The university city of Cottbus staged one of 2,000 anti-vaccine protests throughout Germany on Monday, fuelled by the extreme right.
People emerged from dimly lit side alleys on Monday evening at 7 p.m. to assemble on Cottbus’ Oberkirchplatz plaza for what has become a weekly tradition in towns and cities throughout Germany: an anti-vaccine protests opposing coronavirus prevention measures.
As cases of the Omicron strain have increased, the anti-vaccine protests have escalated in intensity, and in recent weeks, a pending decision on enacting a vaccination requirement has been the target of demonstrators’ wrath. On Monday, more than 2,000 rallies were staged around the country, attracting tens of thousands of people.
A familiar scenario played out in Cottbus, a university town south of Berlin. The police said over the microphone that the demonstration was illegal since the participants were not wearing masks and were not physically separated from one another. The Spaziergänge, or snake walks that slither in a number of directions and are meant to overwhelm any police reaction, then split up into smaller groups.
The demonstrators were a low-key bunch, dressed in padded jackets and thick caps. “We are just having an evening stroll,” one woman said, smirking amiably behind a red knitted cap. “Exercising our right to stretch our legs.” says the woman.
The soothing click of heels and umbrella studs on wet cobblestones, on the other hand, was swiftly drowned out by a guy shouting “Frieden, Freiheit, keine Diktatur!” ” (Peace, freedom, no dictatorship) then “Widerstand!” (Resistance).
Anti-vaccine protest slogan: “We are the people”
“Wir sind das Volk,” said another woman nearby. That means, “we are the people” – this was the slogan heard across communist east Germany in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall fell.
Those who agreed to speak said they wanted to show local and national politicians that they were tired of restrictions. Several others stated that they had not been vaccinated, while others declined to tell. Almost no one was willing to give their names.
“I just want my freedom back,” one elderly woman stated. Another younger lady claimed she was attempting to dissuade the government from forcefully vaccinating her nine-year-old, but there is presently no plan to require parents to get children vaccinated. One of the few anti-vaccine protestors who wore a mask claimed she was afraid of losing her job if she refused to be vaccinated under plans for a mandate for medical workers that would be imposed next month.
“When injustice becomes law, resistance is our duty,” Maik, a landscape gardener who refused to wear a mask, referring to them as “chin nappies,” remarked when asked why there was a need for resistance.
Anti-vaccine protests are controlled by right-wing and far-right
There is mounting evidence that the anti-vaccine protests are being controlled behind the scenes by rightwing populists and far-right organizations, who perceive problems like gathering limitations, insistence on wearing medical masks, and the possibility of an adult vaccination mandate as ripe for political exploitation.
Zukunft Heimat (Future Homeland), a far-right organisation that preaches a nationalist, anti-immigrant message and was created in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, organizes much of the activities around rallies throughout Brandenburg, including Cottbus.
It released a message from Christoph Berndt, a dentist who is also the legislative leader of the far-right populist AfD in Brandenburg and has spoken at anti-refugee Pegida protests, ahead of Monday’s events. He urged people to “defend our freedom and our democracy …” in the face of a government that is “treating its citizens with disdain”.
Berndt had previously expressed doubts about whether anybody has died from Covid, claimed that the virus does not exist, and refused to wear a face mask because it is a “symbol of suppression.”
People talk about wanting to overthrow the government in chat rooms and on messaging applications about the anti-vaccine protests, equating the administration to a tyranny. Those who formerly protested against former chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies are now rallying against her successor, Olaf Scholz, and his health minister, Karl Lauterbach.
Some refer to a conspiracy theory dubbed Tag X (Day X) that forecasts Germany’s “entire system” would collapse owing to crucial infrastructure being blocked by quarantine measures, both online and in person, with what looks to be an amusement.
Participants in the rally are encouraged to “put sand into the cogs of a system” that is already on its final legs, and lighter analogies to a “civil war mood” are made.
Rightwing radicals associated with the far-right Identitarian movement, the rightwing-focused advertising firm One Percent, and the research tank Institut für Staatspolitik (IfS) created a digital map depicting anti-Islam rallies around Germany during the immigration crisis. People might enter their postcode to discover the rally closest to them.
A similar map was constructed for the coronavirus “Spaziergang” movement, which was formed by the far-right group Filmkunstkollektiv, whose followers and members include Identitarians, members of the IfS, and One Percent.
Filmkunstkollektiv is also known to have created film material for the AfD, notably supporting its youth members on a “vaccine strike” in Berlin. It’s also linked to the far-right Compact magazine, whose most recent cover portrays a young guy with needles and syringes stuck in his body, with the headline “Vaccine dictatorship – being boosted to death”.
Much of the wind of anti-vaccine protests have come from Austria, where preparations for a vaccination mandate, as well as opposition to it, are more enflamed. Vaccine passports and penalties have been called “totalitarian instruments” by Martin Sellner, the founder of the Identitarian movement.
On Monday night, some anti-vaccine protestors, including those who claimed to be “apolitical,” showed this worldview.
An unvaccinated woman wrote in a chat group on an instant messaging service that provides a running commentary on the Monday anti-vaccine protests that “it is possible to put oneself in the shoes of Jews who suddenly had their basic rights removed from them during the Third Reich” because she has had to abide by rules that ban those who are not vaccinated or recovered from many non-essential activities.
Such words have received widespread condemnation. Experts on Germany’s constitution have cautioned that radical forces may abuse the victimization narrative voiced by many of the anti-vaccine protestors. They point to the murder of a petrol pump attendant in September, who was murdered by a guy after he refused to serve him because he was not wearing a mask, as proof that they are not exaggerating.
Several hundred nonviolent anti-vaccine protestors were playing cat and mouse with the police less than an hour into the march in Cottbus on Monday night, who managed to kettle in one group close to a Glühwein kiosk.
There were some outlandish hypotheses floating about. Brigitte, a primary school teacher, said she believed the vaccine campaign was “an attempt to thin out the world’s population” as she walked with a group of friends towards the historic market square. The 73 percent of Germans who are inoculated are expected to die, she claimed. “If this is the case, then I am one of the 26% who will live to make this nation great again,” she added. “I read it on one of my newsfeeds,” she said when asked where she got the hypothesis.