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.