Before offering a description of the structural underpinnings and actual protest activities of xenophobic right-wing groups, it seems appropriate to sort out the major ideological tendencies on the right side of the political spectrum.
The Four Sections that Make Up the Right-Wing Spectrum
For analytical purposes one can distinguish four right-wing positions that differ in their ideological leaning and strategic preferences: conservatism, right-populism, right-radicalism and right-terrorism. When considering the numbers, recent right-wing mobilization accompanied by explicit xenophobic statements, claims and protest acts, is anchored in the realm of right-populism and right-radicalism/extremismFootnote 5. In the last few years, these two sections have grown and partly interlinked, finding growing popularity in parts of the German population.
Simply put, right-populists are critical of established politics (including conservative parties) and elites, share nationalist sentiments, and wish to keep “foreigners” out of Germany. As all brands of populists, right-populists idealize the common or everyday people as a homogeneous and authentic entity whose needs and interests are grossly neglected or violated by self-centred, privileged and immoral political, economic and cultural elites. This position separates them from most conservative groups and parties. Yet right-populists also tend to keep Nazi, neo-Nazi and other anti-Semitic groups at arm’s length, at least on the public record. Additionally, they refrain from using violence, though often express understanding for those who resort to such acts. By contrast, right-radicals are more ambivalent and sometimes look more favourably towards such positions, but they stop short from engaging in terrorist acts.Footnote 6
While right-populists embrace instruments of direct democracy without necessarily rejecting liberal democracy as such, right-radicals are highly critical of the system of democratic representation, the separation of powers, the protection of minorities, etc. Right-radicals endorse strong leadership much more overtly than right-populists. Most importantly, they believe in the natural superiority of the domestic ethnicity and culture over others. While such racism is inseparable from right-radicalism and expressed quite candidly in right-radical circles, right-populists tend to do not, or not openly, embrace racist positions (Sturm 2010).
These remarks referring to more or less distinct and explicit positions indicate the difficulty in drawing neat boundaries between the groups. Clearly, as long as they are neighbouring each other on the political scale there will be areas of ambiguity and interpenetration between them. This applies especially to the field of extra-parliamentary politics where there is room for multiple affiliations and tactical alliances. In contrast, in the field of party politics the boundaries between these groups are more clearly marked because voting follows the rules of a zero-sum game. This may result in tough competition and open animosities between different right-wing parties, however this is usually more pronounced between the leaders of competing parties than the rank-and-file membership.
For these reasons, it would be misleading to treat right-populist and right-radical groups in isolation from each other. In a similar vein, it would be misleading to study right-wing political parties and other formal associations in separation from informal groups and networks as if they were completely different with no interaction between them. Convergence becomes particularly pronounced when it comes to blaming refugees and asylum seekers, along with permissive political elites, for undermining or even destroying the “German fatherland.” In this regard, otherwise quite different groups exhibit a common denominator.
The Composition and Structure of Contemporary Right-Wing Groups
Because of their structure, the plethora of German right-wing groups can be called a social movement, insofar as they consist of loosely coupled networks composed of political parties, citizen initiatives, comradeships, cliques, music bands, intellectual circles, journals, press houses, stores, online-services, meeting centers, pubs, etc. Some of these components, most notably political parties such as the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), The Right (Die Rechte), The Third Way (Der III. Weg), Pro Germany (Pro Deutschland) and the populist AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), are public and therefore easily observable. Others tend to act in a semi-public way (e.g., Hooligans against Salafis) or at the local level (e.g. Pro Cologne, pro NRW, Pegida and Legida). Further along the spectrum, there are those acting in closed circles (e.g., various so-called comradeships) because they are afraid of being closely monitored by media, counter-activists and/or the intelligence service.
Some parties with a strong xenophobic focus grew out of former associations, for example, Pro Cologne and Pro North Rhine-Westphalia (Pro NRW). However, these parties remained insignificant in terms of membership and voters. This has changed in the last 2–3 years when two groups in particular, the right-populist party AfD and locally anchored association named Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident), a blend of right-populist and right-radicals, moved to the fore.
Right-populism should not only be equated with certain political parties, as there also exists a growing network of right-populist groups at the local and regional levels. Because of this I shall first explore the domain of the extra-parliamentary right with a special attention to right-populist groups before turning to the radical right.
