Germany’s Anti-vaccination History Is Riddled With Anti-Semitism

Jewish people were blamed for spreading disease, and considered expendable victims.

German painting from the plague and scenes from a protest arranged as a flag
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Last year, I felt lucky to be an American in Germany. The government carried out a comprehensive public-health response, and for the most part, people wore masks in public. More recently, COVID-19 cases have surged here, with new infections reaching a single-day zenith in late March. Germany has lagged behind the United States and the United Kingdom in vaccination efforts, and German public-health regulators have restricted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 60, after seven cases of rare cerebral blood clots. Key public-health measures, particularly lockdowns and vaccination, have been divisive. Among some people, even the magnitude of the virus’s infectious threat has been in question.

Over the past year, Germany’s sprawling anti-lockdown movement has brought together a disquieting alliance of ordinary citizens, both left- and right-leaning, and extremists who see the pandemic response as part of a wider conspiracy. In August, nearly 40,000 protesters gathered in my neighborhood to oppose the government’s public-health measures, including the closure of stores and mask mandates. It was unnerving to hear German chants of “Fascism in the guise of health” from my window, and all the more given that the same day, a subgroup of those protesters charged Parliament. In a moment presaging the U.S. Capitol insurrection, 400 German protesters, including a group carrying the Reichsflagge, emblematic of the Nazi regime, rushed past police and reached the building’s stairs. Germany is riddled with QAnon adherents, some of whom are anti-vaccination, and some people are using this pandemic to articulate their anti-Semitic beliefs. They might deny COVID-19 exists, then play it down, and eventually blame 5G and Jewish people for the pandemic. In Bavaria, vaccine skeptics now use messages such as “Vaccination makes you free,” an allusion to “Work makes you free,” a horrific maxim of Nazi concentration camps.

Like the United States, Germany has a thriving anti-vaccination movement, and here it has encompassed conspiracy theorists, left-leaning spiritualists, and the far right. These last ties are the most troubling. In German-speaking lands, anti-science sentiment, right-wing politics, and racism have been entwined since even before Jews were accused of spreading the bubonic plague in the 14th century. These movements illustrate a grim truth: In both the past and the present, anti-science sentiments are inextricably tangled with racial prejudice.

Anti-vaccine movements are as old as vaccines, the scholar Jonathan M. Berman notes in his book, Anti-vaxxers, and what is striking, according to the author, is that early opponents at the turn of the 18th century believed that vaccination was “a foreign assault on traditional order.” But beliefs linking anti-science sentiment and anti-Semitism were already deeply set. During the plague outbreak of 1712 and 1713, for instance, the city of Hamburg initiated public-health measures including forbidding Jews from entering or leaving the city, Philipp Osten, the director of Hamburg’s Institute for History and Ethics of Medicine, told me. By the time cholera emerged in the 19th century, sickening thousands of people in the city within a matter of months, these antiquated ideas had taken on a new form.

Because this new disease was poorly understood, doctors, scientists, and laypeople promulgated competing theories about its spread. Some physicians blamed cholera on alcohol consumption, others on sadness or fear. Self-published pamphlets circulated misinformation much as social-media posts do today, and the public’s understanding of the disease was capacious, in many cases reflecting people’s anxieties. These ideas might have been innocuous enough on their own, but consummated through social movements and disinformation, they often posed a threat to people’s lives. As the historian Richard J. Evans has noted in Death in Hamburg, some Germans blamed the spread of cholera on Jews. These sentiments then extended to other epidemics, and to the vaccination movement. By the middle of the 19th century, anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets were being written against smallpox vaccination.

When cholera reemerged with full force in Hamburg in the late 19th century, local officials—following the advice of the scientists Robert Koch and Max von Pettenkofer—proposed a bill of public-health regulations such as school closures, disinfection of waterways, and quarantine. This led to a national uproar among constituents who saw state-enforced health measures as a threat to the German economy—and this time an ad hoc coalition joined together to oppose such measures. The German National Economic Association argued that the bill interfered with economic trade and personal freedom. But the opposition was as much about ethnicity as economics.

Denying the need for public-health measures, including vaccination, slipped into tacitly implying that the disease would carry off the Jewish and the poor. Sometimes the calculation was explicit. A monthly magazine distributed by the German physician Gustav Jäger argued that the cholera epidemic would remove “weaklings” from the “better classes” of society. These words were code for the poor and for ethnic minorities, and not only do they link contagion to ableism, but they deny members of ethnic minority groups their humanity.

