La Grande Bellezza

I recently watched Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and am in awe. The film is worth seeing, if only for the glamorous scenes of Rome it offers. Read any blog about this film, and you are guaranteed to see overtures to the imagery. I had never had a particular interest in traveling to Rome; after viewing this film, however, Italy just got bumped to the top of my bucket-list.

Many of the reviews of The Great Beauty focus on the film’s similarity to La Dolce Vita. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen La Dolce Vita, but the best explanation I’ve read is: “‘Beauty’ can be read as an update of ‘La Dolce Vita,’ but while it is definitely Fellini-esque, it’s also a crystallization of Sorrentino’s own distinctive style.” Sorrentino’s style certainly is unique: the film’s main character, Jep Gambardella, lives in the heart of Rome, spending his time going to parties and living the kind of life most of us only dream about. Accompanying Jep is a whole list of unique characters, all of whom have what some might call character defects, who live in a contemporary world of decadence.

The film is simultaneously uplifting and sad. On the one hand, the images of Rome are beautiful. These fantastic views are accompanied by a diverse soundtrack; there’s plenty of dance music and classical music, as well as some contemporary pieces. The music contributes greatly to the mood, as is evident during one scene at a roof-top party. Throughout the film, the mood is brought down by a choir singing “The Lamb,” which starts off mellow enough, but by the end, becomes melancholy.

The Great Beauty resonated well with me, largely because of the cynicism and apathy it presents the viewer. Throughout the film, Jep is amazed at the hypocrisy of those around him; so many people think they’re better than the rest, and that they should be praised for their accomplishments. At one point, Jep has heard enough and calmly insults a pompous acquaintance for her hypocrisy, finishing the conversation by stating: “We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little…don’t you agree?”

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http://b-iff.ro/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/la-grande-bellezza.jpg

 

The film also shows how love can affect us. Forty years prior, Jep had been in love with a girl, who he learns has died. The love that Jep lost out on haunts him; it affects his relationships with other women, and thrusts him into deep moments of nostalgic regret. Jep, at age 65 realizes that he has possibly lived a life void of fulfillment, and concludes that he can no longer live his life doing things he isn’t really interested in doing.

The Great Beauty is about viewing life in retrospect and realizing that we’ve made mistakes and need to change the way we live. For Jep, this means turning the page and embarking on a journey that will hopefully bring him fulfillment. I’d highly recommend this film for the scenery alone. Film buffs are sure to enjoy it, given Sorrentino’s unique style of filming, use of color, and music. Fashionistas will undoubtedly enjoy the film; Jep’s bespoke wardrobe should be the envy of any well-dressed man. The women and the clothes they wear, are well, beautiful. What strikes me the most though, is the film’s message: We’re all unhappy, but be nice to one another, and enjoy life’s absurd moments of love, humor, and beauty.

Tainted Love: Germany, Greece, and the Economic Blame Game

By Hayden Huff, David Campbell, Jacob Diamond, and C.T. Souder 

Hayden Huff:

In 1999 seventeen countries transitioned from individual economies to one financial system known as the European Union. The newly found Euro provided a currency that unified many countries, tearing down tariffs, trade boundaries, and promoting free trade throughout Europe.

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However, excessive spending and poor fiscal habits followed quickly. Many countries were guilty of this spending, especially Greece and Portugal. When times were good in the early years of the union this was not a huge problem. Banks offered cheap loans which caused the public sectors of many countries to become bloated. When the financial crisis hit in the year of 2008, the euro was crippled and the debt that countries such as Portugal, Italy, and Greece became insurmountable.

Today, Greece and Portugal continue to struggle with massive debt, even after billions of dollars in payouts had been granted to both countries by the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European commission. Help was also provided through a temporary system called the European Financial Stability committee. Aid was needed by these countries because it became too expensive to borrow in open markets in the Union. High rates for lending nearly toppled the Euro as a whole.

Italy and Spain also experienced trouble in large public debt and a crushing housing bubble respectively. Tentative investors and weary bankers drove interest rates through the roof which crippled lending. The problem with a connected system like the European Union is that trouble in the countries listed above does not only affect those countries, it also compromises economic growth in countries such as Germany and France who have kept their spending in check. The Euro experienced large amounts of deflation here by deflating assets and values of everything across the Union.