The organizational consolidation of right-populism can be traced back further than the recent so-called refugee crisis. In several parts of Germany, groups or small parties critical of immigration more generally, and the rising number of Muslims in particular, have existed since the 1990s. These groups were particularly popular in Cologne and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia where there is a sizeable Muslim population. Here the outright xenophobic Pro Cologne and Pro NRW served as a model for similar groups in other parts of the country. One of the key goals of these groups was to prevent the construction of mosques on German territory.
The other stronghold was in Eastern Germany and especially in the state of Saxony, which, interestingly, had also been a stronghold of the right-radical party the NPD. It is important to point out that the number of people with a non-German background is very small in East Germany, and the number of Muslims is barely significant. Recent research has suggested that not in spite of but because of this low number, xenophobic attitudes have flourished as the locals lack practical exchanges with “foreigners” and therefore use them as scapegoats to project their prejudices, anxieties and fear onto (Zick and Küpper 2015; Zick et al. 2016). Although public xenophobic statements and protest activities were on the rise, the established parties did little to counter these tendencies or allay these fears, thereby strengthening the impression of these groups that the political establishment is self-centred and tends to ignore the sentiments and demands of the populace.
The creation of Pegida in Dresden in the fall of 2014 served as a catalyst and magnet for the above mentioned free-floating sentiments. Pegida became known for its weekly protest event, which still continues today (for details see below). When Pegida began they received huge media attention in part because in its early phase little was known about this group that claimed to represent “the people”, but also because they aggressively criticized and called most members of the media liars. Pegida in Dresden, as well as its affiliates in a range of other cities faced considerable counter-demonstrations (Marg et al. 2016) that occasionally resulted in skirmishes with Pegida participants and/or police.
While populist groups such as the AfD and Pegida are clearly positioned ideologically on the far right, this is less clear for some of their participants. According to various surveys, a significant proportion of these groups’ followers are not driven by right-wing ideology but rather a general frustration over established politics, fears of economic deprivation and of an intensified struggle over scarce resources and facilities due to the influx of refugees. Research has shown that these organizations predominantly recruit people who had previously voted for conservative parties or who abstained from voting because they felt politically alienated and neglected. But it was also found that right-populist groups attract people who posit themselves right in the middle or even to the left of the political spectrum. The surveys also showed that a minority of trade union members were attracted to these right-populist groups (see Daphi et al. 2015; Geiges et al. 2015; Patzelt and Eichardt 2015; Reuband 2015; Rucht 2015; Vorländer et al. 2016).
Further to the right, there exists a bunch of right-radical parties, comradeships and other groups that are explicitly anti-democratic and racist (Häusler and Virchow 2012). The federal and state-based agencies for the Protection of the Constitution and the criminal police closely observe these groups. Some of them have been declared illegal, an act which usually results in a re-organization of the group or network under a new name. On ideological grounds, there is nothing very new about these groups.Footnote 7 On structural grounds and tactics, however, they seem to have become more professional in their way of decentralized organizing, their use of electronic means of communication, and their ways of recruiting new members; often by infiltrating local leisure clubs, voluntary fire brigades, and local social associations (Radke and Staud 2012).
Also worth mentioning is the existence and activity of clandestine groups, most notably the series of murders committed by the National-Socialist Underground (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund, NSU) between 2000 and 2006. While this group appeared to be small, one should also consider that, according to official data from March 2016, 372 right-wing activists (of which 342 had been previously sentenced) were living underground.
Another component of the right-wing infrastructure, and one that partly transcends national borders, are the relatively small numbers of intellectuals, scientists, journalists and artists who directly or indirectly support the right. They serve as reference points and allegedly credible sources for right-wing claims. Sometimes these people have a long history of involvement in right-wing politics, sometimes there are also defectors who have moved from the far left to the far right. In the context of Pegida, several people of this kind gave speeches or were cited by others in the movement.
