All Quiet on the Eastern Front
Notes from a Pegida counter-demonstration in Dresden
The following is the first part of a two-part article. The second and final part will follow later in the week.
We must always take sides…
Silence encourages the tormentor,
never the tormented
-Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize acceptance speech
Notes from a Pegida counter-demonstration in Dresden
It is 5:30 on a cold and rainy Monday evening in Dresden. To the casual tourist, there might be nothing extraordinary about the time or day of the week. The eerie tranquility of warmly flashing Christmas decorations, the ubiquitous smell of Glühwein, and the ingeniously crafted stands of the world famous Dresden Stiezelmarkt – all suggest that the city is ready to settle into a beloved holiday tradition. If time is measured in Christmas market years, the Dresden tourist is entering into a world that is at least 581 years old.
Unlike the tourists, the students from the Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden) and I are not headed for the market stands. Our resolve to brave the pouring rain and winter cold is because of Pegida, also known as Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (“Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the Occident”). Every Monday evening, Pegida stages a mass rally in the center of Dresden’s old town, in front of Theaterplatz. A constellation of disparate political organizations, students, professionals, and unaffiliated citizens organize counter-demonstrations against Pegida. Policemen in heavy gear are visible throughout the area of the demonstration and counter-demonstration. The city buckles down, streets are closed, and trams are re-routed away from the city center. The cold tranquil air is laden with the weary anticipation of an impending storm — some Monday, any Monday, every Monday. The casual tourists, Christmas gifts and shopping bags in hand, get caught in the rallies. The more prudent ones watch from their hotel rooms conveniently located at the heart of the old town; others cancel their reservations altogether. Dresden has seen steady decline in tourism in the past year. Pegida supporters, on the contrary, flock to Dresden with the fervor of religious zealots and have become a permanent presence at Theaterplatz. A new tradition is in the making: a tradition now nearly 60 Mondays old.
The counter-demonstrators gather at Postplatz, a location about ten-minute-walk from Theaterplatz. Information on the route and time of speeches can be checked on Facebook, just as with Pegida’s rallies. We arrive at Postplatz at the arranged time, but for a moment cannot locate the exact meeting point. It is dark and the rain reduces visibility even more. We are certain of the meeting point’s proximity only because of the large number of police cars and armed policemen. Their expressionless faces unequivocally communicate a simple message: “We are watching you.” I am told that on many occasions — be they protests, counter-demonstrations, or sit-ins in front of refugee shelters – the police side with Pegida and do little to prevent assaults against the counter-demonstrators. I wonder about the seemingly inevitable, taken-for-granted, excessive presence of police force in the first place. If police is to ensure order, is it also the police that should be called upon and expected to resolve conflicts? What are the dangers of police-administered resolutions? I am powerfully reminded of Hannah Arendt’s admonition against the increased reliance on the authoritative force of the police, a reliance that brings the state a step closer to a totalitarian regime (1951). Her observations on the police, directly linked to her description of the plight of the refugees and stateless persons, bring to mind a related phenomenon: It is not uncommon to see the words, “migration,” and, “crisis,” used in the same sentence, almost inseparable from each other. Arguably the talk of crisis has become an integral part of a new global emergency vocabulary whenever there is a talk about migrants, or their integration. Association is substituted for causation; migration becomes a justification for emergency mobilization, increased spending on fortified walls, larger police forces, and even constitutional amendments. Certainly, neither the emergency vocabulary nor the militarization of borders are meant to provide better accommodations for the destitute migrants. If anything, alleviation of their plight comes in the form of outsourcing: integration logistics, as well as border control and deportation, are increasingly handled by private companies (Mezzadra 2011).
Private sector outsourcing is only one aspect of the relation between capital and migration. Another can be delineated in the legal codifications and rhetoric surrounding entry restrictions and migration control. The threat of migrants, typically argued on the grounds of racial or religious incompatibility, dissipates in the face of capital investment. The latter provides the easiest access to citizenship — both in Europe and the United States. Incidentally, this is not a neo-liberal phenomenon, but a historical fact dating back to the US exclusion of Chinese migrants, starting in the 1880’s: in an attempt to curb the ‘yellow plague’ and the hordes of ‘Celestials,’ the US government barred Chinese persons from entry into the United States irrespective of their nationality. The law, commonly referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act; however, exempted merchants from such restrictions (McKeown 2008). The point here is not to extol the logic of capital or to say that racial discrimination and religious intolerance are not factors in anti-migrant rallies and xenophobic outbursts. Rather, it is to underscore the fact that the perception of a migrant threat exceeds both racial and religious fears. To state it differently, neither race nor religion provide a sufficient explanation for the duality of the violent opposition and visceral rejection of the impoverished many and yet the wholehearted welcoming of the affluent few. Notably, even in the case of Syrian refuges, the latest argument for their admissibility has become not their right to protection and refuge under international law, but the impression that their middle class status will be a great stimulus for the European economy, or in the words of Fortune magazine, ‘a golden opportunity for Europe.’
