida, or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” on Wednesday after German daily Bild ran a photo that he apparently took of himself with a Hitler mustache and hair style.

The image seemed to substantiate the criticism from mainstream Germany, which has roundly dismissed the men and women marching under the Pegida banner. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a New Year’s Eve address, went as far as to imply they had hate in their hearts.

But many Dresden locals, while admitting they loathe Bachmann and those like him in the leadership of Pegida, say they understand many of its followers’ laments. And with Bachmann's ouster, a more moderate or sympathetic leader could take up the mantle and bring the movement away from the fringe and into mainstream politics.

Little sympathy for Bachmann

Corina Hohenstein, an emergency medical technician who lives in a little town outside Dresden, told the Monitor recently that the impetus behind Pegida – Germany’s new role as asylum granter, especially for Syrians – has caused real concerns among citizens in this part of the country, which, as part of the former East Germany, has had limited experience with foreigners.

She says many protesters carrying Pegida banners are also using the weekly marches, which swelled to 25,000 in just fourth months, as a megaphone for a plethora of other problems they face, from underemployment to unequal development between East and West Germany.

But she would never dare set foot at a march, she says, -because she would never want to be associated with Bachmann, whose credentials she questioned long before the Bild expose.

Originally from Dresden, Bachmann was convicted in his youth for assault and burglary, and fled to South Africa. He was deported and spent two years in prison. “He wanted South Africa to accept him when he doesn’t want to accept foreigners,” she says ironically.

More recently he’s been charged with drugs possession and fined for falling behind on child support payments, reports the Financial Times. “There are many politicians with criminal records,” he told the FT last week, adding that Pegida is a group of “normal people.”

But now prosecutors are investigating him for inciting hatred. The Bild exposé includes claims that he has called asylum-seekers “animals” and “scumbags.”  And the revelations could signal the end of his career as leader of Germany’s most controversial new social movement. Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told Reuters that the incident has shown Pegida’s true colors: "Anyone who puts on a Hitler disguise is either an idiot or a Nazi," he said.

An opportunity for Pegida?

Still, it is far from clear what this means for Pegida’s future, which was already on some shaky ground. Although it surged in the wake of the attack by Muslim extremists in Paris on Jan. 7, it has been increasingly countered by anti-Pegida critics. Pegida's last Monday march was canceled because of the risk of a terrorist attack, authorities said. Supporters of Pegida assembled instead in an offshoot in neighboring Leipzig, which drew 15,000.

Kathrin Oertel, a Pegida co-founder, told Reuters that although Lutzmann has stepped down, “Pegida will go on."

A more controversial figure could take Pegida's reins. But if a more moderate leader steps in instead, the shake-up could serve to generate more sympathy – and perhaps even a political future, if populist party Alternative für Deutschland renews its flirtation with the movement.

Maria Fagerlund, a young mother of three and resident of Dresden, says she doesn’t fault the regular citizens of her city who “feel a real sense of injustice,” she says. “But I’m horrified that so many people are roped into such a [hateful] movement, when most of those people aren’t mean or evil. They are just happy someone is finally speaking out for them.”

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