Although the Union is a good idea for trade and business, it also forces countries like Germany and France to step in and grant aid where they otherwise may not have deemed necessary because collapse of one country in the Union could mean collapse of the Union as a whole. In recent months EU leaders have met in an attempt to set up a sustainable system for countries that struggle with spending to maintain healthy levels of debt and some progress has been made, although much more work is needed primarily in Greece.

Works Cited:

Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. LouisI. “The Financial Crisis and the Future of the Eurozone.” The Financial Crisis and the Future of the Eurozone. IDEAS, Dec. 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

De Grauwe, Paul, Crisis in the Eurozone and how to Deal with It (February 15, 2010). CEPS Policy Brief No. 204. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1604453

Bloomberg Business. “The European Debt Crisis Visualized.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

David Campbell:

martensen

http://www.thesurvivalpodcast.com/images/chrism.jpg

 

Ever heard that too much love can kill you? Well, Greece and a number of other countries within the EU have got gout. They’ve been whittling away at their own finances, slowly consuming themselves until nothing is left.

Chris Martenson wrote that the Greek crisis is of grave importance, not because of the relatively small impact it will have financially, but the precedent of Greece welching on their promise to pay back their debt – and getting away with it. Let me explain. Greece is not the only country in this situation. Several other European nations have large amounts of debt, which they can now pick up and throw into the ocean, not unlike a cinder-block tied to the leg of the guy who ticked off the mob.

Greece, for the purposes of this metaphor, is being boiled in a pot of hot water. The hard-left Greek leadership appear to wish to escape by digging down and out through the fire. By implementing anti-austerity measures, they are essentially driving up the debt further and hoping that Germany, in their infinite compassion, will send them a BFC (Big Fat Check). Or else, they risk an entire government receiving their termination notices.

Syriza has, according to Martenson, dared to say that their debt was unpayable. Much of the world has traded bonds and securities that are based on the currencies of that nation. Essentially, these non-existent widgets have value because we give them value. By saying that the debt is unpayable, this gives incentive for these other countries to employ these measures in order to prevent the weight of this debt to be passed on to the people of their own countries.

Bankrupting your country and then making the citizenry foot the bill? Not exactly a great idea, historically speaking.

Jacob Diamond:

Many people are of the opinion that Greece will be able to rebound from the European financial issues, and in the end be better off for them. And recently Greece’s economic status has been proving this somewhat correct.

For the first time in nearly 6 years, in 2014 the Greek economy began to grow again. This is largely due to all the Austerity measures demanded to be put in place by the more economically sound European countries, such as Germany. This has had a big-brother effect on Greece, similar to making a kid eat their vegetables. Greece has been forced to make adjustments to their economy, making them more financially sound and stable. The largest change in the economy is thanks to the recovery of private consumption.

Greece has traditionally been known as a largely leftist country. However this economic crisis has forced the country to learn and implement policy that makes them much more fiscally responsible and independent in the future. The citizens are learning that they cannot continue borrowing money without paying it back.

Greece is taking the correct steps to become more fiscally responsible. If they continue down their current road and use this crisis as a learning situation they will continue to improve and be much better off as a country.

C.T. Souder:

krugman

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Of all the commentary covering the Sovereign Debt Crisis, Paul Krugman’s is my favorite. I don’t read Krugman’s blogs because I agree with him; I disagree with many of his views. Instead, I read his blogs because the tone with which he writes is entertaining. It may make my blood boil, but that’s part of creating my own informed view.

In the blogosphere, the hardest pushback against Krugman comes from Forbes. Here’s a broad analysis of the issue: Krugman writes and blogs for the left-leaning New York Times. His credentials make him an appealing authority on all things economic. When it comes to the Sovereign Debt Crisis, Krugman blames Germany for exacerbating the plight of the Greeks. Krugman attempts to articulate the German outlook thus: “We pulled ourselves out of our late 90s doldrums…so why can’t Southern Europe do the same?” Various writers for the conservative-leaning Forbes have criticized Krugman on several fronts. Forbes holds the view that Germany is being unfairly criticized and pressured to fund the Greek economy, which for all intents and purposes is on financial life-support. Krugman’s tone, his statistics, and overall opinions come under harsh criticism.

