BERLIN: 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.
Addressing his followers on the social media site, Lutz Bachmann apologised for the “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, 41, looking like Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had surfaced Wednesday, going viral on social media and sparking a storm of protest.
Media reports also said Bachmann had posted comments 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 to 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 had posted the picture in September, only weeks before he founded PEGIDA — the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident” — in the eastern city of Dresden.
Bachmann took the photo, which shows him with a small black moustache and hair parted to the side, around the time of the publication of a bestselling satirical audiobook about Hitler entitled “Look Who’s Back”.
The furore it caused has torpedoed PEGIDA’s recent efforts at a charm offensive with the media to present a more moderate image.
At their first-ever press conference this week, Bachmann and Oertel had distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis who had joined their rallies and said that most of their supporters were citizens fed up with contemporary politics.
About 15,000 right-wing protesters rallied meanwhile, this time in another eastern city, Leipzig, separated by riot police from over 20,000 anti-racist counter-demonstrators.
The showing of PEGIDA’s Leipzig spin-off “LEGIDA” was far below the 40,000 its organisers had expected, in part because many access roads were blocked by almost 20 counter-demonstrations and vigils.
While the flag-waving nationalists chanted “We are the people”, co-opting the slogan of the former pro-democracy movement in communist East Germany, their opponents screamed “Nazis out”.
The ranks of the far-right protesters had been expected to swell after a planned PEGIDA march Monday in Dresden was cancelled over fears of an Islamist murder attempt on Bachmann.
Meanwhile, PEGIDA distanced itself from LEGIDA, which is considered more radical by Germany’s domestic security service. Oertel said the Leipzig-based clone had not coordinated its message with her group.
More than 4,000 police, drafted from across Germany, were on duty in Leipzig, to prevent street clashes between neo-Nazis and hooligans on the one side and left-wing, anti-fascist militants on the other.
The Dresden-Leipzig train line was hit by two arson attacks on electric wiring systems, police told AFP. No one was injured, but the attacks caused long delays for protesters travelling from Dresden.
Police helicopters circled the skies over Leipzig, and the inner city was closed to car traffic and public transport.
City authorities switched off the lights of the opera house and concert hall as a show of distaste for the right-wing rally and erected banners calling for tolerance.
Amid the heightened tensions, German President Joachim Gauck warned against a “polarisation” that could weaken trust between citizens and harm social cohesion.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned PEGIDA and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel spoke out strongly against Bachmann, saying: “Anyone who in politics disguises themself as Hitler is either a bit of an idiot or a Nazi.”