BERLIN: German political leaders, entertainers and sports stars threw their weight on Tuesday into the growing backlash against a new anti-immigration movement, leading calls to defend the country’s hard-won image for tolerance.
A day after tens of thousands again took to the streets in several cities to rally for and against a new group which opposes what it claims is the Islamisation of Europe, 50 prominent figures issued statements in a two-page spread in the Bild daily to push back.
In its latest show of strength, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, or PEGIDA, drew some 18,000 people to a demonstration on Monday in its hub city of Dresden in the former Communist east.
Its sudden emergence over just a few weeks and the regular staging of marches have sparked offshoot protests elsewhere, but also a counter-movement accusing PEGIDA of whipping up xenophobia.
“PEGIDA is not only damaging our country, it is also presenting a poor image of Germany,” warned Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of the 50 figures writing in Bild.
Ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a still-influential elder statesman, said the PEGIDA protests pandered to “hollow prejudices, xenophobia and intolerance”.
“But that is not Germany,” he added, while Germany’s national football team manager Oliver Bierhoff noted the 2014 World Cup winning squad had included many players with migrant family backgrounds.
Thousands joined counter-protests on Monday in cities such as Berlin, Stuttgart and Cologne, carrying placards such as one that read “Disgrace For Our Country”. Numbers at some demonstrations far outnumbered PEGIDA’s supporters.
In Berlin, around 5,000 took part in the anti-PEGIDA rally, compared to around 300 in support of the group.
Cologne’s imposing Gothic cathedral, carmaker VW’s plant in Dresden and the iconic Brandenburg Gate in the capital Berlin dimmed their lights in protest against PEGIDA, following the lead of Dresden’s Semper opera house a fortnight earlier.