Lutz Bachmann
Image:Facebook

Pegida, the fast-growing German anti-Islamisation movement, was thrown into disarray on Wednesday when its leader quit after it emerged he had photographed himself posing as Hitler and allegedly made offensive comments about asylum seekers.

Lutz Bachmann at first dismissed the incident as a joke but stepped down on Wednesday after state prosecutors opened a criminal investigation for suspected incitement to hatred over the picture and remarks, which appeared on his Facebook page.

Kathrin Oertel, the Pegida spokesperson, confirmed Mr Bachmann had resigned from all his responsibilities.

The controversy raises new questions about the Dresden-based group’s far-right leanings and its future. Mr Bachmann, 41, who founded Pegida last year, had been its natural leader — both on the podium and in committee meetings.

Mainstream politicians expressed outrage at the revelations. Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor, condemned Mr Bachmann on Wednesday, saying: “In politics, whoever dresses up as Hitler is either a real idiot or a Nazi. Everyone should think hard about following such a rat catcher.”

Dresden’s Morgenpost newspaper broke the story, publishing a 2012 “selfie” photograph taken by Mr Bachmann showing him with a Hitler moustache and hairstyle.

The newspaper also carried screenshots of conversations allegedly taken from Mr Bachmann’s Facebook account, in which he appeared — in 2014 — to describe asylum seekers as “cattle” and “waste”.

On another occasion, Mr Bachmann posted a photograph of a man wearing the uniform and pointed hat of the Ku Klux Klan, the US white supremacist organisation, with the caption: “Three K’s a day keeps the minorities away.”

Mr Bachmann did not answer calls to his mobile phone. Bild, the top-selling tabloid newspaper, quoted Mr Bachmann saying the Hitler photo was a joke and that it had been taken to mark the publication of an audio version of He is Back, a satirical novel about Hitler returning to life.

“I had the picture taken at a hairdresser’s for the publication of the audiobook of He is Back,” Mr Bachmann told Bild. “You have to joke about yourself sometimes.”

A defiant Mr Bachmann on Wednesday posted a photograph of comedian Charlie Chaplin from the Hitler-based comedy The Great Dictator. The caption read: “He is allowed satire . . . Lutz is not.”

Pegida — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West — has made waves in Germany with a series of protests in Dresden against what it views as the creeping Islamisation of Europe. While Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has condemned the group, other mainstream German politicians have sought to court its followers and appeal to their concerns about rising immigration.

A planned Pegida demonstration was banned on Monday after the authorities received death threats against Mr Bachmann.

Pegida urged supporters to attend instead a march in nearby Leipzig late on Wednesday and drew around 15,000 anti-Islamisation protestors — far short of the 40,000 the organisers had hoped for.

They were out-numbered by around 20,000 counter-demonstrators. Unlike previous peaceful anti-Islamisation events, the demonstration ended with a few violent clashes, though it was not immediately clear who was responsible.

In a recent Financial Times interview, Mr Bachmann insisted the group was moderate. “We are normal people,” he said, estimating “rightwing madmen” accounted for less than 1 per cent of Pegida’s ranks and were unwelcome.

As Pegida has grown, with demonstrations spreading to other German cities and Scandinavia, Mr Bachmann’s background has come under scrutiny. He was convicted of assault and theft in his youth and served two years in prison. He was later arrested for possession of cocaine, for which he received a suspended sentence that runs out next month.

Even if Mr Bachmann departs, the mounting frustration over immigration that has fuelled the group’s rise could loom large in German politics. The government statistics office reported on Wednesday that the population in 2014 grew to 81.1m, the fourth annual increase in succession, boosted by the highest level of net immigration in more than 20 years. The population rose 300,000, with a decline in the ageing native population offset by a net influx of 470,000.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière on Wednesday insisted that he would not talk to Pegida organisers. But he asked for understanding for the people in the former Communist east Germany, which includes both Dresden and Leipzig, where many people were “tired of change”. He added: “This is in some ways a cry for help.”

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