Understanding Pegida: fear for cultural change as political drive

The reaction in Germany to the rise of Pegida (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes) was predominantly one of shock and shame. How could Germans, of all people, after their bitter history, fall for xenophobia? The indignation was prominent across the board, and everyone seemed to condemn this new movement, from conservatives to liberals, from industry leaders to religious clerics. So when Pegida began to crumble, mainly because of their leaders falling from grace, and their momentum petered out, there was a collective sigh of relief. It had been a flash in the pan after all. Or had it?

Seeing Pegida as a flash in the pan, or even as only xenophobic would be far too shallow an analysis. First of all: several polls (e.g. TNS Emnid in December 2014) showed that a substantial part of the Germans were sympathetic to the Pegida demonstrations, and many Germans (65% according to a TNS Infratest poll from 2014) thought that their governments didn’t address their concerns about immigration issues. More tangibly, the Pegida canididate in the local elections in Dresden surprisingly won some 10% of the votes in June 2015. So, even if Pegida as a movement proves to be only temporarily successful in mobilizing people, the undercurrent carrying it may well be more enduring.

So, even if Pegida as a movement proves to be only temporarily successful in mobilizing people, the undercurrent carrying it may well be more enduring.

And that undercurrent may also not be solely xenophobia, or to put it more mildly, concerns about the effects of immigration. To be fair, Pegida did stress their opposition versus Islam (it’s even part of their name), and the main concern speaking from their 2014 manifesto is clearly immigration in general, and that of Muslims more specifically. However, what also shines through is the fear of losing the own culture.

When the Fortuyn-revolt occurred in the Netherlands in the early 2000s, also labelled as populist and xenophobic, a similar analysis was made. And subsequently an unexpected and confronting question arose: what is this Dutch culture then? If a ‘receiving’ country wants its immigrants to integrate or assimilate, to what values should they actually assimilate? To the cosmopolitan and liberal values the Dutch were renowned for and in reality were only held by those with a higher-than-average education, or to the more conservative values people the middle classes adhered to? What followed was a fierce and sometimes derailing debate, that unearthed the lack of consensus on what is typical, essential for Dutch culture. Interestingly enough, stating this very point, caused the then princess Maxima of the Netherlands to receive an avalanche of criticism: how had she dared to say that ‘the Dutchman/Dutchwoman’ doesn’t exist?

Similarly, the Pegida manifesto reflects this confusion, presenting a hodgepodge of sometimes almost contradictory values. For instance, in the manifesto there is a clear objection against ‘gender mainstreaming’, while simultaneously ‘misogynic’ political ideologies are rejected. And a closer look at this manifesto, shows that although 14 of the 19 bullets are about what the movement is ‘for’, it actually consists of what they are against: cultural change.

Pegida is the manifestation of the fear that everything will change for the worse.

Pegida is the manifestation of the fear that everything will change for the worse. It’s the resentment against a European Union that meddles with the Reinheitsgebot (the traditional German regulations with regard to beer in order to maintain its purity), against laws that outlaw traditional sexism, against the changing of the look of their neighbourhoods, and against those who are seemingly responsible for this: the immigrants, ‘the elites’ who let those immigrants come without demanding them to assimilate, while demanding ‘politicall correctness’ and ‘tolerance’ from them, ‘the people’. And this picture doesn’t only apply for Pegida and for Germany, the sentiment is virtually the same for supporters of movements and parties such as the Dutch PVV, the Danish Folkeparti, or UKIP in England (e.g. Immerzeel et al., 2013; Webb & Bale, 2014). As the eminent political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi points out (Kriesi, 2010), there are new social cleavages now, that no longer (only) follow the traditional socio-economic lines of class, but those demarcated by cultural values.

There is nothing new about this analysis, and still sensible people are failing to understand and act upon it. To be clear, acting upon the fears of people like the supporters of Pegida, doesn’t mean implementing draconian immigration laws, such as in Denmark or the Netherlands. Acting upon such fears begins with unpackaging them first. This will show that contemporary xenophobia is actually a prime example of a correlation (the simultaneous occurrence of two events) falsely being seen (or presented) as a causal relation. The cultural changes the worried conservatives resent have occurred simultaneously with the advent of the most recent waves of immigration, but the immigrants have not caused these changes. Instead, it were the same factors that caused and allowed immigration, and that independently iniated the transformation of regional and national cultures to more streamlined, universal cultures: the gradual shift from a collectivist to an individualist society, from an agricultural to an industrial, from a society in which knowledge is hard to attain to one in which it is freely available. So in the end, maybe a German is to blame after all: Johannes Gutenberg.




Immerzeel, T., Jaspers, E., & Lubbers, M. (2013). Religion as Catalyst or Restraint of Radical Right Voting?. West European Politics36(5), 946-968. doi:10.1080/01402382.2013.797235

Kriesi, H. (2010). Restructuration of Partisan Politics and the Emergence of a New Cleavage Based on Values. West European Politics33(3), 673-685. doi:10.1080/01402381003654726

Webb, P., & Bale, T. (2014). Why Do Tories Defect to UKIP? Conservative Party Members and the Temptations of the Populist Radical Right. Political Studies62(4), 961-970. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12130


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