Racism vs. Rococo: The anti-immigration party Pegida demonstrated in Dresden earlier this year (Kalispera Dell)
Germany is a country that continues to make me uncomfortable. I was born and raised here, and even if I lived abroad for almost ten years, my base now is Berlin, the city I grew up in. This spring, it's been four years exactly since I came back and by all accounts I should have settled back into my German sensibilities and let my Anglo-American mannerisms be all but fond memories of a different time in my life. Why should I still have issues with my home country?
Last month saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. I have studied how the Second World War plays a role in today's memorial culture. But not much can prepare you for the real thing and the twisted ways in which some aspects of history seem forgotten from one moment to the next.
It was only last autumn that I first visited Dresden, on a spontaneous trip with a friend, the city being just a two-hour drive east. I was struck by the city's beauty, its Florentine charm and slightly shabby grandeur, a pleasing change from the grey, spread-out architectural mess that Berlin now is for the most part.
It is striking how little of the bombing and the ensuing firestorm is visible today—this part of the city's past seemed oddly eradicated, at least for the visitor to the recently renovated city centre, despite the fact that more than 25,000 civilians were killed there, many of whom burnt to death. Dresden's atmosphere seemed prosperous and welcoming, just as the local accent is a soft and warm one.
Then, only weeks later, it all shifted, seemingly like a bolt from the blue. Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) began to march through Dresden's baroque and rococo streets. The movement had been founded only in October by a fortysomething man (who would later pose as Hitler and then resign as leader) and quickly attracted thousands of supporters, peaking at 25,000 at one point in early January.
Exactly what their agenda was never quite materialised: anti-immigrant, with more hidden, xenophobic and sometimes openly racist undertones, it seemed to straddle a peculiar line between a minority of far-right racists and middle-class citizens concerned about the sudden influx of refugees and the rise of Islamism.
The mainstream quickly raised its concerns about the movement. Chancellor Angela Merkel accused its leaders of promoting hatred, the Council of Jews in Germany called the movement dangerous, the floodlights of Cologne Cathedral were switched off in protest against a Pegida march, the biggest German newspaper, the tabloid Bild, launched a petition. In short, the country was uncharacteristically swift in reacting with strong public opposition.