A vocal minority in Germany opposes the restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including right-wing radicals, but also people at the center of society. How can the government best address the protest movement?
By Felix Bohr, Markus Feldenkirchen, Florian Gathmann, Julia Amalia Heyer, Valerie Höhne, Martin Knobbe, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Veit Medick, Ann-Katrin Müller, Christopher Piltz, Lydia Rosenfelder, Jonas Schaible, Christoph Schult, Christian Teevs, Severin Weiland, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Steffen Winter
German parliamentarian Franziska Brantner recalls how in the beginning, the emails were sporadic. She says that four or five weeks ago, the main issue in the mails was the question of herd immunity. Why, people asked in the mails, can’t we do things the way they are in Britain and Sweden?
Weeks later, she now receives around 100 complaints each day. There are complaints about the government, “this emergency regime,” and sometimes critical questions and expressions of hatred. “Why don’t you stop this harassment from the government,” one asked? Brantner, who is 40 and has served in the federal parliament as a member of the Green Party representing the district of Heidelberg since 2013, says she answers the emails from people who don’t insult her. She has expanded her office hours for her constituents and she has also hired a half-time employee just to answer letters from concerned citizens.
No Longer a Given
Brantner responds to some of the mails herself, like one that arrived on Tuesday night. “I can understand both your frustration and your criticism very well,” she wrote to a person she knows. She closed the message by writing, “And thank you for expressing your displeasure in democratic circles, which is no longer a given these days”
Brantner says that many of the concerns people are expressing are justified or at least comprehensible. What worries her is the sheer speed of the political debate, the controversy surrounding calls in Germany for immunity certification for people who have survived COVID-19 and rumors about an alleged vaccination requirement once a vaccine is developed for the coronavirus. “Sometimes members of our own party don’t even grasp our positions,” she says.
Brantner says she was taken aback when, a few weeks ago, a long-time member of the Green Party, a retired judge, sent an e-mail declaring the end of the constitutional state because of the measures imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. That’s the point when Brandtner realized that the side-effects of the global pandemic could include fundamental doubts about democracy, even among people who hadn’t been receptive to such doubts before.
The crisis sparked by the novel coronavirus has now reached its third stage. At first, concerns were focused on health, followed shortly thereafter by worries about the economy. But now there’s a third concern: the health of liberal democracy.
The source of this new worry are the protests against coronavirus lockdown policies by many German citizens on streets, in town squares and on social networks. They don’t share the belief that we need to yield many freedoms in order to contain the virus, and they consider their quality of living to be threatened by measures to slow the spread of a disease that they don’t even think is all that dangerous.
These people represent a minority of Germany society right now. A survey commissioned by DER SPIEGEL found that 19 percent of Germans consider the lockdown measures taken to be excessive. The vast majority, 70 percent, consider the measures to be appropriate. Nevertheless, that figure is still 4 percent lower than it was three weeks ago, despite the recent loosening of lockdown measures in states across Germany.
A Perfect Storm for the AfD
And that is making German politicians nervous, because it is evoking memories of the consequences of the refugee crisis in 2015. At the time, the country’s right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party began gaining traction, becoming a catch basin for people protesting against established politics, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and its rise was accompanied by conspiracy theories of every nature.
At the time, the AfD had the potential to attract 20 percent of all German voters, and it shook up politics in the country. In the wake of the refugee crisis, Merkel stepped down as the chair of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Then her successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, failed in the position after her party in the eastern state of Thuringia cast its votes together with those of the AfD to elect a new governor, an absolute political taboo. Countries abroad looked to Germany at the time with deep concern: Is there something bad still slumbering in those Germans?
It’s through that lens that you have to look at what is happening now. The conspiracy theories are circulating once again and the AfD is stirring up protests. The difference this time is that German prosperity isn’t secure in the way it had been in recent years – this time the economy is crashing and millions of jobs are at risk. This is precisely the kind of opportunity the AfD has been waiting for.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that every person who protests or feels uncomfortable with the many incursions into our freedom are disaffected and outraged people or inclined toward the AfD. Indeed, it’s good that there are debates over the state and federal governments’ policies. A clear distinction must be drawn between democratic protest and conspiracy theories, as well, between serious debate and between insults or new forms of protest like shaking hands. The protests have also been accompanied by violence against police and journalists.
