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Germany: the New Face of Radicalism

BLOG - 7 September 2020

For a long time, German political life was exempt from grandiose staged events of which France is an expert. With the exception of Marcus Söder, Bavaria's Minister-President, who occasionally dusted off the Hall of Mirrors at Herrenchiemsee Castle, German leaders did not indulge in this ‘old regime’ type of pomp that the golds of France never fail to remind of. And although some fringes of the population do not refrain from resorting to violence - as we saw in 2017 in Hamburg during clashes around the G20 - protest movements do not seek to rekindle the memory of the Revolution, as is often the case in France.

As such, the images of the demonstrators seeking to break into the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament, on August 29 were all the more shocking to Germany, because they represented a historical scene to which the country was not accustomed. Like the Weimar Republic, whose legacy it has taken on, the present German Federal Republic claims to be "poor in symbolism". The Reichstag, crowned with its famous glass dome designed by Norman Foster, appears as the transparent centre of a peaceful democracy, the place where political decisions are made on behalf of the sovereign people and the most striking symbol of reunified Germany.

The "Reichstag takeover" planned by the anti-mask demonstrators on August 29, 2020 inevitably awakens the memory of its burning in 1933, paving the way for the Nazi regime to bring Germany into line. As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recalled, these outbursts on the fringes of the anti-mask demonstrations represent "an unbearable attack on the heart of our democracy".

The protest movement

The attempt to "take over the Reichstag" is part of a wider movement of opposition to the restrictive measures adopted by the German government to combat the spread of the pandemic. From May 13, 2020, demonstrations broke out in Germany's major cities - mainly in Stuttgart - to denounce the restrictions on the main individual freedoms and the threat these measures pose to the country's economic future. From the outset, this movement worried the German authorities because of its ability to bring together a heterogeneous group of forces, ranging from "freedom fighters", to extreme right-wing groups, representatives of anthroposophy, an esoteric current of thought particularly developed in Germany, anti-vaccine activists and ordinary citizens.

Germany thus appears to be a victim of its own success: the low number of deaths contributes to the idea, in parts of German public opinion, that the measures adopted were disproportionate to the real seriousness of the epidemic.

These demonstrations seem all the more paradoxical as Germany is one of the countries that has best managed the coronavirus crisis from a health perspective, by successfully limiting the number of contaminations without imposing measures as strict as in other European countries. Germany thus appears to be a victim of its own success: the low number of deaths (9,482 deaths linked to the coronavirus, i.e. 11.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 30,661 deaths in France, i.e. 45.6 deaths linked to the coronavirus per 100,000 inhabitants) contributes to the idea, in parts of German public opinion, that the measures adopted were disproportionate to the real seriousness of the epidemic.

This is undoubtedly an important lesson of this crisis, even if this paradox must be put into perspective by the support that a large part of the population continues to give to the German government. A study by the University of Heidelberg published last July revealed that 68.3% of the German population considered the government's handling of the crisis to be satisfactory or very satisfactory, while 64.7% of those questioned considered that the measures adopted were proportionate to their social usefulness. While the protest movement emerges from this study as a relatively marginal phenomenon - with 24% of respondents declaring themselves dissatisfied with the management of the crisis - this study also highlights the "conspiracy bias" (Verschwörungsmentalität) affecting the majority of respondents hostile to the policy.   

The issue with the mask

The strong presence of conspiracy theories circulating amongst demonstrators largely contributed to undermining the credibility of the protest movement. However, particular attention must be paid to the driving forces behind this mobilization, and in particular to the "uncertainty" that prevails in political decision-making, denounced by some of the demonstrators as the driving force behind their opposition. During the crisis, the German government sought to present its decisions not as political choices but as the product of scientific rationality, gradually exposing the uncertainties of science with regard to the epidemic.

In both Germany and France, the change in the discourse on the usefulness of the mask has fuelled mistrust of the measures imposed by the government. As the daily Die Zeit recalled in its edition of August 13, 2020, experts unanimously denounced the usefulness of masks worn by the entire population at the beginning. On January 29, the World Health Organisation ruled that only people with symptoms should wear masks, and the famous virologist Christian Drosten, as well as Lothar Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute, continued to state until April that there was "no scientific evidence that there is any benefit to the wearing of masks by citizens". Even today, a country like Sweden refuses to encourage its population to wear a mask whose usefulness is not scientifically proven, fearing that wearing a mask could generate a false sense of security and a relaxation of respect for social distancing.

Germany has only gradually changed its position on the mask. The city of Iena was the first to impose the mask in the public space from the end of March, managing to demonstrate a significant drop in the number of contaminations. At the end of April, wearing masks in shops and on public transports was made compulsory, and on August 27, 2020, the Federal State and the Länders (with the exception of Saxony-Anhalt) decided to impose a fine on those who refused to wear it. The obligation to wear a mask thus crystallized opposition to government policy in Germany.

The new faces of radicalism

The symbolic function of the mask is ambivalent. Its capacity to protect the individual wearing it remains uncertain, but most scientific studies agree on its ability to limit the spread of the virus: more than its direct effectiveness, its main function lies in its ability to create psychological distance, to remind people that the virus is still there. For its opponents, on the contrary, the mask is described as a "muzzle", a symbol of the infantilization of citizens by the state. Far-right MP Janette Auricht thus asserts that the obligation to wear a mask "treats the citizen as children, instead of considering them to be responsible citizens". Mündig in German means "responsible", "emancipated", one who through his mouth (Mund) has the opportunity to speak.

Far-right MP Janette Auricht thus asserts that the obligation to wear a mask "treats the citizen as children, instead of considering them to be responsible citizens".

The demonstrations organized in Berlin on August 29 went far beyond the opposition to masks. Organized by the "Querdenken 711" committee in Stuttgart, these demonstrations brought together nearly 40,000 people, a heterogeneous group of demonstrators, including families, hippies armed with rainbow flags, defenders of freedoms, alongside extreme right-wing activists and followers of conspiracy theory who all defend the possibility of "thinking differently" (Querdenken). Although they do not represent the majority of the movement, these demonstrations shed new light on the rise of the conspiracy sphere in Germany and its projection of social networks onto the streets.

Two particularly visible movements monopolized the attention of the media across the Rhine. The first one is that of the followers of the "QAnon", a conspiracy movement originating in the United States denouncing child trafficking organized by the globalized elites and whose messages have gained ground in Germany thanks to the pandemic. The second is that of the "Reichsbürger" or citizens of the Empire, an exclusively German extreme right-wing movement, convinced that the German Empire has never ceased to exist and recognizing neither the existence of the Federal Republic nor the legal system on which it is based. Their flag is precisely the one that dominated the images of the "Reichstag takeover", whose unfolding revealed the weakness of democracy, as happened in Weimar's time.

From the Liberals to the extreme right, condemnation of this outburst was unanimous, relegating the "anti-corona" demonstrations to the margins and the attempt to take over the Reichstag to the rank of an event that was shocking in form but insignificant in substance. The shift in public debate towards irrationality, however, reveals the deep crisis of confidence of part of the population in the "system" and its leaders, exacerbated by the climate of uncertainty linked to the pandemic. In France, the note from Institut Montaigne, titled Information Manipulations Around Covid-19, had shown how the health crisis had been exploited on social networks by more or less politicized groups, often against a background of doubt about authority. The messages of some are often the irrational interests of others, raising the thorny issue of content moderation and freedom of expression on the Internet. As the Chancellor recalled at the end of August, "the virus represents a test of democracy".

 

Copyright: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

 

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