Germany has been an epicenter of vaccine refusal and Covid-denialism throughout the pandemic, most significantly represented by the Querdenker (lateral thinker) movement. Querdenker groups across the nation have held a number of high-profile protests and marches throughout the country over the last year, with some descending into violence as protesters clashed with police.
However, it’s not so much the protest actions of the movement that have inflamed and divided the populace, as the tendency for Querdenker to liken the government pandemic response to the darkest period in the nation’s history.
Weaponising the past
One constant in Querdenker communication channels are analogies being drawn between mask and lockdown regulations, and Nazi-era persecutions. The symbols, slogans and ideas of the regime have been employed to liken public health measures to Jewish persecutions in the years before the Holocaust, and to cast the federal government as a new ‘Third Reich’.
In June, a Munich man was charged with depicting a vaccination centre as a Nazi concentration camp on Facebook. City authorities have now also banned the wearing at protests of yellow stars with the word ‘Ungeimpft’ (unvaccinated) – a direct reference to the Judensterne that all Jews in Nazi-occupied territories had to wear from 1941.
Similarly, in November, ‘Jana from Kassel’ likened herself to the courageous anti-Nazi resistance fighter, Sophie Scholl, at a Querdenker protest. This led to a barrage of scorn. A week earlier, an 11-year-old girl at a rally in Karlsruhe provoked further outrage by claiming that she’d had to exist like child diarist Anne Frank, celebrating a birthday secretly, so as not to alert the authorities.
‘Sending a message’
And now Germany is reeling after a 20-year-old petrol station cashier in the town of Idar-Oberstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, was shot dead on Saturday in what is believed to be the first killing linked to the government’s coronavirus rules.
The row started when the cashier, a student, told the customer to put on a face mask, as required in all German shops. After a brief argument, the man left.
He then returned wearing a mask, but went to to shoot the cashier.
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The suspect, known as Mario N, made no secret that he shared Querdenker beliefs, as has been reported by German media. He would later tell police that he felt ‘stressed’ by the Covid-19 regulations, and that he shot the young man to ‘send a message’.
There are no doubt many factors involved with this extreme case that are being investigated.
But the effect of sharing beliefs with a group that regularly compares the pandemic measures to Nazi persecutions cannot be ignored.
A cursory glance at some of the largest Querdenker Telegram channels shows such messaging appearing every day, and frequently forwarded on to both other channels, and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Earlier this year Germany’s domestic intelligence agency announced that it was to start monitoring leading figures of Querdenker.
Some protest organisers “have clearly demonstrated that their agenda goes beyond simply mobilising protests against the government’s corona measures”, the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry added that for some figures, their aim appears to be to “permanently undermine trust in state institutions and their representatives”.
Of course, no comparisons can be drawn between the public health measures implemented during the pandemic by both federal and state governments and Nazi persecutions- at least, no sensible ones. Mask requirements and vaccination drives in response to pandemics can in no way be likened to Nazi atrocities, but also preceded the regime by decades in Germany, and were instrumental in saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Such analogies, however, will continue to provoke strong, sustained emotions in the birthplace of one of modern history’s greatest outrages. Three generations have grown up in the shadow of Nazi crimes, and for many, it is the most emotive touchstone there is. Germans are educated from childhood about the era, and the phrase ‘never forget’ holds a powerful weight among the populace.
It is a bitter irony, then, that many of those crafting such messages themselves have significant links to known far-right organisations. The ongoing pandemic has been the perfect opportunity for them to depict the government as akin to the very worst the country has known, in order to bolster their ranks. Never mind that some of these groups may share goals with the former regime in their hatred of migrants, or permissive social values.
Such extremist organisations are very unlikely to assume any kind of meaningful power, and that’s where the greatest danger in this weaponising of the past becomes apparent: In order to remain an active presence on society’s margins, they need to up the stakes with their messaging. Eventually, confronted with the idea they’re effectively reliving a national trauma, someone consuming such messages will lash out. That’s how a young man at the start of his adult life ends up being killed over a mask on a Saturday night.
Disappointingly, there’s a lot of discussion within German and English-speaking online communities that suggests the murder victim was somehow responsible for his own murder by enforcing the mask requirement. Memes are posted that suggest that by doing so, he was shirking his moral responsibility. His upholding of the mask requirement is likened to invoking the Nuremberg defence of ‘just following orders’ and thereby casts him a participant in a war – not simply a kid supporting himself with a gas station job.
It is imperative that, confronted with such statements and ideas, that they be refuted categorically. Governments across Germany, trying to save lives, are not acting as the tyrants of the past, but as a democratically-elected government attempting to save lives. Using the past as a weapon not only cheapens the experiences of those suffered under the Nazis, but carries a grave danger at a critical moment.