Germany’s Pegida leader steps down after ‘Hitler selfie’

BERLIN (AFP) - The leader of Germany’s “anti-Islamisation” movement Pegida stepped down Wednesday after a picture emerged of him sporting a Hitler-style haircut and moustache, along with racist slurs he posted on Facebook.

“Yes, I am stepping down from the board,” Lutz Bachmann, 41, was quoted as telling Bild daily in an online report.

Addressing his followers on Facebook, he said: “I sincerely apologise to all citizens who felt attacked by my posts.”

“They were thoughtless statements that I would not make today. I am sorry that I have damaged the interests of our movement with them and I am acting accordingly.”

A photo of Bachmann looking like Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had surfaced Wednesday, sparking a storm of protest and raising fresh questions about the group’s alleged extremist leanings.

Media reports also said that comments had been posted under Bachmann’s name on Facebook in the past referring to refugees as “beasts” and “filth”.

Dresden’s public prosecutor was investigating whether to open a case against him on charges of incitement of hatred.

Pegida spokeswoman Kathrin Oertel welcomed Bachmann’s resignation, saying that his “Hitler selfie” had been “satire, which is every citizen’s right” but that “sweeping insults against strangers” went too far.

She said Bachmann, who founded Pegida – “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident” – in the eastern city of Dresden in October, had posted the picture on Facebook in September, before he became prominent.

Bachmann took the picture, which shows him with a small black moustache and hair swept into a side-parting, around the time of the publication of a bestselling satirical audiobook about Hitler entitled Look Who’s Back.

The picture torpedoed Pegida’s recent efforts at a charm offensive with the media to present a more moderate image.

At their first-ever press conference Monday, Bachmann and Oertel had distanced themselves from the far-right and neo-Nazis who had joined their rallies and said that most of their supporters were citizens fed up with contemporary politics.

PROTESTERS GATHER AGAIN

Bachmann announced his resignation as thousands of right-wing protesters again started to mass, this time in another eastern city, Leipzig, separated by a large contingent of riot police from gathering anti-racist counter-demonstrators.

The showing of Pegida’s Leipzig spin-off “Legida” was expected to top the previous record of 25,000 marchers Pegida set in the city of Dresden.

Legida announced it expected at least 40,000 people, while authorities expected that number could be matched or topped by 19 registered counter-rallies and vigils.

The ranks of the nationalist protesters were expected to swell after a planned Pegida march Monday in Dresden was cancelled over fears of an Islamist murder attempt on Bachmann.

More than 4,000 police were on duty in Leipzig, both to secure the Legida march against possible attacks and to prevent street clashes between neo-Nazis and hooligans on the one side and left-wing, anti-fascist militants on the other.

The train line between Dresden and Leipzig was earlier hit by two arson attacks, federal police told AFP. No one was injured, but the attacks closed part of the line and were expected to cause long delays for protesters travelling from Dresden.

Police helicopters circled the skies over Leipzig from the afternoon, and most of the inner city was closed to car traffic and public transport.

Amid the heightened tensions, President Joachim Gauck warned against a “polarisation” that could weaken trust between citizens and harm social cohesion.

Germany, haunted by its Nazi past, prides itself on its efforts to come to terms with its history and is sensitive to any threat to the values and international standing it has fought hard to establish since World War II.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned Pegida, but within her conservative Christian Democrats a debate is raging over whether to engage in dialogue with the group.

Merkel’s vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, however, earlier said Bachmann had disqualified himself from civilised discussion.

“Anyone who in politics disguises themself as Hitler is either a bit of an idiot or a Nazi,” he said.

“Everyone should think about whether to walk behind such rabble-rousers.”