To sum up, over the last few decades right-wing groups have created loosely connected and flexible structures that allow for effective communication and mobilization. The nodes in this structure vary in their concrete ideological orientation and organizational forms. While many of these groups were explicitly created to pursue political aims, there were also right-wing individuals or small groups who, nominally private, are active in non-political pockets of civil society. In organizational terms, these groups range from formal and hierarchical nationwide organizations (including political parties) to completely informal and local friendship circles. Some groups and organizations have existed for decades; others split and unite, change labels, or remain completely informal. In some cases, the link to the political right is unobtrusive, as exemplified by some music bands or web-based stores. The density of right-wing infrastructure varies considerably within Germany. In some places, it is almost absent, especially where a leftist culture prevails. In other places, most notably in some rural areas in East Germany, right-wing groups have acquired a hegemonic status so that it has become risky to express a dissenting view, let alone to live there as an apparent non-German recognizable by, for example, being non-white (Schröder 1997; Döring 2007). This anchorage and embedding in local and regional communities not only increases the self-confidence of right-wing activists but may also encourage them to engage in criminal acts such as arson attacks on asylum shelters: Acts that are sometimes publicly applauded by local bystanders, as occurred in the city of Freital (Saxony) in 2015 alongside other cities in 2015/16.
Performances and Protest Activities
Right-wing public performances and protest activities tend to be widely reported and are therefore well known. An outwardly directed facet of this activity; directed to the wider public and media, is the presentation of a collective body, arranged as a densely packed crowd that epitomizes coherence, will, energy, determination and power. The explicit messages are conveyed by repeated and loudly shouted slogans such as “Liar Press” and “We are the people,” flags, signs, placards, posters, and banners. In the case of Pegida, even a special anthem was composed. Also a sizeable number of marshals, eager to draw a clear boundary between the committed participants and curious bystanders, maintained the physical shape of the collective body.
The organizers’ directives to the participants and speeches were–although also having an external character–the main methods for transmitting internal messages. One important aim of these messages was to maintain discipline through the banning of alcohol and violence, and instructions to unconditionally follow orders of the police. The nature and tone of the speeches varied considerably; sometimes the claims and demands were moderate and soft and on other occasions they were sharp and aggressive (Knopp 2016). At some protests the same speaker may play both cards, although moderation can quite often be just a disguise to prevent, for example, juridical sanctions. Frequently used rhetorical devises at these protests were to make vague allusions about what you are saying or present an opinion in the form of a suggestive question so that the audience will still pick up on the intended message.
It is very likely that both subtle and more direct forms of xenophobic allegations and verbal attacks encourage more determined and risk-taking right-wing groups to engage in aggressive and partly violent actions. The history of such actions can be traced through the annually published governmental reports and protest event analyses carried out by academic researchers.
An analysis on protest events based on reports of the newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Rundschau showed distinct patterns and changes in right-wing protests from 1950 to 2002 (Rucht 2003). Until the late 1980s, right-wing protests in West Germany accounted for only a small proportion of all protest events. Moreover, the turnout to these events was negligible. Since the 1990s, right-wing protests have become more frequent, although numbers of participants remained insignificant. During the 1990s, the political violence that had been previously concentrated on the left side of the political scale shifted to the right. The proportion of all right-wing protests that were violent dramatically increased, reaching up to 80% during these years. Research also showed that, especially when considering population size, right-wing protests, including violent ones, were much more frequent in East Germany than in West Germany (Rucht 2003, 84–90).
Since the turn of the century, there have been several instances of collective xenophobic outbursts that are worth mentioning. One example was the series of protests against the construction or even existence of mosques, initiated by groups such as Pro Cologne and Pro NRW. Other examples were the partly violent xeonophobic acts in the small city of Mügeln in Saxony in 2007. Interestingly, local and state politicians and the local and regional media grossly trivialized these events (Schellenberg 2016).
A third example was the emergence of a German group, inspired by the English Defence League, calling themselves Hooligans against Salafist. This group, as indicated by its name, especially targets the Muslim Salafists who had made some previous problematic public appearances.Footnote 8 In a public protest in Cologne in October 2014, Hooligans against Salafists was able to mobilize some 4000 demonstrators. Many of these engaged in severe clashes with a largely unprepared and overstrained contingent of 1300 police. Although xenophobic activities had been on the rise during 2014 these actions had remained scattered. However, the situation changed dramatically at the end of 2015.