Are Dividing Lines Blurring?
The greatest worry among politicians right now is that the dividing line will blur, that the societal mainstream will meld with conspiracy theorists, anti-Semitism, anti-capitalism and right-wing extremism to the benefit of the AfD or a newer movement like Widerstand2020 (Resistance 2020) in Stuttgart, that the battle to save liberal democracy is entering into a new, even more difficult round.
How can politicians prepare for this threat? And what are the possible solutions? The parties are struggling to form positions, they face dissidents and the disaffected sowing confusion within their own party and what seems to be the particularly German question of how a country that has coped comparably well so far in the coronavirus can also get so easily rattled.
Friedrich Merz, who still has dreams of taking over leadership of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and ending up in the Chancellery, agrees to meet with the reporters for a meeting on Wednesday afternoon in Berlin. Only a few weeks ago, he was homebound in bed after contracting the coronavirus. A tan has once again return to his face, as if he had just returned from a vacation in Tuscany.
Despite the decreasing number of infections, Merz does not believe the virus has been beat. In his view, the economic outlook is disastrous and he sees a Europe that is descending into chaos and, meanwhile, a growing movement in the country of people pretending the coronavirus is like a light cold. It’s madness, Merz says. “I find the apparent shift in sentiment very disturbing.”
Merz doesn’t always say the things his party wants to hear from him, but in this case he does. At the moment, fear is rampant with the CDU – worry that public sentiment will shift and fear that everything could break down again. The party had actually seemed more or less stable in recent months. The leadership quarrels surrounding Kramp-Karrenbauer seemed forgotten and the scandal over the gubernatorial vote in Thuringia had subsided, but unrest is growing within the party again now.
Vulnerable to the AfD
The images from the recent protests in Stuttgart, Cologne and Munich have alarmed the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), more than any other party. Back during the refugee crisis, the protests also began in splinter groups before becoming more mainstream and boosting the position of the AfD, which presents more competition for the CDU and CSU than it does any other parties.
Many a Christian Democrat is clinging these days to the party’s recent healthy showing in the polls, where it has the support of 38 percent of voters. But Norbert Röttgen, a prominent Christian Democrat who is also a candidate to take over chairmanship the CDU, considers those numbers to be deceptive. “The boost in the polls,” he says, “is likely attributable to the first weeks of the crisis. Many were relieved to that politicians acting quickly and in a united way.” But since then, some have tried to benefit politically from the crisis and are polarizing the handling of the pandemic. “Sentiment is shifting and the frustration is starting now,” says Röttgen.
But why? The responses differ depending on who you ask among the Christian Democrats. The fatalists argue that there’s nothing that can be done – sooner or later the internal disputes will return. But others say that two governors – Armin Laschet of North Rhine-Westphalia and Markus Söder of Bavaria – are to blame because they were in a competition to prove who was the best at crisis management and, in doing so, at times created the impression that they were less interested in peoples’ health than in their own political careers.
Röttgen says the chancellor also bears some responsibility. “Merkel has long been perceived as a bulwark,” he says. He says she did “very well” for several weeks. “But then she may have gotten caught in a rationalist trap. She has pursued her policies persistently, but she also should anticipated a shift in the sentiment and registered it when it started happening. By not reacting, she left herself vulnerable to the politicians who were trying to build pressure for a loosening of the lockdown measures.
The skittishness is particularly palpable in the party’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag, where many members of parliament are sensing firsthand the growing doubts of people in their constituencies toward the measures. Andreas Mattfeldt, a CDU member of parliament from Lower Saxony, says he had hoped that the opposition parties, like the business-friendly Free Democrats, would express criticism of the government’s crisis strategy. “Instead, it is now becoming an issue for the AfD, and I’m afraid that the uncertainty in the population is getting out of hand.” He warns: “The crack running through this country is much bigger than we thought.”