Forbes’s style of writing is personal. Regarding Krugman, the writers at Forbes go for the throat. They question his credentials, accuse him of believing in bad economics, and even go so far as to say Krugman has an “inherent dislike of economic success.”

In response, Krugman takes the high road. He doesn’t attack the writers at Forbes; he doesn’t accuse them of inadequate or farcical statistics. Rather, Krugman further elaborates on his original points. His style of rebuttal is to repeat his original talking point, then explain in-depth, why he is right. This is an interesting strategy, because it can give the impression that this debate is taking place between an adolescent and an adult. Krugman is the adult who provides an argument, while Forbes resorts to name-calling. Krugman doesn’t respond to the name-calling; he knows that his point will have more impact if he simply repeats himself over and over again. The online economic debate relating to the Greek crisis is a microcosm of what is occurring on the international stage: no one is willing to admit the other might be right. Compromise seems ever less likely. The question for Germany and Greece has boiled down to this: who is going walk away first? At one time Germany and Greece benefitted from one another. Now, however, their economic relationship is tainted.

 

 

Till Lindemann: Frontman, Pyromaniac, Poet

I enter the gym and prepare to stretch. I can’t work out without music, and since the MU Rec Center’s choice of tunes troubles me (Katy Perry? Really?), I opt for my own. The sound of clanking weights and the exaggerated grunts of meatheads are suddenly drowned out. An a capella enclosed harmony begins, followed by an ominous voice: “Wer wartet mit Bessonenheit, der wird belohnt zur rechten Zeit. Nun das Warten hat ein Ende, leiht eure Ohr einer Legende.”* (Whoever waits patiently will be rewarded when the time is right. Now the waiting has an end, lend your ears to a legend.) The Teutonic, wrath-inspired music I’m listening to is Rammstein, whose style would not be possible without its lead singer, Till Lindemann.

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Source: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m9lmd7s8t01ra1hkmo1_500.jpg

 

Chances are you’ve at least heard of Rammstein. You may even know their most famous song, Du Hast (You have). The band produces a unique blend of contemporary progressions, contrasted with hard, industrial rock. Rammstein began as a collection of former East Germans, singing in their recently re-unified country. The band now sells out concerts from Perth to Tokyo, New York to Mexico City, and countless locations in Europe. Their success is undeniably the result of their unique style in music, which of course would not be possible without the voice of Till Lindemann. Keep in mind that in the original German, Rammstein’s texts rhyme and are poetic. Translations of their songs rarely grasp the full meaning of the lyrics, especially since Lindemann writes in a complicated fashion that often makes use of puns and riddles.

Lindemann’s contribution to Rammstein is two-fold: he almost exclusively authors the lyrics to Rammstein’s songs, and is the lead actor in its live performances. His singing style combines guttural articulations and more proper traditional singing. This combination is enhanced by Lindemann’s baritone-bass vocal range. It is also complicated by the content of the lyrics.

Lindemann writes about subjects such as politics, sadomasochism, love, heaven, violence, incest, hate, sex, mourning, disaster, homosexuality, cannibalism, and more. These topics often result in controversy. The band seems to relish such controversy, or they wouldn’t continue to base their self-described art on controversial topics. I would argue that their style of music is the product of being former East German citizens. Their style is rebellious, and the more people are offended by them, the better.

Till-3

Source: http://www.jurnalrock.ro/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Till-3.jpg

 

A perfect example of this is the song Bück Dich (Bend Down), which explicitly deals with gay sex. When this song was released in the mid-90s, I suspect the Internet was lacking in accurate translations of the song’s meaning. As a result, non-German speaking listeners wouldn’t have known that what they were listening to was a graphic depiction of gay sex. Only when seeing it performed live were audiences able to ascertain what the song was about. Lindemann, leading the band’s keyboardist onstage bound and gagged (bondage itself is not a topic in the song lyrics), then later simulating sex with him, provided a performance that didn’t need a translation.

Another aspect of Rammstein’s performances are their use of pyrotechnics. Fire doesn’t need a translation. Lindemann often ascends the stage in a specially designed coat that is set aflame. Or he uses a flamethrower. Or he shoots arrows from a flaming crossbow. This is something that Lindemann loves because he is uncomfortable about being on stage and having nothing to do. Rammstein’s fireworks are a huge factor in the band’s concert success. Without it, I doubt that non-German speaking audiences would be as inclined to attend a Rammstein show.