The fear of the migrant is then also the fear of the impoverished multitude: unruly, disorganized, whimsical, and, worst of all, capable of influencing political decisions. Images of the multitude storming through Europe are now a daily reality. Mass media and social networks incessantly put on display the endless trails of human beings walking across Europe or piled on boats landing on the coasts of Italy or Greece. The impression of the vulnerability of European borders might dissipate if the plight of refugees was put into context: latest statistics show that in Germany there are only 323 refugee applications per 100,000 of the local population. Perhaps the mass media footage is generated not out of a sense of fear, but as means to mobilize compassion. Ironically, the urge to fulfill a humanitarian duty is once again filtered through the logic of capital, this time in generous charitable donations. Irrespective of whether the impulse is humanitarian or xenophobic, the impression remains the same: a multitude streaming through the lands of Europe, overwhelming the system of social support, and challenging local communities’ ways of being. On Monday evenings at Dresden’s Theaterplatz, it doesn’t matter if this picture is a drastic overstatement of reality. There are thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of people who have endorsed it, who declare that they are afraid, who see themselves as victims.
The migration-as-crisis phenomenon is linked to a narrative of victimhood, in more ways than one. I encounter this on the night of the counter-demonstration in the seemingly innocuous proposal to volunteer at a refugee shelter instead of joining the rally. The suggestion is tempting not just because of the dreadful weather. The demand for volunteers is insatiable: day care, German language classes, food distribution. The volunteer shifts are 4-5 hours and there is hardly time for a break. At first I am surprised at the students’ willingness to give up the streets for the shelter, to engage in charitable work instead of political action. But it is also easy to understand how the distinction is not so clear-cut, how volunteering itself has become associated with a particular political choice. The migration-as-crisis rhetoric is not just in the visual display of migrants storming through Europe, but also in the narrative of the burden of crumbling social services on the local residents.
I get a glimpse of the crisis in social services in the fenced-off university building that I remember as a large dining hall. In 2013 this used to be a dining hall (mensa) — a space filled with the noise of students released from classes, enjoying afternoon beers and conversations about the history of the GDR. Like many other halls and gyms throughout the country, the mensa is now transformed into a refugee shelter. The week before my arrival, the canvas covering the barbed wires surrounding the building had fallen off. Resembling a large cage in a zoo, the barbed wire exposed the refugees’ daily activities, robbed them of the little privacy that a dining hall might afford, and put on full display the silence and harshness of the resettlement geography. With the canvas gone, the wired space looked like an open sore of silence and stillness in the bustling university campus.
It took more than two weeks to fix the canvas and to cover up the sore. A simple procedure that, once scheduled, could be completed in less than a few hours. This is the type of inadequacy — small glitches in the social services bureaucracy — that Pegida supporters revel in. They cite stories of villages and communities, people and organizations overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. It is through such stories that victimhood becomes associated not with the refugees, but with these residents of sleepy villages in Saxony. The rhetoric of innocent villagers who are suddenly yanked into opening their communities and homes to strangers might appear ludicrous to some, but it is certainly appealing to many others: one year ago, there were less than 400 attendants at Pegida rallies. There are now 8,000 on a cold day and twice as many otherwise.
Their fearful hysteria on Theaterplatz every Monday serves as political capital in the demand to amend asylum policies and close the country’s borders. Meanwhile, the lack of infrastructure and a clear long-term resettlement strategy makes local support all the more important. Volunteering is not a question of charity, but a concrete mobilization to counter the multitude of structural inadequacies. Volunteers support the social services system as much as they aid the refugees. This explains in very practical terms why the Pegida opposition rallies chant every Monday: “Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”
Arendt, Hannah. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. Orlando, FL
Baliabar, Etienne. 2003. We, The People of Europe? Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
Kalyvas, Andreas. 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, NY.
Mezzadra, Sandro. 2010. The gaze of autonomy: capitalism, migration, and social struggles. UnNomade 2.0. Accessed December 30, 2015.