Mattfeldt, an uncomfortable parliamentarian who has been a thorn in the side of leaders of the party group for years, says he believes Merkel’s initial response to the crisis was the correct one. He also supported shutting down public life for a time. But he was bothered by the fact that the virologists the government was relying on for advice proferred contradictory assessments. He was also unhappy about public appearances made by the head of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, the country’s center for disease control. But most importantly, the events on the ground in his own constituency didn’t match the actions that were being taken in Berlin.
As Merkel, German Health Minister Jens Spahn and virologist Christian Drosten all warned of the possibility that Germany could become the next Italy, with its overrun hospitals, and state governors competed to see who could impose the strictest lockdown, the messages coming out of many hospitals in his constituency were different: There was no onslaught of patients and the situation remained calm.
In April, Mattfeldt canvassed parliament for possible allies sharing his skeptical view and soon assembled two dozen others who were dealing with similar concerns. Three weeks ago, they met in the offices of the German parliament for their first exchange. They were also joined by colleagues from the business-friendly Free Democrats.
A ”Dangerous Mix”
Absent at the meeting were members of the center-left SPD, who have had less traumatic experiences with the AfD than the CDU and CSU have, and are thus able to brush off the protests more easily. SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil says he understands the uncertainty people are feeling and that he even engages in discussions with people who believe in conspiracy theories. But there are also limits to his tolerance: He says anyone who fights for fundamental rights, but then goes to protests attended by “Reichsbürger (a movement that rejects modern Germany), neo-Nazis and Holocaust-deniers at which journalists are attacked” must also be aware of who they are keeping company with.
He calls it a “dangerous mix.” Klingbeil says that people who took to the streets to protest the government’s refugee policies are back at it again. “There are intellectual firebrands there who create the kind of climate that results in attacks against police and journalists. They’re exploiting the coronavirus crisis to divide people and incite them.”
German Family Minister Franziska Giffey of the SPD also finds it frightening to see all the different segments of society attending the protests, not to mention how fast conspiracy theories are spreading. “I fear a spill-over into mainstream society, also because fabricated news is spread so fast through digitization.”
But it’s the SPD of all parties, that is currently creating difficulties for the government on the corona policies front, specifically an official at the Interior Ministry.
“A Global False Alarm”
In an email that Interior Ministry official Stephan Kohn sent last friday to state interior ministries, he wrote: “There was probably no point at which the danger posed by the new virus was beyond the normal level.” He also issued a strong recommendation that the government’s protective measures be “completely lifted.”
Kohn’s paper is more than 190 pages long, including attachments. He also poses the question of the undesired collateral damage caused by the coronavirus containment measures – through postponed operations, for example. He writes that more deaths through heart attacks and strokes are to be expected because those with ailments are less likely to go to the doctor. In the paper, he also draws attention to the suffering of people in need of care and the mentally ill. All things that are certainly worthy of consideration.
All in all, however, the paper exaggerates on a grand scale. He calls the coronavirus pandemic a “global false alarm.” Some of the sources in his paper are dubious blogs that no serious government official should be relying on.
Kohn has been raising his concerns for weeks at the ministry and had even sent out abstracts of his paper, although in a more reserved tone. People conveyed to him that some of his ideas were interesting, but that on other points, he is either wrong or out of date. His superiors signaled to him that he should stop, that he isn’t even responsible for these issues.
But Kohn didn’t. One day, when his boss wasn’t there, he sent out his paper as “expert advice” from Department KM4 at the Interior Ministry. In it, he also writes that the state could ultimately turn out to be “the biggest producer of fake news.”
Speaking of Kohn, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer says: “Everyone knows that I maintain a high degree of liberalism in my ministry. So, I have no problem with him having his own opinion. What’s not OK is that he used the ministry’s infrastructure and letterhead to create the impression that it was the ministry’s opinion. Despite all the liberalism, there also has to be loyalty.”
Kohn has since been suspended from duty. He was advised to obtain a lawyer and his work laptop was confiscated.
