Amid a sea of yellow vests, Guy Fawkes masks, and German flags, two signs caught the camera’s eye at a protest in Stuttgart, Germany, this May. In large hand-written letters on yellow and blue paper, one placard demands the protection of constitutional rights. The other calls for the immediate opening of all summer pools.
Participants form an odd alliance across the political spectrum, bringing together conspiracy theorists with anti-vaxxers, esoterics and far-right extremists.
Side by side, the two messages express the varied disgruntlement over government social-distancing measures during the corona pandemic. Like their U.S. counterparts with their “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19” signs, the German protesters believe that governments use the corona crisis to do away with the civil rights and liberties of ordinary citizens.
For the past few weeks, people all over Germany have been taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the “corona madness” and the government’s lockdown orders. Rallies held in major cities like Munich, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Berlin have been drawing crowds of thousands. What unites them is not a common political ideology but a shared agenda of rejecting government-imposed hygiene regulations, refusing to wear masks and disregarding the required minimum distance of 1.5 meters between demonstration participants.
While protests against corona shutdowns are happening elsewhere in Europe too, most of them are focusing their demands on an easing of the economic lockdown, like opening borders to allow for cross-border commuting and trade. What makes the German protests stand out is that the participants form an odd alliance across the political spectrum, bringing together conspiracy theorists with anti-vaxxers, esoterics and far-right extremists.
Chiming with a global “infodemic,” they circulate rumors about forced vaccinations, 5G towers as the source of COVID-19 or the virus as a bioweapon made in China. When Attila Hildmann, a German social media celebrity, claimed that the government was infusing the tap water with tranquilizers, he gained 30.000 new followers within the span of two weeks.
This ideological mix is so combustive, warns Cynthia Miller-Idriss of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, because “it can make anti-democratic or xenophobic ideas seem more legitimate in the eyes of groups who might previously have eschewed them.”
The number of anti-vaxxers, for example, usually lies at 2 to 4 percent in Germany, but a generalized sense of insecurity and instability due to the global pandemic has given the movement new vigor. Reviving eugenicist views that trace back to Nazi Germany, many protesters condemn immunization as an unnecessary medical intervention into a naturally healthy national body politic.
Even though the vast majority of Germans support the government’s social-distancing measures, the corona protesters claim that they are out in the streets fighting on behalf of all German citizens. This sets them apart from the hyper-individualistic and often gun-toting protesters in the United States, who are hoping “to bring down the current system by encouraging riots and race conflict,” explains John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies.
Germans show up at corona rallies because they consider themselves responsible citizens who belong to “the middle of society,” as one protester in Stuttgart put it. They take to the streets not to stand up for individual liberties, but to defend the people against a corrupt elite seeking to curtail their constitutional rights. Many reflexively reference the first article of the Grundgesetz (basic law), Germany’s equivalent to the U.S. Constitution, calling for the prioritization of human dignity over human health.
By locating themselves firmly within the boundaries of the law, the protesters purportedly do not seek to destabilize the current political system but merely to exercise their democratic rights. And yet, close observers warn that a radicalization of the protests is imminent. As the case of Attila Hildmann shows, the anxiety brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic makes it easy to tap into existing insecurities and fears to mobilize those who are already questioning the status quo.
But far-right extremists willing to engage in premeditated acts of violence are not the only ones trying to coopt the corona protests. According to John Feffer, democratically elected parties like the right-wing Alternative for Germany also use the demonstrations “to channel discontent with the system into support for extremist formations.”
For many protesters, the anti-shutdown gatherings are an opportunity to voice grievances that they have long harbored against the state. When they take to the streets, they not only reject the government’s COVID-19 measures, but also position themselves against globalization and the elites, political correctness and democratic processes, the media and science, foreigners and immigration. By framing the protests as the expression of a disaffected people defending the larger Volksgemeinschaft — the German ethno-national community — the far right is able to move previously fringe ideas into the mainstream.
What makes this particularly dangerous is the extent to which racial disparities underpin the protests. “The privilege of being less personally impacted by the health crisis because of the legacy of generations of inadequate healthcare and structural racism,” says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, “plays a big part in who is arguing that their ‘freedom’ is being threatened by a tyrannical government.” In the United States, where COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color, the corona protesters are predominantly white.
And while the far-right engages in protests that narrowly redefine their own personal comfort and convenience as “liberty,” the left has poured into the streets in recent weeks to protest the police killing of George Floyd and the systemic racism that makes such attacks on black and brown people commonplace.
There is reason for concern that these protests could spread the coronavirus. However, the overwhelming majority of participants are wearing masks (unlike the police) and observing social distancing when possible. And where the earlier “reopening” protests were organized to restore a “normal” that would put poorly paid essential workers at greater risk, the George Floyd protests’ goal is to end white supremacy, a parallel public health epidemic that also endangers the lives of millions of people.