One key development was the quick rise of Pegida in Dresden and its affiliations in dozens of other cities across Germany and beyond.Footnote 9 After existing for only a few months, by January 2015 Pegida had already attracted more than 20,000 participants in one single rally, by far the highest turnout of a right-wing protest in Germany since the end of World War II. Numbers declined in the subsequent months for several reasons; among these were the disclosure of Lutz Bachmann’s–a leading figure of the movement–criminal past and his offensive remarks about refugees. This, together with increasing racist tendencies, triggered an internal struggle within the Pegida leadership resulting in the more moderate sections leaving the group.
It was the so-called refugee crisis that eventually turned the tide not only for Pegida but also for all kinds of right-populist and to some extent right-radical groups. Participation in Pegida’s weekly protests rose again, reaching a second peak of roughly 20,000 demonstrators at the group’s first anniversary protest in September 2016. After that, the numbers in the weekly demonstration declined and fell down to roughly 2500.Footnote 10
A second important catalyst and background factor for the increasingly aggressive mood against refugees and asylum seekers was the rise of the political party the AfD. Although the party had been temporarily weakened after its split in the summer of 2015, against the backdrop of the “refugee crisis” and the rise of Pegida, the AfD was not only revitalized but became stronger than it was before the split. Critically, they also moved further to the right. Both organizations, though officially separate, promoted essentially the same ideology; presenting themselves as a mouthpiece and incarnation of the “German Volk” according to the slogan “We are the people” (Wir sind das Volk). In terms of their actions and tactics, the AfD is, at least since 2015, clearly a social movement party transcending the action repertoire of established parties. On several occasions, the party, most notably the branch in the state of Thuringia with its aggressive frontman Björn Höcke, has organized street protests that resemble those of Pegida in both form and rhetoric.
Adding to this and parallel to the rise of Pegida and its affiliates, and the AfD and similar-minded right-populist groups, Germany experienced an explosion of right-wing and/or xenophobic actions. According of official statistics, right-wing oriented criminal acts (most of these classified as non-violent and were instead categorized as propaganda) rose sharply between 2014 and 2015 (see Table 11.1).Footnote 11 As did the number of right-wing public demonstrations, violent acts and, more particularly, assaults against shelters for asylum seekers. The official reports also highlight that about three quarters of these events took place in East Germany, especially in the states of Saxony and Thuringia.Footnote 12
Drawing on various sources and including not only official statistics, a more detailed collection of instances of anti-asylum seeker mobilization in East Germany noted that in 2015 there was a total of 974 cases of which 580 were classified as “protest” and 394 as “attacks” (Westheuser 2016, 20). The evolution of both kinds of events during 2015 shows a similar pattern with a striking peak in fall. There is also a peak of the numbers of demonstrators during the same period. However, while participation levels were also high in January 2015 (mainly due to the Pegida rallies), the number of events was still relatively low. When controlled by population size, Saxony clearly takes the top position regarding protest events, followed by Thuringia, whereas Saxony-Anhalt is at the bottom of the 5 Eastern states. Considering the ratio of attacks against asylum seekers, Saxony again clearly takes the lead with Saxony-Anhalt at the bottom, but Thuringia is now in the fourth position (ibid., 20–21).
This trend continued in 2016: Between January 1 and August 1, 2016, official statistics documented 665 offences against shelters and almost all of these (92%) were attributed to so-called right-wing motivated perpetrators. Out of this number there were 118 cases that used violence (of which 55 were arson attacks).
Protest event data derived from the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung show similar results, most notably the spectacular rise of the issue of ethnic minorities and refugees in 2014 and 2015 (see Fig. 11.1).
Interestingly, the total number of protest activities in favor of ethnic minorities and refugees is relatively close to the numbers of those against (48% vs. 52%) in the period between 2010 and 2015. A similar relationship exists for the number of participants (pro 46% vs. con 54%) When considering protests specifically around asylum rights and (shelters for) asylum seekers, 60% are supportive and 40% against. Again, differences between West and East Germany are significant. With regard to the broader category of protests centered around ethnic minorities and refugees, the proportions are 55.7% (pro) vs. 44.3% (con) in the West, and 36.6% (pro) vs. 63.4% (con) in the East. Among violent protests against ethnic minorities and refugees, 63.2% occur in the East and 36.8% in West.