Kohn’s family has experienced plenty of negativity in the past. Three of his brothers were sexually abused by a Lutheran pastor, with their family sharing their woeful story with DER SPIEGEL in 2010. Later, Hamburg Bishop Maria Jepsen resigned from office in response, even though she bore no personal responsibility. Kuhn also ran to become the chair of the SPD against Andrea Nahles and failed spectacularly.
A Difficult Situation
On the internet, the suspended government official has since become a hero to those bucking the coronavirus line. The right-wing conservative blog Tichy’s Einblick is portraying Kuhn as a kind of whistleblower. Hans-Georg Maassen, the controversial former head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is responsible for monitoring extremism in Germany, has also voiced his support for Kuhn on Twitter.
Kohn’s paper has put the government in a difficult situation. One the one hand, he expresses some warnings that are justified. On the other, though, he places one foot into the world of the conspiracy theorists. The very groupings that are now trying to shift the mood against the government’s lockdown policies. The same people are now alleging that the Interior Ministry is suppressing criticism.
At a meeting of the parliamentary group on Tuesday, several members of parliament with the Christian Democrats brought up Kohn’s paper, including digital expert Christoph Bernstiel of Saxony-Anhalt. “What’s our communications strategy for this paper?” he asked participants. He warned against ignoring the document and appealed to the Interior Ministry to respond to the accusations officially and soberly. Bernstiel has been quoted as saying that if the work is just dismissed as that of some nutcase, it “will just be throwing fuel on the fire of conspiracy theorists.”
Interior Minister Seehofer didn’t attend the virtual meeting, so his representative in parliament, Günter Krings, responded for him. He expressed his firm opposition to treating the document seriously. If you start analyzing papers like that, Krings warned, “then pretty soon you’ll be inviting the guys with the tin foil hats to parliamentary hearings.” Men in tin foil hats is a term used to describe people who believe in conspiracy theorists.
Veronika Bellmann, a CDU member of parliament from the eastern state of Saxony, accuses Seehofer of prematurely rejecting the paper. “The basic premise of the paper, that the threat posed by the coronavirus has been exaggerated, is one I share completely,” Bellmann says, adding that the public official was just doing his job. “That he has now been portrayed by the Interior Ministry as a crackpot bothers me. By doing so, we are adding fuel to the conspiracy theory fire. I have the expectation that we give his ideas serious consideration.”
Almost all parties are dealing with dissidents who are disinclined to follow the general course of action that has been laid out. In the Green Party, it is Tübingen Mayor Boris Palmer, who said that we are “likely protecting people who would have been dead within half a year anyway.”
More Contentious Debate
This comment has divided the Greens into two camps. The larger camp, and therefore the strongest, consists of those who had already lost patience with Palmer and his provocations. Numerous Green Party members thus welcome the proposal from party leaders to withdraw all party support from Palmer.
But the old guard is opposed to the idea, convinced that the party could benefit from a bit more contentious debate within its ranks. After all, they say, the Green Party is a civil rights party. Just a few days ago, a group of Greens released an appeal demanding that both state and federal party leaders engage in dialogue with Palmer and to abandon the “reprimand reflex.” One of the signatories was Antje Vollmer, a former Bundestag vice president.
Party leaders, though, would rather ignore the Palmer issue. When approached by DER SPIEGEL for comment, party heads Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck said only that they had nothing more to say on the issue.
Within the FDP, meanwhile, the most prominent dissident is Thomas Kemmerich, the politician from Thuringia who triggered a massive political scandal in Germany by initially accepting his election to the post of state governor, despite landing the position thanks to support from the far right AfD. He quickly stepped down once the uproar could no longer be ignored, but the damage was done.
In Gera, he recently spoke at a demonstration made up of conspiracy theory enthusiasts and AfD supporters. He was welcomed as the “only currently legitimate governor” of Thuringia – and he didn’t say anything to contradict that characterization.
In a special session of FDP leaders held to address that incident, Kemmerich apologized half-heartedly and announced that he was resigning from his position as part of the party’s federal executive committee. Parliamentarian Alexander Graf Lambsdorff responded by saying Kemmerich should consider whether that step was sufficient, with other meeting participants agreeing with Lambsdorff.
