OPINION: The worst of both worlds – Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no-one

Germany was meant to lift most Covid measures on March 20th. Instead, politicians and many residents are still gripped by Covid panic even though other countries have found ways to move forward, writes Brian Melican.

OPINION: The worst of both worlds - Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no-one
A sign at a restaurant/bar in Stuttgart says the 3G entry rule applies, meaning people have to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

For those of us who work in the media, taking a proper holiday can be difficult. Things that other people do with their time off – being given a tour, for instance, or reading the paper cover-to-cover over a leisurely breakfast – can easily end up feeling like work. So in that spirit, let me share with you some things I discovered while on holiday in Sweden last week.

Firstly, if you’re on a guided tour, you don’t have to prove your vaccination status or wear a mask. (I haven’t written “anymore” because I’m reliably informed that you never had to). What’s more, even if you read the paper from front to back, you won’t find out much about coronavirus: on the day I arrived, Saturday 19th March, there was precisely one story about it in Svenska Dagbladet – a short article on page 21 headlined “Death rates in line with flu season averages”; when I left a week later, there was another short back-pages article giving an overview of the Covid-19 situation in Europe. Seen from Sweden, Germany’s high rates of the disease are due to continued asymptomatic testing and our health service is well able to handle the case-load.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s Covid infections ease up in time for Easter?

This view stands in marked contrast to that of our Groundhog-Day media outlets (“Today’s 7-day average of new cases is…”) and is particularly necessary at the moment because, from inside the fishbowl, it’s harder than ever to understand what is going in Germany. Many politicians and most of the general population are still gripped by Covid panic, and rather than some kind of end-date, milestone, or “Freedom Day”, the legislation of 20th March has actually proven to be a Rorschach test. I was, of course, away when it came into force, but also kept abreast of the news here (no, I’m really not good at being on holiday) – and even as a journalist, I’m confused. 

How so? Ahead of 20th March, German weekly newspaper ZEIT ran a front-page op-ed welcoming the change. Yet the newspaper’s Hamburg reporters soon dampened any expectations I had of returning from holiday to a more relaxed environment: as it turns out, Hamburg’s Senate decided to avail itself of the transition period to retain all restrictions until 2nd April and will then declare the city a ‘hotspot’, allowing it prolong existing restrictions indefinitely – and introduce yet more at short notice. 

A positive Covid test lies on a mask.

A positive Covid test lies on a mask. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

It’s not just Hamburg, either: the list of federal states looking to apply the hotspot exception is so long that it would be quicker to name the few who have opted not to. So when I returned to Germany at the weekend, entering via Schleswig-Holstein, everything was exactly the same as when I left: masks, physical distancing, one-way-systems, etc. Yet oddly enough, this week’s ZEIT carries another opinion piece bemoaning how Germany is loosening restrictions at exactly the wrong time.

READ ALSO: Why Germany is in a bitter row over Covid measures

‘Worst of both worlds’

There is only one possible explanation for what is going on: Germany as a body politic is suffering from a severe form of cognitive dissonance. In order to respect the constitution – which, although it has been stretched to breaking point since March 2020, still forbids curbs to basic freedom without good reason (see Art. 2) – the federal government has lifted restrictions in law, and so now considers the matter resolved. Opinion leaders, media-savvy zero/no-Covid types, and a majority of the general public take this at face value and think restrictions have been lifted – and lifted too fast – when, in actual lived reality, they quite patently haven’t.

The result is that we are now in the worst of both worlds. Those few of us who think it is time to ditch restrictions have been palmed off with an alternative legislative reality; meanwhile, the vast majority are now scared sick despite the fact that, objectively, nothing has changed and Germany still retains one of the highest levels of Covid stringency in Europe.

Speaking on public radio ahead of March 20th, Head of the German Medical Association Klaus Reinhardt summed up our societal split quite well when he said that he was worried about two kinds of mask-wearers: those not wearing them properly even in enclosed spaces like on the S-Bahn at rush hour on the one hand and, on the other, those wearing them impeccably while alone in their cars or out on bike rides in the woods. 