Today, German coronavirus skeptics insist that their objection is free from bigotry and xenophobia. But underneath the surface, anti-Semitism is visible. Attila Hildmann, a popular German vegan chef turned coronavirus skeptic, has been under investigation for public incitement of hatred and resistance to police officers since protests at the German Reichstag building in August. COVID-skeptical members of the QAnon movement, too, have been tied to armed neo-Nazi networks. One QAnon advocate and former police officer—Marko Gross, who likens coronavirus coverage to communist propaganda—is part of a far-right group known as the Nordkreuz “shadow army,” a network that includes former military officials and law enforcement. The coalition was enraged when in 2015 the German government welcomed hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, and collected ammunition in preparation for what they and neo-Nazis refer to as “Day X”—the moment when they take over Germany’s fallen government. At the core of such ideologies are conspiracy theories that have metastasized on the internet’s outskirts, many in QAnon-related channels where animosity toward the “deep state” lives alongside anti-Semitism. These conspiracy theorists, though, are not alone.

Although openly far-right attitudes are rejected by the majority of German society, nearly 3 percent of the German population harbors far-right views, and 8 percent of the Germans surveyed consider themselves superior to other people, according to a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a political-research group associated with Germany’s left-leaning Social Democratic Party. A World Jewish Congress survey found that 27 percent of Germans hold anti-Semitic beliefs; researchers think that these sentiments are growing. Approximately one-third of Germans believe in conspiracist narratives. One current battleground of conspiracism is the COVID-19 vaccine.

After the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine were distributed in late December, social-media posts by coronavirus skeptics falsely claimed that the vaccine caused infertility. (Experts have discounted this idea.) One of the people at the center of this dissent was Wolfgang Wodarg, a German physician who has likened the novel coronavirus to the common flu. In 2010, he called the H1N1 virus “fake.” Although Wodarg has not explicitly made anti-Semitic remarks, he works closely with German media and personalities who have expressed these beliefs, and these relationships are tight enough that his former employer Transparency International has distanced itself from him.

The anti-Semitic tropes of the 19th and 20th centuries do not usually appear in the same shape or form today; rather, they appear in coded language, used by the populist parties that have forged nationalist beliefs. Conspiracy theories are popular among members of Germany’s conservative party Alternative for Germany (widely known by its German initials, AfD)—perhaps most analogous to the right wing of the American Republican Party—and some members have recently organized anti-lockdown protests. Like Republican voters in the U.S., AfD voters are more likely to oppose social-distancing measures and mask wearing.

Again, most Germans don’t ascribe to these views: About 70 percent of Germans indicated their willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were proven to be safe and effective, according to a study in Nature Medicine. (This study was published in October 2020, before concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine became widely publicized.) But another study showed an increase in the level of vaccine mistrust corresponding with rising rates of populism. In the U.S., too, right-wing political views have been tangled with anti-scientific ideas: In a March poll, close to half of Donald Trump voters said they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine if it were offered to them.

It would be easy to see this history of prejudice creeping into anti-vaccination campaigns as a specifically German problem; in the U.S., the relationship between anti-science sentiment and racism may not be immediately obvious. But connections between them can be made out. Although anti-Semitism still exists in the U.S. and has arguably colored even scientifically minded public-health responses, in the 1890s and today, the clearest way in which anti-science sentiment has encoded prejudice during this pandemic is in the outright denial of the coronavirus’s consequences. This denial is itself a racially coded act that dismisses the toll that COVID-19 has taken on Black, Latino, and Native American communities in the United States. As the COVID Racial Data Tracker shows, Black people in America are dying at 1.4 times the rate of white people from COVID-related causes.

So when skeptics dismiss the pandemic—as Trump did—they overlook the scale of the suffering the virus has visited on Black Americans, and ignore health inequities. Whether that’s by design doesn’t really matter: Denying the need for public-health measures, including vaccination, slips into tacitly accepting that the disease will carry off people from these communities, in the same way 19th-century Germans accepted that cholera would carry off the Jewish and the poor. American coronavirus skeptics claim that there’s nothing to fear, that the whole thing is a hoax, while the virus kills their Black and Latino neighbors at disproportionately high rates.

Skepticism, denial, and conspiracism are the symptoms of a spreading, insidious disease that’s not confined to one country: The same strains of conspiracism and misinformation run through the U.S. and Germany. This set of beliefs has deep roots in the shared legacies of racism in Europe and the United States. It has dogged public-health campaigns in Germany for centuries, and will keep showing up in America’s attempts to beat back the coronavirus. Denialism that implicitly dismisses others’ claims to humanity is not just dangerous—it’s infectious.