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Source: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m7rhrqK1iU1qi4zlto5_1280.jpg

 

Another facet of Lindemann’s style is his engagement with the crowd. The admittedly shy Lindemann often finds support from the crowd, who will sing the choruses to popular songs or shout key phrases on Lindemann’s command. This is not unique to German crowds, but occurs with foreign audiences as well. In Spanish speaking countries, Lindemann doesn’t need to sing Te Quiero Puta (I love you whore): the audience does it for him. Additionally, during songs such as Ich Will (I want), Lindemann will ask the crowd: “Can you hear me? Can you see me? Can you feel me?” Each question receives a resounding response from the crowd: “We hear you! We see you! We feel you!”

As the author of the band’s texts, Lindemann has demonstrated a poetic side. With Du Hast (You have), Lindemann states that “You have me,” however the lyrics are not quite so simple. In German, du hast does mean “you have,” however when spoken, du hast sounds exactly like du hasst. The latter, with two s’s, actually means “you hate.” Thus, when Lindemann speaks the words, “du hast mich,” the listener can interpret the song either way. During live performances Lindemann doesn’t try to dispel the confusion of his words. Distraught, he recites wedding vows gone awry, making it clear that no, he does not want to be faithful for the rest of his days. Du Hast is what made Rammstein famous worldwide, as is evidenced by this Glee inspired a capella rendition found here.

Since Rammstein has often been accused of being a Nazi band, Lindemann wrote a song detailing the band’s political stance in Links 234 (Left 234). During live performances Lindemann will march onstage in military fashion, though he makes it clear when singing: “They want my heart to beat on the right, but I look down and see it beating on the left.” Lindemann’s commentary is also unrelenting when it comes to geographic location. He sings about America, Mexico, Paris, and Moscow. He refers to the Russian capitol as a “harlot”, which is the “most beautiful city in the world,” but will only provide you with a good time if you pay her.

Lindemann can also show his softer side. Casting away the guttural barking, Lindemann hints at his own relationship woes in Ohne Dich (Without you), a depressing song accompanied by a string interlude: “Ohne dich kann ich nicht sein, ohne dich. Mit dir bin ich auch allein, ohne dich. Ohne dich zähl’ ich die Stunden, ohne dich. Mit dir stehen die Sekunden, lohne nicht.” (Without you I cannot be, without you. With you I’m also alone, without you. Without you I count the hours, without you. With you the seconds stand still, no reward.) Another example of love-angst would be Seemann (Sailor), where Lindemann bids a female companion to seek salvation through him. Lindemann even lent his talents to the band Apocalytica, singing the German version to David Bowie’s Heroes. It is interesting to hear the lyrics to this song in German, given the fact that Bowie’s version of Hereos was written in a divided Berlin. Lindemann singing about standing by the Berlin Wall, all the while kissing his lover, is touching given his history in Communist Germany.

Lindemann has now embarked on a solo project, leaving fans wondering what his new work will be. Lindemann admits to having a tortured soul, which comes to light in Haifisch (Shark): “And the shark has tears, and they run down his face. But the shark lives in water, so you can’t see his tears.” The chorus to Haifisch is a play on Bertolt Brecht’s lyrics in Mack the Knife. I suspect that Lindemann’s solo work will produce similar ideas. Torment can be productive, and in Lindemann’s case, he channels that torment into poetry and performing. Whether he can produce the same type of live shows on his own is another question. His writing style, however, is likely to remain complicated and controversial.

Rammstein

Source: http://www.rammstein.us/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Rammstein.jpg

 

*Though I speak German, I would like to give credit for song translations to: Herzeleid.com & Affenknecht.

Russia, Right-Wing Extremism, and the Threat to European Unity

By David Campbell & C.T. Souder 

The response on the part of Europe’s extreme right-wing towards Russia’s posturing has been, well, positive. In nearly all instances, the extreme right has at the very least voiced support for Russian policy. Voices like those of Marien le Pen (France) and Viktor Orban (Hungary) have added to the narrative that Russia is involved in a culture war, both domestically and abroad.

