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Germany’s pandemic protests are mainstreaming antisemitic conspiracy theories

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In the last months, neo-Nazis have become more brazen, demonstrating openly in public, particularly at anti-coronavirus rallies – or Anti-Corona-Demos, as we call them in German. The rallies aren’t just anti-lockdown, they tackle everything which has to do with the virus, including denying that it exists.

Most of these demonstrations are organized by a group called “Querdenken 711”, coronavirus skeptics that have been calling for the government to stop the policies set up to fight the novel Coronavirus.

In recent months, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution issued warnings concerning the rise of anti-Semitism and the President of the Bundestag appealed for better protection of Jewish life.

“Querdenken 711” was founded early in the pandemic by IT entrepreneur Michael Ballweg in the affluent city of Stuttgart and soon became a nationwide movement. The code 711 is the local city phone code. In other cities the number is replaced by the respective phone code of that locality.

Of course, demonstrating against the policies of a government is a constitutional right, but what’s happening right now in Germany is worrisome. Innocuous groups like anti-war activists, LGBTQ people and New Agers are marching side by side with anti-vaxxers and neo-Nazis, including QAnon supporters and Reichsbürger – right-wing extremists claiming that the Federal Republic of Germany doesn’t exist and that a circle of elites control the German people in form of a Limited Company. Together with QAnon, Reichsbürger believe in a so-called “Jewish world-conspiracy theory” (“Jüdische Weltverschwörung”), accusing Jews “and their associates” of trying to establish a New World Order.

It’s jarring to see the flag of the German Reich being waved on these demonstrations, right next to rainbow flags and families with young children. One rally even included a large portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.

In August, a group of people participating in an anti-corona demonstration near the Bundestag (Parliament) building actually managed to climb over police blockades and run up the stairs of the building, waving flags of the German Reich. Right-wingers coined the action as the “Raid of the Parliament”, but even more disturbing is that some media sources began using the word “raid” in their own reports. As a result, the mainstream soon began using this term, even though it wasn’t a raid at all, since the Parliament and its operation were never in any danger and the protestors didn’t even manage to get into the building. Nonetheless, the images of this action that were shared in the media are disturbing, when you consider that a group of anti-democratic protestors succeeded in getting so close to the very place which is the heart of German democracy.

Another troubling development concerns activists who relativize the Nazi regime. A 22-year-old woman who calls herself Jana from Kassel, for instance, explained on the podium at a protest in Hanover that organizing and distributing flyers at anti-Corona demonstrations makes her feel like Sophie Scholl, the German student and anti-Nazi political activist convicted of and executed in 1943 for distributing anti-war leaflets.

The comparison is ludicrous. While Sophie Scholl was executed for saying what she felt was necessary, Jana is free to say whatever she wants and can publicly criticize the government. Likening the two makes a mockery of all those individuals, who courageously resisted the Third Reich.   In another example, an 11-year-old explained on a podium at a demonstration in Karlsruhe that she felt like Anne Frank, because she had to stay home “quiet as a mouse” on her birthday and couldn’t celebrate it openly.

Recently some demonstrators have even begun walking around at these protests wearing a Star of David armband with the word “ungeimpft” (unvaccinated) on it. Here too we are trivializing the Jewish victims forced to wear the yellow badge during the Third Reich.

Today, antisemitism often starts subliminally. It begins with people minimizing events from the Nazi era by using weird associations, and continues by “seeking” parallels between the recent government and the horrific Nazi dictatorship. Despite that, Querdenken saw a way to profit financially by marketing products using its hate speech. Michael Ballweg has already registered different combinations of the word “Querdenken” as a trademark to use on its merchandising. According to the investigative German magazine, he now offers 69 products, including hoodies, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Another initiative called “The People against Corona” raises money to sue the German government. A second website by a German lawyer tries to sue the German government for its coronavirus policies in the United States.

Furthermore, Dennis Haberschuss, from the province of Hesse, tweeted to Donald Trump: “@realDonaldTrump You are the top chief of occupation in Germany. Please send your soldiers to Berlin and eliminate this corrupt pseudo-government. Bring back peace to Germany, Europe and the world.” This tweet was clearly using Reichsbürger speech in which Germany’s existence as a sovereign state is denied.

These protests are becoming more and more radicalized. People who are understandably concerned about the future might be recruited by right-wingers or ideologized by them. Indeed, Germans have never experienced so many restrictions since before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Due to this past, Germans are understandably very sensitive when someone tries to restrict them. As such, it is natural that some fear the future of our democracy. But right now, all the democratic institutions are functioning well, and the country is  far from any circumstances comparable to the Nazi period.

Protesting for one’s freedom side by side with Nazis is a paradox in itself. If citizens and government  don’t counter this phenomenon, Germany will lose the war of information to those who want to divide the society using antisemitic conspiracy theories, endangering not only Germany’s  freedom and democracy, but also the peaceful life of the Jewish community.

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