The FDP’s political adversaries, of course, were more than happy to take advantage of Kemmerich’s most recent misstep. “That the FDP is taking part in conspiracy demonstrations in Thuringia is shocking,” tweeted Marco Wanderwitz, a CDU politician who is responsible for eastern German issues for the federal government and a native of Saxony. “I’m afraid such ideas also have widespread support in Saxony.”
Such accusations anger FDP members who have clearly distanced themselves from the AfD and the corona truthers. People like Frank Müller-Rosentritt, 37, who has been head of the state FDP chapter in Saxony for the last six months. “The FDP in Saxony stands for cosmopolitanism, diversity and tolerance and took part in a demonstration, to name one example, with the CDU general secretary in Saxony against PEGIDA, the AfD and other tin foil hats,” Müller-Rosentritt says. In response to the tweet to Wanderwitz, he wrote: “I don’t know what you sprinkled on your breakfast this morning, but the ignorance and maliciousness of this disgraceful accusation cannot be topped.” The tone is getting rawer.
The Saxony FDP head says that members of his party don’t belong at demonstrations that include people from the hardcore right or extreme left. “Many take part who have grown comfortable in their fake news bubble,” he says. Freedom, though, “is not the opposite of reason,” Müller-Rosentritt emphasizes. “We have to be careful that extremists and conspiracy theorists do not misappropriate the term freedom for their own purposes and reinterpret it.”
The demonstration where Kemmerich spoke was organized by Peter Schmidt, until recently a senior member of a CDU economic council in Thuringia, although he is not a member of the party. In 2018, Schmidt’s company won a prestigious prize awarded annually to mid-sized companies. One acclamation noted that the company emphasizes the integration of foreigners. Schmidt’s company also apparently donates money to help children suffering from cancer and sponsors a cycling team.
“I registered the demonstration of my own volition and did not receive outside support,” he wrote on Facebook in defense of the Gera demonstration. He added that he would not allow himself to be instrumentalized by any party or organization. But if someone shares his views, he wouldn’t “subject them to an ideological examination.”
Schmidt sees himself as a victim, saying he warned that people with competing views were either being ignored or accused of being Nazis. Now, he says, he has personal experience with the phenomenon, but isn’t planning on organizing another demonstration. “It was an honor to me to light the spark, now you have to carry the flame.”
Gera is in Thuringia, and Governor Bodo Ramelow has a large favor he would like to ask of his electorate: Namely that they not allow themselves to be deceived by global conspiracy fantasies, anti-vaxxers, those who accuse Merkel of being a dictator and other delusions. “There are many legitimate questions and misunderstandings,” Ramelow says. And that is completely normal and appropriate, he adds, particularly in a democracy that thrives on a diversity of views. “Speaking nonsense is also covered by the democratic right to free speech. But intentionally misleading people, taking advantage of their fears, inciting them against each other and thus endangering their health is dishonorable, obscene and morally abhorrent.”
Whereas most parties tend to be suffering from the protests, the right-wing radical AfD is ecstatic. Functionaries at all levels are hoping that those who are now taking to the streets, insofar as they aren’t yet voters, will choose the AfD in future elections. Many of the demonstrations are now being registered by AfD members, doing their best to pose as the original corona skeptics in an effort to pull the rug out from under Widerstand2020 (“widerstand” is the German word for “resistance”), the new party that is currently being formed.
“Fundamental Democratic Rights”
Senior AfD members have also begun joining the fray. Party head Tino Chrupalla has taken part in demonstrations in Zittau and in Weisswasser, two towns in Saxony. Chrupalla considers the measures imposed by the federal government to be “totally disproportionate,” adding “it’s no wonder that people are taking to the streets.” He professes not to understand the criticism that has been leveled at the protests. “Citizens that protest are exercising their fundamental democratic rights,” he says. When it’s pointed out that there have been attacks on police officers at some of the demonstrations, Chrupalla says that he knows nothing about such things. But he nevertheless insists: “The interior ministers want to play the police off against the populace.”