In some cases, as with the Front National in France, political parties have courted (and received) financial support from Russian banks. Cash-strapped political parties and their receipt of financial assistance from Russia, causes concern for a larger problem. What would happen if Greece left the EU? Would they too, only on a national level, court the financial assistance of Russian banks and/or government? Though all parties involved maintain their own self-interests, it is to the benefit of those same parties combined, to sew the seeds of discord within the EU.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been positioning his country for closer ties with Russia. Orban represents a type of Hungarian nationalism. Though Hungary is part of the European Union, Orban’s government (which until recently enjoyed a two-thirds parliamentary majority) is increasingly involved in efforts that seperate it from its EU counterparts. Orban unabashedly advocates for a Hungary free of western influence; Orban’s goal is for Hungary to be a self-sufficient state both economically and militarily. This sense of independence, even superiority, is not exactly compatible with EU ideals.

Orban: http://budapestbeacon.com/politics/viktor-orbans-speech-and-gordon-bajnais-rejoinder/

 

Whereas the EU would argue what is in the interest of one member must also be in the interest of Union, Orban would argue that what is best for the Union is not always best for Hungary. Orban does not agree with the EU’s stance towards Russia, hence his relationship with Vladimir Putin has grown closer.
Hungary’s relationship with Russia is not merely the result of an international culture war, though it certainly has an impact. More than anything, economics are what drive Orban and his party to court Russian approval. Hungary’s energy needs are largely dependent on Russia and if Orban has his way, Russian energy will continue to be the main supplier for energy needs in Hungary. Orban is actively seeking a nuclear deal with Russia, despite the disapproval of the the EU and the Hungarian opposition. Should this deal come to fruition, it will further cement Hungary’s relationship with Russia. The proposed energy deal between Hungary and Russia is an example of open defiance of the EU. It appears that when the EU is inclined to deny certain actions on the part of member-states, Russia is more than happy to assist in making such actions become reality.

In terms of right-wing goals, Orban is the only representative of such interests who posseses the ability to realize those interests at the national level. Orban’s rule as Prime Minister puts him in the unique position of being able to enact policy, in favor of or opposed to EU standards. This reality is precisely what gains him international intention, both from the west and from the east. Hungary is now situated between two ideologies: liberal democracy and authoritarian, nationalist rule. Other member-states of the EU see a Hungary that is governing in contrast to western political values. Hungary supports the sanctions against Russia, although this stance is tenuous at best. Vladimir Putin visited Hungary last month, where he received a warm welcome. Orban openly supports Putin and seeks to emulate the current style of Putin’s governance.

Other extreme right parties in Europe are positioning themselves for closer ties with Putin as well. Marien la Pen of France’s Front National (FN) is not shy about her support of Russian policy. Perhaps it is better stated that she is not shy about her lack of support for the EU. La Pen embodies the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus, her party’s hard line positions, which cause revulsion among many in Europe, are cause for support in Russia. La Pen is positioned now, perhaps more than ever, to become a viable force in French politics. She knows this, as does Putin. Accordingly, La Pen does not criticize Putin’s annexation of the Crimea, nor his involvement in the broader Ukrainian Civil War. In fact, le Pen is openly critical of what she considers to be the EU’s role in creating the Ukrainian crisis. She insists that the EU forced the Ukraine to choose between the west and Russia; such a choice, in her own estimation, was bound to result in a crisis, given the ethnic and cultural connection that much of the Ukraine shares with Russia.

RASSEMBLEMENT DU FRONT NATIONAL AU PALAIS ROYAL

La Pen: https://www.cambridgelibertarians.org.uk/blog/2013/no-platform-for-marine-le-pen-a-response/

 

Marine la Pen has also supported Russia’s stance towards Syria. Russia favors the current regime of Bashar al Assad, however such support is not assisting in the fight against ISIS. La Pen and Putin also share a disdain of the EU institution as a whole. It only makes sense then, that La Pen would receive a Forty-million Euro loan from Russian banks. In desperate need of cash-flow, it is in Russia’s best interest to see a euro-skeptic, nationalist, and above all else, Russophone party achieve tangible results. The relationship is mutually beneficial. FN gains international political support and Russia plants one more, disruptive seed in the EU. Hungary and France are not however, the only targets of Putin’s influence. For Putin, even the United Kingdom is ripe for sewing discord.

