All Quiet on the Eastern Front: Part 2
Notes from a Pegida counter-demonstration in Dresden
The following is the second part of a two-part article. The first part appeared earlier in the week.
Notes from a Pegida counter-demonstration in Dresden
“Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”
There is something exhilarating and powerful about walking through the dark, empty streets of Dresden’s old town chanting this slogan. A solitary message of support in a continent that is in a race to rebuild the old borders and impose new mobility restrictions with as much fanfare as it sought to dismantle them only twenty-five years earlier. Yet the message is also unnerving. Isn’t this just another message that perpetuates the division, singling out a group that does not belong? Aren’t we also re-creating a hierarchy — the benevolent hosts who extend a welcome to the unfortunate others? Such an attitude reproduces the exclusion-inclusion narrative, and the possibility for what Etienne Balibar calls “European” racism — a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin (2003). And to paraphrase his statement on the condition of permanent exclusion of immigrants in Europe: once a refugee always a refugee. “Refugees are welcome here,” makes no allowance for equality, commonality, inclusiveness, and political belonging.
The sound bounces back in the ancient walls of the castle and generates a multiplier effect. The echo creates the comforting illusion that there are many of us. The reality however is that, once again, the counter-demonstration rally is not nearly as big as the Pegida parade. Neither are we organized as a coherent group. Just before embarking on our route, we are urged to stay for the whole rally. Indeed, the previous week, on another dreary Monday, many of us left early. Our proposed strategy of confronting Pegida close to their meeting point, Theaterplatz, did not materialize. We were slow to organize and by the time our group reached the location, the Pegida rally had moved on. People in our group started leaving as it seemed futile to wait for Pegida’s supposed return in the bitter cold. Today we are once again behind schedule and heading towards Theaterplatz more than an hour behind what was originally planned.
In fact, Pegida’s staging choice of Theaterplatz is anything but random. Added to the performativity and theatricality, is also the well-known historical precedent. In the not-so-distant history of Dresden, people knew this space as Adolf Hitler Square. This was a stage for the Third Reich military parades and demonstrations. Although lacking such military might, the new occupants are consciously borrowing from that history. The grandiose display of German national flags, the consistency of attendance, the violent messages: all bring the Pegida demonstrations yet another step closer to this infamous past. And while it could be argued that the refugee influx triggered the growth of the organization, the more pressing question is whether Pegida would disappear if the refugee crisis subsides. Or is it that there will always be another ‘other’ and reasons for the dissemination of hatred? The subject of the ‘enemy’ aside, the more pertinent question is how to counter both the growth of Pegida and the permanency of national racism? What is the mechanism to limit extremist rhetoric and xenophobic messages?
Perhaps to understand the challenge at hand requires to first conceptualize the situation in Dresden as a crisis. I refer, however, not to the crisis of migration or of social services. Rather, this is a city-in-crisis. What is at stake is the composition of the city, and the identity and rights of the citizens. The signs of such crisis are clearly visible beyond the Theaterplatz parades. They are in the micro-violence against citizens and residents who have lived and worked in the city for years: German nationals of Turkish descent report being randomly targeted or treated as if they are refugees; foreign scholars are cancelling their contracts with the city’s academic institutions; and people are being targeted for speaking languages other than German on the local tram. According to Deutsche Welle, even the city’s mayor — whose wife is Korean — has now questioned the wisdom of living in Dresden. The Dresden question is then not whether the city can extend a welcome to persons who flee violence and war, but whether its very citizens can sustain their own right to the city.
While the typical response to such a crisis has been an increase in police mobilization, the presence of an authoritarian force is hardly a solution to the question of rights and political identity. Given the number of incidents where the police have sided with Pegida, there is little guarantee that increased securitization of the city will produce political freedom. There is however an alternative mechanism — a proposition for active citizenship, aimed at both addressing the question of the city’s political identity and countering the unchecked expansion of one political force. This proposition was inscribed as a law in the Athenian constitution in the sixth century B.C. The law, also known as Solon’s citizenship law, mandated that in times of crisis, all citizens are to choose a side in the conflict and thus actively partake in its resolution. Otherwise they would be disenfranchised. According to Aristotle, the law was expressed as follows, “Seeing that the city was often in civil strife, but that some of the citizens through slackness were content to accept whatever happened, he [Solon] made a law aimed at them, that whoever when the city is in civil strife does not join forces with either party, shall be disfranchised and have no share in the city.” (Kalyvas 2013)
This agenda for active citizenship suggests that people have the obligation to be engaged participants in determining the composition of their city. It also implies that the problems of the city are the problems of the citizens; or else they would cease to be recognized as citizens (Kalyvas 2014). To state this differently, the Solonian law requires that the many participate in the resolution of the city’s crisis. Here, joining forces and actively defending one’s political position is not meant to escalate the crisis or produce chaos. On the contrary, only such escalation of engagement can equalize the power of the opposing sides; only with a viable opposition can the questions of the city’s policies, composition, identity, and rights be negotiated (Kalyvas 2014).
In Dresden, the passive dismissal of the extreme rhetoric and lack of participation in counter-demonstrations are perhaps the main reasons for the rise of Pegida. What brings people to Postplatz, the Pegida counter-demonstration’s meeting point, on a Monday night is their political stance against xenophobia and racism. Yet this, in and of itself, has been insufficient to produce a big turnout. Disapproval of Pegida’s message does not amount to an organized opposition, and even less so, to a unified political alternative. As a result, although many citizens oppose Pegida and do not join their rallies, neither do they join the counter-demonstrations either. Solon called this slackness and sought to penalize it with his citizenship law. According to his law, it would be insufficient to disengage and ignore Pegida’s message. When the city is in crisis, the adequate response to a raising political power is not in volunteering, Christmas shopping, or attendance of the opera on Monday evenings, right across from the Pegida rally. Neither is the response to crisis the deployment of additional police forces. Instead, the citizens’ response has to be the mobilization of an equally powerful and eloquent opposition.
Today Pegida’s hysteria continues spreading because there is no substantive opposition. People flock to Theaterplatz because they are concerned about their livelihood and unsure of the changes that are taking place. The tremendous turnout and consistency of the Pegida messages validates their continuous showing and support. The only way to counter Pegida would be through the show an equally powerful conviction and consistency — not just in the messages, but also in the numbers.
We are heading to another Monday demonstration after debating the Solonian law in class. The students have a new understanding of the situation — at the very least, they no longer suggest that we go volunteering instead of attending the rally. It is now certain that the TU Dresden students will be present at the counter-demonstrations this Monday and every Monday. The question is whether others who want to be citizens of Dresden will follow.
I would like to thank the faculty and students in the Political Science Department at TU Dresden for the invaluable insights into the situation in Dresden and assistance in compiling information for this essay. Any inconsistencies are of course entirely my own.
Arendt, Hannah. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Orlando, Florida.
Baliabar, Etienne. 2003. We, The People of Europe? Princeton University Press.
Kalyvas, Adnreas. 2014. Solonian Citizenship: Democracy, Conflict, Participation In Kitromilides, ed., Athenian Legacies: European Debates on Citizenship Il Pensiero Politico. Rivista di Storia Delle Idee Politiche e Sociali, Vol 34, 2014. Casa Editrice, Firenze, Italy.
McKeown, Adam. 2008. Melancholy Order. Columbia University Press, New York.
Mezzadra, Sandro. 2010. The gaze of autonomy: capitalism, migration, and social struggles. UnNomade 2.0. Accessed December 30, 2015.