BERLIN, Germany — The leader of Germany’s “anti-Islamization” movement PEGIDA stepped down Wednesday after a picture emerged of him sporting a Hitler-style haircut and mustache, 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 apologize 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, going viral on social media and sparking a storm of protest.
Media reports also said that 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 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 Islamization of the Occident” — in the eastern city of Dresden in October, had posted the picture in September, before he became prominent.
Bachmann took the photo, which shows him with a small black mustache 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 furor it caused 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 5,000 right-wing protesters, meanwhile, again started to mass, this time in another eastern city, Leipzig, separated by riot police from thousands of anti-racist counter-demonstrators.
The showing of PEGIDA’s Leipzig spin-off “LEGIDA” was, in the early evening, far below the up to 40,000 organizers had expected — in part because of a large number of people at almost 20 counter demonstrations.
While the flag-waving nationalists chanted “We are the people”, their opponents screamed “get out of here” and held up signs that read “No PEGIDA, No LEGIDA”.
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 publicly distanced itself from LEGIDA, with Oertel saying the Leipzig based clone had not coordinated its message with her group.
More than 4,000 police were on duty in Leipzig, both to secure the 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 hit by two arson attacks on electric wiring systems, federal police told AFP.
No one was injured, but the attacks closed part of the line and 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, President Joachim Gauck warned against a “polarization” 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 international standing it has established since World War II.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned PEGIDA and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel also spoke out strongly against Bachmann.
“Anyone who in politics disguises themselves 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.”