A reluctant entry into the European Community (EEC), subsequent political infighting, and a national referendum characterized the first few years of the United Kingdom’s membership in a Pan-European society. The UK entered the EEC with a conservative government, led by Prime Minister Edward Heath. In 1975, the aforementioned National Referendum resulted in a totality of 17.38 million (67 percent) to 8.5 million (33 percent) votes in favor of remaining. Since that time, the political winds have changed and the minority has not remained silent.

In 1993, the European Union was formed after the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. In that same year, a right-wing political movement was given the name UKIP (UK Independence Party). Their founding issue was to cut all ties with the EU and revert to an entirely sovereign state, mixed with traditional conservative canon (low taxes, unregulated markets, personal responsibility). Today, they espouse much of the same values.

Much of UKIP’s disagreement with the UK’s involvement in the EU stems from the issue of immigration. In mass media, UKIP representatives often refer to the open borders they share with Europe as a national security risk. This notion can be fairly widespread among right-wing causes. Echoing the voices of other right-wing parties in Europe, UKIP shares an affinity for Putin’s Russian regime. By gaining in popular elections in the UK, UKIP has become well-known in a global context. Their current leader, Nigel Farage, is an advocate for their conservative cause and holds Putin in high regard. Much of the UKIP establishment also sympathize with Putin’s authoritarian method, as this YouGov study demonstrates. This study also indicates that despite their reverence, the party’s silent majority dislikes his policy.

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Farage: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2745738/No-campaigners-plead-Farage-stay-away-Scotland-announces-plans-hold-pro-Union-rally.html

 

While it is imminently important that foreign leaders maintain relationships among the establishment of European officials, one must be wary of a pervasive effect. By meeting and discussing with European right-wing party leaders, Vladimir Putin is granting them political and international legitimacy with a powerful, historic nation like Russia. This legitimacy may lead to a public perception within each respective country that these leaders are, in part, equivalent to elected officials. It is additionally likely for these parties to then rise in popularity and win elections. In practice, Vladimir Putin is attempting to buy partners in Europe. But why?

Let’s briefly explore the economic rationale. Russia is the world’s 2nd largest producer of natural gas and has, for many years, supplied it to European countries through pipelines. The smaller nations within the EU have no natural gas infrastructure and are thus dependent upon the Russian supply line. This relationship has been strained significantly by the economic sanctions placed upon Russia by the EU. Resulting in Russia’s diversification into liquid natural gas, they will ship to Asian markets where they have already had major success. By simultaneously diversifying their natural gas customer base and supporting the election hopes of right-wing European parties, Putin’s Russia can continue to make an abundance of money, while possibly regaining his former customers in Europe.

Wallstreet Journal

Natural Gas Figures: http://www.wsj.com/articles/new-russia-china-deal-could-further-hit-natural-gas-prices-1415614816

 

 

 

Pegida and the Future of Islam in Germany

The movement called Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) has dominated headlines in Germany for months. News reports and blog posts have quieted down in February, so what now? Did the Pegida movement enjoy a prolonged fifteen minutes of fame and will soon fizzle out? Or are we merely witnessing a temporary lull in activity, before the movement once again forces itself into the headlines?

The Sprengsatz blog provides short, well-defined commentary on politics in Germany, and has commented frequently on the issue of Pegida. The blog’s author, Michael Spreng, maintains that Pegida is finished. A combination of factors has led to Pegida’s fading. Mr. Spreng is quick to point out that Pegida’s fall is more the result of self-destruction than the reaction of Germany’s leading political forces. The latter’s attempt at addressing the Pegida issue has been poorly coordinated and at times contradictory. For readers unfamiliar with Pegida, its talking points can be boiled down to this: Muslims and mass numbers of immigrants are subverting Germany’s economy and culture. This complaint is not new; from intelligentsia on down to neo-Nazis and hooligans, the idea that Muslim immigrants are burdening the German state has existed for decades. What sets Pegida apart is its membership from many different social groups. Such a large number of people demonstrating in the streets for a common cause, one as divisive as this, were bound to gain media attention.