As a medical man, Reinhardt is clearly worried not just about Covid, but about Covid-related harm – i.e. the psychological disorders now resulting from two years of constant haranguing about the danger of respiratory illness. Unfortunately for him, though, another medical man, epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach, is our federal Health Minister. And when Lauterbach speaks on radio, he doesn’t sum up the societal split – he embodies it. Long the poster-boy for hawkish Covid policy, Lauterbach now finds himself forced to take Justice Minister Marco Buschmann’s constitutional concerns seriously and, outwardly at least (and to the despair of his fans), tow the federal government line. 

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach speaks in Berlin on March 28th.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach speaks in Berlin on March 28th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

So his recourse is now to keep on about how dangerous corona is, make various dark prophesies about the coming autumn, and delegate pressure down to the states, whom he repeatedly begs to go against the loosening of restrictions his own government has enacted. And to pull off this inside job, Lauterbach can rely on the systemic dysfunction in German federalism – a dysfunction repeated attempts to pass the buck upwards over the past two years have made clearer than ever. When the federal government wanted to tighten restrictions in 2020 and this proved unpopular, the Bundesländer blamed Berlin and argued for them to be loosened; now that loosening restrictions is proving equally unpopular, Berlin is once again to blame and the states are tightening them.

Germans ‘fear freedom’

Yes, the vote-winner in this year’s round of regional elections will be stringent coronavirus policy. Klaus Reinhardt’s rhetorical FFP2-cyclist stands for a majority of Germans now so utterly traumatised that they fear freedom. You can see this in the petrified look of outdoor mask-wearers dodging oncoming pedestrians; you can hear it in scraps of conversation overheard while waiting at traffic lights – like this one I picked up yesterday regarding one of the few restrictions to actually be dropped in Hamburg of late: “I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable going swimming now that you can just walk up like you used to. And no masks! No restrictions whatsoever!” This, by the way, from two young, healthy adults who went on to chat about when and how to get their fourth jabs… 

Having just got back from Sweden, where, even on the Stockholm underground, you can count the number of mask-wearers on one hand (yes, both German tourists), this seems weirder than ever. And the continuous obsession with masks – the litany of “It’s crazy to get rid of such an effective tool like mask-wearing at a point like this” – is starting to beg the question of why, if the religious mask-wearing we’ve been practicing for so long is so effective, our death-rate is now rapidly approaching that of our light-touch Nordic neighbour, with our case-load soaring while Sweden’s stays stable

Not that you’d hear much about this inside the fishbowl, of course. So if you take a holiday outside of Germany at any point, try reading the paper. If you’re not a journalist by trade, it might even count as genuine relaxation…

Member comments

  1. Yes. It has been a nightmare living in Germany these last two years. Thankfully, we don’t typically have to wear masks on base and it is literally a breath of fresh air. Our rates of infection are on par with Germany’s as well. I hate shopping on the economy now because I have to wear a mask. My kids hate that we took them out of the American school so they could pick up German better. All their American friends going to base schools gave up mask a while back and are normal kids again. Meanwhile, my kids are tested daily and the school seems to think they should be happy they can sit at their desk with no mask, but everywhere else, wear one. The cognitive dissonance in this country is unbelievable. This asymptomatic testing is bonkers too. My eldest tested positive last week and has yet to show a symptom. It’s just insane.

  2. Unfortunately the people so scared into compliance against something they can not see. They have suffered a great trauma to their psyche and will, from my experience. never recover from it. The damage done has far outweighed any damage the virus could have achieved. There will be people now who can no longer handle even the thought of freedom. Once restrictions are removed they will live with a crippling fear. Thats why they fight so hard to keep it all.

    I feel so bad for these people, The fear they have is palpable. At the same time im so angry at them for keeping this going far longer than was ever needed. All for a virus with a 99.2% survival rate. Are we going to teach our children what freedom is. Or, what freedom was?

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Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).


What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October.