Cover: Democratic Corrosion at the Heart of Europe

Democratic Corrosion at the Heart of Europe

Covid-19, the War in Ukraine, and the Security Threats Posed by Polarization and Radicalization in Germany
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1. Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic crystalized the myriad challenges facing the modern world like
few crises before it. Its impacts were so far reaching, its insights so diverse, that even the
metaphors created to understand it spun off their own field of study.1 It seems impossible
to conceive of another event that revealed so much about the very nature of our globalized
world, system of international relations, and forms of governance. Throughout history,
“pandemics [have] expose[d] and exacerbate[d] the existing inequalities, divisions, and
other fault lines of our society,” stated Brian Michael Jenkins, author of Plagues and
Their Aftermath: How Societies Recover from Pandemics and a senior advisor to the
RAND Corporation.2 And Covid-19 was no different.

In Germany, Covid-19 and the measures introduced by the government to halt its spread
sparked a nationwide protest movement that revealed a startling level of mistrust
and skepticism towards democratic institutions. The anti-lockdown and subsequently
anti-vaccine protests – elements of which bore the moniker “Querdenker ” (“lateral
thinker”) after their most successful chapter, the Stuttgart-based Querdenken 711 –
waxed and waned between 2020 and 2022, mirroring the changing severity of
government restrictions. While this period witnessed a shift from massive gatherings in
cities like Berlin to spontaneous, localized “walks” taking place throughout Germany ,
protest in some form remained a constant.

As a diverse slice of the German population came together on the streets, the country’s
far right, sensing an opportunity to attract new supporters and keen to exploit the energy
of the protests, sought to coopt them. From 2020 to 2022, elements of the Covid-19
protest scene radicalized sharply. The protests – and the Telegram channels through which
they were organized – served as touchpoints between middle-class Germans and various
anti-democratic actors seeking to spread their worldviews and beliefs. Though the protest
scene may not have given its wholesale support to the radical right-wing Alternative for
Germany (AfD), more Germans have now been exposed to corrosive, antisemitic conspiracy
theories that serve as a pre-political accelerant for hard-right ideologies as a result
of its efforts. Political discourse in Germany has roughened. The country’s citizens have
come to view their society as deeply polarized around Covid-19, and many have lost faith
in their government’s capacity to act. Random acts of violence, purported terrorist plots,
and even a disturbing yet somewhat farcical alleged coup attempt have been connected to
individuals associated with the protests.

The dangers posed by the most radicalized elements of the protest movement and the
sharp polarization that has accompanied it were thrown into sharp relief by the outbreak
of war in Ukraine. Russia’s full-scale invasion, which occurred as the pandemic was
beginning to wind down, re-energized a movement that had started to flag as more and
more Covid-19 restrictions were dropped. Almost immediately after the invasion,
Telegram groups that had spread conspiracy theories about Covid-19 began to
incorporate conspiratorial, Russian-aligned explanations for the outbreak of the war .

That this shift was so seamless appears anything but coincidental. In psychological terms,
those who believe in one conspiracy are more likely to believe in others. For many of the
protestors, opposition to and criticism of the perceived mainstream were seen as fundamental
goods. And politically, Russian state propaganda outlets such as RT (formerly
Russia Today ) played an important role in supporting the protest movement’s worldview,
while anti-Ukrainian conspiracies began to flow into Covid-19 protest channels even
before Russia launched its attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian government in February
2022. Actors who played a prominent role in the Covid-19 protests had also helped stoke
pro-Russian sentiment at Pegida5 protests or during the Monday “vigils for peace” (Montagsmahnwachen für den Frieden ) following the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in
2014. It is therefore unsurprising that researchers have identified a strong link between
those who believe conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and those that subscribe to
conspiracy-heavy defenses of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In seeking to understand these developments, this paper first takes a closer look at the
2020-2022 Covid-19 protests in Germany and examines their domestic impacts in
the context of a period rife with societal and geopolitical challenges, chief among them
the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The findings are troubling, both for Germany specifically and regarding the national
security risk posed by heightened polarization and anti-democratic radicalization. While
Russian propaganda outlets sought to propagate conspiracies about Covid-19 and Ukraine
in Germany, it was Germans themselves who created the audience for these narratives.
The Covid-19 protest scene has been referred to by experts as a “society of rejection” and
a form of counter-Enlightenment. That this dynamic not only applies to domestic policy
decisions but also permits the justification of a brutal attack on a nearby democracy
should raise concern about the subterranean processes underway in German society.

The German anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests marked neither a beginning nor an
end, but rather a waypoint in a continuum of internal and external challenges faced by
German democracy. At the domestic end of the spectrum, they reveal an existing, virulent
anti-democratic sentiment that can be spread through the exploitation of various crises,
to the detriment of German society. And in foreign and security policy terms, the growth
of the protest movement marks the visible expansion of a diverse political scene that
f undamentally rejects the basic tenets of German liberal democracy, thus serving as a
useful tool for foreign adversaries seeking to influence the direction of German
policy. As breaking German solidarity occupies a central place in Vladimir Putin’s
strategy to undermine sanctions and weapons support for Ukraine, this could have
extremely dangerous consequences.

Product details
Date of Publication
September 2023
Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, DC
Number of Pages
Language of publication
Table of contents

1. Introduction
    1.1 No port in the storm: Germany, mid-2022
2. The domestic security implications of the Covid-19 protests
    2.1 The protests in overview
    2.3 Key features
    2.4 An opportunity for the far right 
    2.5 Impacts
    2.6 Unfinished work
3. The foreign and security policy implications of the Covid-19 protests
    3.1 The real threat is us
    3.2 From the “corona dictatorship” to the war in Ukraine
    3.3 Sand in the gears of the Zeitenwende
4. Conclusion

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