Insults and Nazi comparisons fly in Germany's PEGIDA row
PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann accused the German justice minister of being "one of the worst intellectual arsonists since Goebbels." He almost faced criminal charges - and one lawyer thinks that's an admission of defeat.
The level of Germany's political debate about PEGIDA has long since reached the stage defined by Godwin's Law: that in any argument, sooner or later someone or something will be compared to Hitler or the Third Reich. But perhaps the surprise is that the self-styled "anti-Islamization" movement, which has experienced a resurgence in the wake of a new refugee influx, is the side that indulges most often in Third Reich comparisons - mostly with the current German government as the target.
Banners bearing images of Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed as Adolf Hitler have become a fixture at PEGIDA's weekly "strolls" in the eastern city of Dresden, and at the first anniversary demo on October 19, the speaker Akif Pirincci triggered outrage - and subsequently lost his publishing contracts - after he suggested the German government would like to put anyone opposing immigration into a concentration camp.
Heiko Maas declined to press charges
On Monday night, PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann continued the tradition, telling the Dresden crowd that German Justice Minister Heiko Maas was "one of the worst intellectual arsonists since Goebbels." Maas opted not to press charges on the PEGIDA leader, even though Dresden state prosecutors confirmed on Tuesday that they had started a defamation investigation and collected evidence.
No court case
Maas' colleagues in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) sprang belligerently to his defense, some calling for a criminal investigation into Bachmann. "Our excellent Justice Minister Heiko Maas doesn't have to let himself be compared to the Nazi Goebbels by the wretched PEGIDA rabble-rouser Bachmann," tweeted SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner.
For his part, Bachmann defended his statement on Tuesday: "It wasn't a comparison - listen to the original. I said 'since,' " he told DW, before refusing to comment further. But on his Facebook page, Bachmann was equally defiant: "Even if the Shariah Party of Germany (SPD) and the entire press hit the ceiling and demand a hundred thousand investigations, YOU WILL NOT SILENCE ME!" he posted. "I will continue to speak my opinion openly, because hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 1989 for that, as I did too, at a tender 16 years of age!" (The 1989 reference is no accident - as part of claims that its speaks for the German people, PEGIDA has consistently associated its "Monday demos" with the mass protest marches in East Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall).
In his statement, Bachmann went on to accuse Maas of "hate speech" for saying that he preferred to talk to "simple people," rather than PEGIDA leaders.
Grounds for defamation?
Meanwhile, regional SPD deputy leader Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel told the press agency DPA, "Enemies of the constitution like Bachmann are a clear case for the state prosecutor and have long been a case for the constitutional protection office [Germany's domestic intelligence agency]." He also referred to Bachmann as a "far-right criminal," and argued, "The hate of PEGIDA prepares the ground for the hooligan packs who attack refugees or set homes on fire."
SPD General Secretary Yasmin Fahimi was more succinct, condemning Bachmann as a "crazy fascist" to "Der Spiegel" magazine.
Third Reich comparisons have become staple at PEGIDA rallies
Horst Meier, jurist and author of a book on banning the far-right National Democratic Party, believes it's long since time for Germany to re-think its free speech laws. "Maas is doing well not to press charges," he told DW. "It would just hand Bachmann an exquisite political process - of course he would just play the persecuted innocent."
"The whole thing is an admission of poverty for the political culture in Germany," he said. "Freedom of speech is limited in Germany in many aspects - the 'hate speech' paragraphs etc. A real robust political debate in Germany is not in sight at all - they think of a state prosecutor straight away. Instead of trying to counter him politically, the first thing they ask is, 'is he allowed to say that?' "Not to defend Bachmann, it's awful what he said."
This is not a case of personal defamation, says Meier: Of course insults are prosecutable in other countries, but we're in the political sphere here. When 20,000 people turn up to PEGIDA's first anniversary, that is a clear political problem - and it shows a certain helplessness when good people in Germany, who I have sympathy with, give the impression that those people shouldn't be allowed to exist."