As the left in Australia faces the need to organise against escalating racism from mainstream politicians and the far right, important lessons can be learned from anti-racist struggles across the world.
Sibylle Kaczorek is a Socialist Alliance activist now living in Melbourne who was active in anti-racist campaigns in Germany. She spoke to Green Left Weekly's Nick Fredman.
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Despite Germany officially becoming an anti-fascist state after World War II, there have been continuing connections between the far right and the state haven’t there?
There have been many neo-Nazi groups in Germany since World War II. There’s one large far right party, the National Party of Germany (NPD), that many people see as a neo-Nazi group. They’ve gained parliamentary positions in some of the states. There have been moves to ban them.
Whatever position people may have on banning far right parties, the interesting thing is that when the move to ban the party was brought to the courts in 2003, the court had to suspend the application because it uncovered intelligence agents in the NPD leadership.
The state had been actively engaged in leading a far right party for years. The legislative attempt to ban the party could not proceed, which caused a huge outcry.
The state is also very active working against anti-racists. On the other hand, the far right of all types have received protection whenever they’ve mobilised. But in 2010 and 2011, in the lead-up to a far-right march in Dresden, there were efforts by authorities to stop the anti-fascists mobilising. Security forces confiscated posters in Berlin and Dresden, arrested and charged parliamentarians who were putting up posters, shut down the anti-fascist website and stopped buses going to the protest.
The courts were involved as well, for example removing parliamentary immunity of Die Linke (The Left) party MPs so they could be charged for taking part in civil disobedience.
Neo-Nazi rallies in Dresden had been growing leading up to 2011 hadn’t they?
Three months before to the end of World War II, there was a huge bombing campaign by the allied forces on Dresden, which caused a huge loss of civilian life.
That event has been used by the far right to rewrite history and present Germans as the victims of the war, and minimise the Holocaust. Dresden has become a gathering point for the far right.
The city is also in the east and 25 years after unification, people in Germany's east are still disadvantaged compared to those in the west in terms of unemployment and wages.
There has been a huge social crisis in the east that the far right exploits. This includes consciously moving to the east and recruiting young people.
In the late 1990s, the far right organised the first rallies in Dresden on the February 13 anniversary of the fire bombing. By 2009, the rallies had grown to involve 7000 people.
How did anti-racist forces organise successfully to stop them?
Initially the anti-racist, anti-fascist mobilisations were organised locally in Dresden. Because the far right started organising nationally, and the rallies started growing, by 2008, anti-racists realised this was a national issue and began mobilising nationally.
Two groups were organising at that point. One was direct action-focused, was more militant and was led by anarchists. The second group was broader, more community based, mass protest focused. It was made up of unions, political parties and youth organisations.
They had two different strategies and organised separately. For the 2008 Dresden Nazi rally, the direct action group organised 4000 people, the broader group had around 12,000. So the Nazis were outnumbered significantly.
But because of the two different strategies and the two groups not really organising collectively, the Nazis marched unhindered, protected by the police. After the day, both groups accepted it was a defeat and learned from the experience.
A new alliance was set up before the 2009 Dresden rally, unifying all forces willing to take meaningful action against fascism. At its heart was an “action consensus” involving concessions on both sides.
From 2009, this alliance successfully stopped the Nazis from marching. In 2010 and 2011, the police were obliged to stop the Nazis, and in 2012 the Nazis cancelled their own march because they realised they wouldn’t win against the anti-fascist forces.
More recently we’re seen the rise of the Islamophobic Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA). Where did this movement came from and what does it stands for?
The PEGIDA movement is an expression and reflection of mainstream politics. Since 2001 and the “War on Terror”, Muslim people have been presented as enemies and as terrorists. In Germany, this ignores the fact that far-right groups like the fascist underground group (NSU) pursued a killing spree of migrants over a period of six years up to 2006 and that violent attacks by Christian fundamentalists are far more common, especially against women.
This fear — and the view that somehow migrants and refugees are to blame for social ills caused by spending cuts and the like — has provided fertile ground for PEGIDA.
The founders of PEGIDA had no connections to organised far-right groups and in fact actively tried to distance themselves from such groups. Their racism specifically singles out Muslim people.
However, their slogans clearly highlight their fight against pretty much anyone who doesn't agree with Western Judeo-Christian values, frequently targeting refugees and migrants.
PEGIDA seemed to appear overnight late last year, organised largely via social media. It imploded somewhat early this year when a key founding member was reported in the media impersonating Hitler.
But it is clear that far-right groups are hoping to make use of the sentiment expressed through PEGIDA and to exploit it for their own ends.
How are anti-racists organising against PEGIDA?
The PEGIDA movement has been very uneven across the country. Dresden has again become the prime location for far right mobilisations. In many cities in Germany's west, hundreds — at most — have attended PEGIDA marches, but in Dresden the numbers reached 25,000 people.
In almost all cases, counter-demonstrations were larger than PEGIDA marches.
Weekly far right mobilisations have been organised on Mondays in Dresden that attract between 2000 and 4000 people.
A new local anti-racist group seems to have been set up called “Dresden for All”, but it doesn't appear to organise weekly counter-demonstrations. The most recent large scale mobilisation of PEGIDA was mid-April when the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders was invited to speak.
About 10,000 people attended the rally, countered by 3000 anti-racists. For this mobilisation, the previous alliance “Dresden Nazi Free” that succeeded in stopping the annual far-right mobilisations in 2010 moved into action again.
It seems, though that the anti-racist groups and the left in general have not totally come to terms with the PEGIDA phenomena in Dresden and that no clear strategy has been developed yet.
I suspect that this may depend on the strengthening of the far-right within PEGIDA and their ability to sustain the level of mobilisations.
[This is an abridged transcript of an interview conducted for Green Left Radio on July 10. Listen to Green Left Radio live each Friday 8-8:30am, in Melbourne on 855 AM or 3CR Digital and from anywhere via 3CR live streaming. Or listen to most recent episode.]