Chrupalla is pleased that other milieus can also be found on the street. “The fact that resistance is also prevalent in the center of society,” he says, “should make the government think.” He predicts that the demonstrations will grow, and he isn’t bothered by the fact that extremists are among them.
It is an open question whether the AfD can attract new voters, particularly from eastern Germany. A survey commissioned by DER SPIEGEL found that 20 percent of people in western Germany find the anti-pandemic measures to be excessive, but only 13 percent of those in eastern Germany. In the East, satisfaction with the government’s measures is slightly higher than in the West, which is hardly ever the case.
Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer of the CDU considers the protests to be legitimate and is at pains to avoid giving the impression that anyone’s viewpoint is being suppressed. The government, he says, was democratically elected and those who have a problem with the anti-corona measures should “be able to express that at any time in a reasonable way.” But, Kretschmer is quick to say, “such a crisis becomes lethal when populists are in power.” As such, he says, he has great faith in people’s restraint.
His counterpart in Saxony-Anhalt, Governor Reiner Haseloff, likewise of the CDU, says it is frightening to see the degree of anger that is present at the demonstrations. But he also says that it in no way reflects majority opinion. The majority, he says, is not pushing to return to normality as soon as possible, but is concerned for their health and are uneasy about loosening the lockdown. Every day, he says, he receives emails and letters expressing such concerns.
The Fury Hotspot
Indeed, the German hotspot of corona fury is not in the East, but deep in the West – in the city of Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg. On Saturday, the movement called Querdenken 711 (the German word Querdenken essentially means “thinking outside of the box”) brought 10,000 people onto a fairground in Stuttgart. Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann of the Green Party found the demonstration “extremely unsettling.”
One of the main reasons that political leaders and security officials find these demonstrations so concerning is their diversity. There are, to be sure, plenty of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and Merkel-haters present, but they have been joined by workers who have lost their jobs as a result of the economic crisis and by single mothers. And, of course, by citizens who believe the rights guaranteed by the German constitution are under fire. Last weekend, there were 70 such marches with a total of around 19,000 participants.
What should be done? Essentially, there are three possible strategies: communication, the rule of law and money.
Friedrich Merz is in favor of taking decisive measures. “Many people can hardly point to an institution that they still believe in,” he says. “For that precise reason, politicians cannot be too defensive. All of us must stand up more strongly to those seeking to attract insecure milieus with crude conspiracy theories.”
By contrast, however, Tilman Kuban, head of the CDU’s youth chapter, is demanding that critics be taken seriously and that measures to combat the crisis be better explained. “I want an open culture of debate,” Kuban says. There are “good arguments” both for the lockdown and for measures to loosen it.
Lars Klingbeil of the SPD, meanwhile, would like to get the authorities involved. “We should not look away from such groups out of fear,” he says. The authorities, he says, “have to take a close look at what is happening.”
Things such as the focused attack launched on Saturday against Rhineland-Palatinate Governor Malu Dreyer. Her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts received around 7,000 posts that day, including calls to assassinate Merkel.
Dreyer’s team forwarded the most serious threats to the office of the federal prosecutor. “Insults and threats must be addressed by the judiciary. The freedom of opinion doesn’t cover everything,” says Dreyer.
“The Situation Is Explosive”
Ultimately, though, it will likely be money that talks the loudest. The greatest open door to the AfD and to the conspiracy theorists would be the widespread economic suffering of people who lost their jobs because of the crisis.
Those sitting at home with much less money than before, or those who are worried about being able to provide for their families could begin looking around for a scapegoat. The answer that such a person would find from the AfD or in social media channels is clear: The German government and the policies it implemented to stop the spread of the virus. The result could be a further loss of support for liberal democracy.
“Of course the situation is explosive,” says Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. “We have 10 million people furloughed from their jobs, three times as many as during the financial crisis. For me, we are now entering the most important phase for taking the wind out of the protesters’ sails. We quickly need a stimulus program to remain liquid and to save people’s jobs.”
The first laws to that effect have already been passed. The money that will now be spent is essentially the price that must be paid to support our liberal democracy.