Reporter: And what should they (the German government) change?
PEGIDA interviewee: That’s easy. Screen people for the exact reasons they’re coming here. A few days ago I was vilified for having said that the refugees in the Mediterranean should be intercepted instead of being lent a hand (in coming here). You know what they called me? A Nazi. The Australian government does exactly that! Are all Australians Nazis then? Looks like they must be!
- Dresden, 12 December 2014
Reductio ad Hitlerum is a rhetorical fallacy in which the user attempts to disprove or discredit an opponent’s argument through association with anything Nazi. It is often evoked as an ultimate refutation despite the fact it is hyperbolic as demonstrated by the quote above. Watching the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) saga unfold before me in Germany, I can’t help but be reminded of such reductionism. To deflect from their own charges of blatant or institutional racism, both PEGIDA and German politicians are continually referring to violent, marginal racists — typically neo-Nazis — as tools to legitimise ideas and actions. Underpinning this is a myth that prejudice and racism only exist on the fringes of society. As long as this myth remains in place, racism, in all its forms and in all it places, continues unaddressed.
The neo-Nazi or hooligan trope is probably familiar: a youngish man from a low social economic background and little education. In Germany, they are invariably associated with racist and anti-establishment ideas and actions. An example of the trope came in October last year when the ‘Hooligans Gegen Salifisten’ (‘Hooligans against Salifists’) ran riot through Cologne. Imagery of overturned police vehicles and blasting water cannons were published under headlines like ‘With Canned Beer against Police and Salafists’. In the German discussion, the neo-Nazi is a shorthand device for the idea of a real racist — someone violent, intractable and proud to proclaim their racism. However, another important aspect of this trope is that it locates racism outside of the mainstream. For both PEGIDA and politicians, it is important to uphold this myth that racism and racists exist as a small minority.
PEGIDA has successfully used this thinking to deflect accusations of racism. This has enabled the group to openly condemn racial-violence (as social norms dictate), yet tacitly condone the reasons behind it. Nowhere was this clearer than in the movement’s recent reaction to the murder of Eritrean refugee Khaled Idris Bahray. On the same night that PEGIDA marched with placards reading ‘Je suis Charlie’, Bahray was stabbed to death outside his Dresden flat not far from where the rally finished. Bahray’s housemates, who are too afraid to leave the flat on Monday nights, which are the nights PEGIDA holds their rallies, didn’t find his body until morning. He was lying in a pool of blood not far from his door with visible stab wounds to his neck and shoulders. Police began investigating racial motivations after it was established that swastikas and the words ‘we will get you all’ had been painted on his door only days before the attack.
Asked if there was any connection between this instance of racial violence and PEGIDA, co-organiser Kathrin Oertal reiterated her movement’s condemnation of all forms of violence, but added ‘if there is resentment on the streets of Dresden, it was there before we existed’. There are two important points to make here:
Firstly, claiming that ‘it was like that before we got here’ is weak, disingenuous rhetoric . Nevertheless, it distances PEGIDA from the suspected neo-Nazis who committed the crime. As such, the views associated with PEGIDA are unsullied, and the image of real racism remains with the marginal neo-Nazi trope. Secondly, while the violence is condemned, resentment of refugees is not. Nor was there elaboration on why a refugee would be resented in the first place let alone there being a discussion of the possibility that PEGIDA has added to such resentment.. Is the reason a refugee is stabbed to death supposed to be self-evident?
As PEGIDA emphasies how normal or mainstream they are, the neo-Nazi trope is also very important to act as a point of contrast. Thus, when Dresden Technical University published a paper in January, it came as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for PEGIDA:‘The ‘typical’ PEGIDA-demonstrator is middle-class, well-educated, employed, has above-average income when compared to the rest of Saxony, is 48-years-old, male, non-religious, has no party affiliation and comes from Dresden or Saxony.’
As a popular movement, PEGIDA claims legitimacy for its xenophobic and Islamophobic views by the very normalcy of its members. This legitimacy can only be maintained if the myth of racism exists only on the extremist fringes is maintained. Remove the myth, remove the legitimacy. To remain popular however, Germany’s leaders are reluctant to remove the myth and have therefore avoided directly targeting PEGIDA’s followers. Instead they have focused their criticisms on PEGIDA’s leaders, labelling them Rattenfängern as an allusion to the fabled pied-piper’s ability to lead people astray. Blaming only a few reinforces the myth that racism exists only in a small minority of the population.
Ralf Jäger of the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) came out early to ‘express concern that people from the middle of our society who have a fear of Islamisation’ were being hoodwinked by ‘neo-Nazis in pinstripes’. The implication is that right-wing extremism should simply leave quietly ignorant, Islamophobic people alone. Rather, there should be concern that people in the ‘middle’ of German society are Islamophobic in the first place. Chancellor Angela Merkel however, shared sentiments similar to Jäger’s in her New Year address:
I say to all those who go to such demonstrations, do not follow those who have called the rallies as all too often there is prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.
Merkel has repeatedly used strong rhetoric to condemn PEGIDA and unite Germany proclaiming at various times that there is ‘no room for xenophobia’ and ‘Islam belongs to Germany’. Yet Merkel herself has dog-whistled to the far-right before. Only recently did her party’s Bavarian counterpart attempt to introduce a law banning immigrants from speaking languages other than German at home. Such capriciousness does not sell sincerity, but capriciousness is the reality of politics. But the incumbent government is not just manoeuvring for short-term gains. Germany also has an important need to save face. After working diligently since the end of the Second World War to escape its racist stigma, the last thing anyone wants for Germany’s reputation is an admission of racism or xenophobia at the popular level. Thus, there is the propagation of the view that cold and hate-filled hearts are limited to a small section of the community.
To render only PEGIDA’s leaders as wolves and its supporters as mere sheep is a denial of wider racism. But there are no sheep here. By not calling racism what it is, it actually appears that politicians are allowing a bunch of middle-class wolves to don the innocence of sheep’s clothing — in effect encouraging their prejudices to proliferate. How can anything be addressed if a large part of those exhibiting racism are excused of their actions? When a talking-head like Nikolaus Blome says, ‘the clear red line between the conservative middle class and the far right seems to be fading. (And) that is not good news’, we could ask: what red line? Racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia are not exclusive to any particular political persuasion and concepts like ‘red lines’ only reinforce a frame that would have us believe otherwise. We should instead remind ourselves why, how and for whom these myths and generalisations are used, lest we remain blind to other broader and more prevalent instances of racism.
Although they come at them from different angles, PEGIDA and politicians use the sheer malignance of neo-Nazis to obscure the prejudice of others. Unfortunately, the fact remains that prejudice in Germany’s society cannot be amended before it is acknowledged to exist überalles. Of course, Germany is not a special case — northern Europe’s swing towards nationalist popular sentiments is particularly disquieting. Yet watching the PEGIDA saga unfold I can’t help but think of my home country on the other side of the world, especially when our own treatment of refugees is upheld as a good example by people whom I detest.