Pegida protesters on the march

Pegida protesters on the march (Photo: Zukunftskinder)

Pegida’s apparent strength in numbers hasn’t gone unquestioned, and Spreng is quick to point this out. He distinguishes those caught up in the furor of Pegida as either Anhänger or Mitläufer. The difference is an important one, given that an Anhänger is someone who fully supports a movement. Mitläufer tend to be people who are involved in a movement but whose commitment and conviction is tenuous at best. Spreng considers a large portion of Pegida’s so-called followers to actually be Mitläufer, which is significant in that it means the number of people who actually believe in Pegida’s platform is smaller than people realize.

When it comes to the establishment response to Pegida, Germany’s two leading political parties, the CDU and SPD, have shown a surprising disunity. Standing up against racism and bigotry is a mutual priority for both parties (in the broadest sense the CDU is conservative and the SPD is liberal). While Chancellor Merkel (CDU) has unequivocally rejected what Pegida represents, members of her own party have shuddered at her assertion that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Countering the Chancellor’s assertion was the governor of Saxony, Stanislaw Tillich (CDU), who retorted, “Islam does not belong to Saxony.”

The contradictions continued within the SPD as the party’s General Secretary utterly rejected any notion of holding a dialogue with Pegida. Strikingly, Sigmar Gabriel, an SPD member and Vice-Chancellor in Merkel’s government, chose to meet with Pegida supporters (Spreng uses Anhänger, meaning that Gabriel met with devoted members of the movement). Spreng’s contempt for this is plain to see, and he refers to such actions and contradictions as “spineless” and “opportunistic”

The issue of Pegida would perhaps be less complex were it not for its timing. Pegida’s arrival could not have come at a better time for the AfD (Alternative For Germany), Germany’s Euro-skeptic party. The AfD has had its own share of controversy and accusations of having intolerants within its ranks, but that has not stopped them from making electoral gains. What connects the AfD and Pegida is the issue of immigration. With the appearance that Pegida was gaining popular support from regular, fed-up Germans, the AfD sought to capitalize on the moment and join forces with Pegida. In this regard both Pegida and the AfD are populist movements, whose emergence Spreng again attributes to social and financial angst.

With the CDU and SPD providing confusing and unorganized responses to Pegida, and with the AfD actively seeking to fan the flames of populism, what more could possibly assist in Pegida’s rise? Enter Charlie Hebdo. The terrorist attack in Paris was as tragic as it was inopportune. The tragedy transcends the deaths of innocents in that those seeking to advance a narrative use those same deaths as fodder. Germany’s far-right political forces, both big and small, fringe and legitimate, have sought to describe the Paris attacks as motivated by an entire religion and culture: Islam. Before this situation could progress any further, action had to be taken.

Vigil against terror

Political and faith leaders rally in solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo attack (Photo: DailySabah.com)

Thus Angela Merkel flew to Paris and walked in solidarity, with a throng of other world leaders, for the victims, for free speech, and to show defiance against extremism. What was striking was to see the leaders of France and Germany, historically not the best of friends, tightly linking arms and walking together for a common cause. Merkel then moved quickly to quash whatever xenophobia may have been simmering back home. In front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Merkel stood with fellow German leaders and leaders of Germany’s main religious groups, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and asserted the official position that what occurred in Paris was not indicative of an entire religion’s goals. On the contrary, Merkel has promoted the narrative that extremists who would or have committed terrorism, have perverted the teachings of Islam. Lastly, Merkel addressed Muslim leaders in Germany by declaring that members of the Islamic faith have a responsibility to assuage the fears and bias the German people may hold against them. That process includes an outright repudiation of extremist and fundamentalist ideology. To my surprise, Mr. Spreng gives Merkel full support for her actions, stating “Merkel has done everything right,” and asserting that the Pegida issue is or very soon will be over. Pegida’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, was recently ousted after a picture of him surfaced sporting a Hitler moustache and hairstyle.

Founder and former leader of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann

Founder and former leader of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann. Photo: The Guardian

Bachmann’s indiscretion and the AfD’s beginning to show a lack of support are contributing to what Spreng refers to as the “self-destruction” of the movement. He describes it as an issue worthy of only a footnote in the history books. I am not so convinced. Europe is facing some very tricky situations: terrorism, the financial crisis, the Ukrainian civil war, immigration, social issues, and even the fight against ISIS. Any one of the preceding issues could be the spark that ignites further upheaval on the political fringe. What will be left to be seen, is whether such an upheaval will activate the passions and frustrations of the general population and influence elections.