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COVID-19 in Germany: conspiracy theories and the search for scapegoats
The Covid-19 pandemic is more than a medical challenge. This health crisis affects our everyday lives as – at least for the younger generation – unprecedented restrictions have brought everything to a standstill. Germany went into its first lock-down on 22 March 2020 though the restrictions varied from state to state. As a Federal Republic, the 'Länder' regions played a leading role.
Although the heterogeneity and differences between states were sometimes criticized as 'patchwork', it enabled Germany to react to differing infection rates: during the first wave in spring 2020, Germany's west was highly affected whereas the pandemic was almost invisible in its east. In autumn the picture changed: the infection rates were nowhere else as high as in Saxony, Germany's most eastern state. As the first of 16 'Länder', the region went into 'hard' lock-down again on 14 December – a few days before the other states followed to close schools and all non-essential shops.
How does the German population react to the restrictions? A poll from early January 2021 shows that the majority supports the state's efforts to contain the pandemic or would even demand stricter measures. Still, not everyone agrees with social distancing and closing pubs. Of course, the freedom to protest policies is a fundamental right in a democracy – even during a pandemic, though special rules may apply.
In Saxony, for example, hotels and restaurants used different forms of protest to attract the public's attention to their financial difficulties. But not everyone making use of the freedom of assembly shares democratic ideals. Some groups polemicized against state decisions: The first tweet with the hashtag 'Coronadiktatur' can be found on Twitter on 19 March, the first protests on the streets followed soon in April. The picture of the protests was blurred: new movements, as well as well-known groups, gathered to reject concrete measures, like face coverings, or to accuse the government of being led by 'hidden forces'.
The biggest anti-lockdown protests in Germany so far took place in August in Berlin with approximately 38,000 attending and in November in Leipzig with around 20,000 persons gathering. Both events were mainly initiated by the movement 'querdenken' ('lateral thinking'), which arose from the pandemic. 'querdenken' attracts people from various backgrounds. Already in spring, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence service, warned against extremist forces infiltrating the movement and turning it into a threat for liberal democracy. The agency had noticed that some parts of the movement were spreading conspiracy theories and xenophobic slogans.
According to the Bavarian office, particularly vulnerable groups like refugees, migrants, Muslims and Jews became the target of conspiratorial thinking, especially in digital spaces. One example of such a conspiracy theory – not at all anchored in reality but growing from ideology – is the narrative of a 'Major Replacement' ('Großer Austausch'), which states that the political elite (sometimes also 'extraterrestrial aliens', 'Jews' or Chancellor Angela Merkel) attempts to exchange the 'German' population with 'strangers' or 'migrants' – a narrative that had already grown owing to the controversy surrounding the response to the 2015 migration crisis. Other myths, like Bill Gates trying to implant microchips by using manipulated vaccines or the QAnon-narrative, have also found a way into the public eye.
In December, the BfV in Baden-Wuerttemberg decided to observe the organizers of 'querdenken' after connections between the face of 'querdenken', Michael Ballweg, and the antidemocratic 'Reichsbürger' became apparent. 'Reichsbürger' deny the (legal) legitimacy of post-World War II Germany and claim that Germany still exists in its former borders, e.g. those established in 1937. One possible outcome of an observation by the BfV is the banning of an extremist group from the political sphere. This aspect of Germany’s constitution is a consequence drawn from the failure of the Weimar Republic.
The new research project 'Spanish Flu and Covid-19' at the Hannah-Arendt-Institute for Totalitarianism Studies at the TU Dresden focuses on the profound challenge to democracy arising from health crises. As an interdisciplinary institute working in both fields, Political Science and Contemporary History, the project has two components: the political scientists look at contemporary protests and analyze how right-wing populist and right-wing extremist forces may gain from the insecurities arising from the pandemic and the loss of social trust, particularly in political elites. So far, the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has lost voters' approval at the federal level (18/01/2020: 13 % 18/01/2021: 9 %) but the consequences of the economic crisis sparked by COVID-19 is still unclear: Will the AfD profit from the pandemic and its social consequences in the long term?
From virus to viral conspiracy theories
Despite our impression of living in extraordinary times, a brief glance at history shows that pandemics are a regular feature. In 1918 the 'Spanish Flu' meant death for millions all over the world. In Germany, the 'Spanish Flu' was one of multiple crises: the defeat in the First World War, the systemic change from monarchy to parliamentary democracy, economic struggles and starvation shaped the public sphere. This shortlist already reveals the huge differences between 1918 and today. The project's aim is not only to show the discrepancies and parallels between then and now but also to explain their influence on the stability of a political system. 1918 and the early years of the Weimar Republic teach us lessons on how scapegoats and enemies were constructed not only in media but also in parliamentary discourses and how conspiracy theories can spread in times of crisis: What historical parallels and differences can be identified between past and present conspiracy narratives and the methods of stereotyping and scapegoating they deal with? Which myths and stereotypes are processed? Which notions of health and illness shape (and dominate) the public discourse?
With our project, we aim at connecting different scientific approaches and research projects on the Covid-19 pandemic from social sciences and humanities. Due to the ongoing travel restrictions, we are developing innovative IT-based technologies (online platforms, virtual workshops and conferences and digital research data management). If you do research on the pandemic and are interested in cooperation, please feel kindly invited to share your thoughts with us! Impressions of our work and existing cooperation can be found on our website and our blog.
Isabelle-Christine Panreck is a political scientist and member of PSA's German Politics Specialist Group (GPSG). Her research focuses on democratic theory, populism and intellectual history. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.