Lutz Bachmann announced on Wednesday that he will step down from his position as the head of Pegida, the German anti-Islamist group that he founded. The move follows widespread backlash after he posted a “Hitler selfie” on Facebook showing him with a distinct Hitler toothbrush mustache and Hitler-style hair part, as well as the uncovering of a slew of Bachmann’s private messages in which he called asylum-seekers “scumbags,” “cattle” and “trash,” according to the Guardian. Both garnered condemnation across Germany.
Bachmann, 41, reportedly sent those messages on Sept. 19, two weeks before he organized the first Pegida marches in Dresden, Germany.
“Only personal integrity creates political credibility,” said co-founder Kathrin Oertel. “Pegida will go on.”
His resignation was not related to the backlash over the photo, Oertel said on Wednesday. He also found out on Wednesday that state prosecutors had opened a criminal investigation for incitement to racial hatred, according to Reuters. Pegida stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. Critics accuse the group of having close ties to the German neo-Nazi movement, but Pegida denies those allegations, despite the thousands of known far-right nationalists that attend their rallies.
“I apologize sincerely to all citizens who feel offended by my posts,” Bachmann said in a Facebook post announcing his resignation. “They were ill-considered statements.”
He deleted the “Hitler selfie” shortly after newspapers contacted him for a comment on them, but defended himself, saying the photo was a joke and done in self-jest and reference to Timur Vermes' 2012 book “He's Back,” a satirical best-seller about Hitler. He refaced the book's title in the photo's caption.
He also apologized for harming the Pegida movement, which seeks to enact strict laws governing asylum-seekers and Muslim immigrants. Pegida wants Muslims to “integrate” into German culture and refrain from wearing traditional Muslim coverings or otherwise publicly showing their religious beliefs. It also wants stronger screening practices for asylum-seekers to be put in place.
The group skyrocketed in popularity in the months after Bachmann first started marches in the traditionally conservative eastern city of Dresden. Only a few hundred people attended Bachmann’s first weekly rallies, but the ranks have grown with each rally. 25,000 attended the rally on Jan. 12, partly fueled by fears of Muslim extremists prompted by the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris the week before.
Monday’s demonstration was canceled over terror threats. Organizers of the Leipzig branch, Legida, said they expected between 30,000-60,000 demonstrators to attend a rally in neighboring Leipzig on Wednesday. Counter-protesters planned to meet the march with tens of thousands of anti-Pegida Germans. Large crowds from both sides were seen in Leipzig, although a count of each marches' strength isn't available.