Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories in Germany

By the end of early December 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 1½ million people worldwide as a large number of countries have entered into recession. In Germany, the economic downturn has let to an unprecedented 7.3 million people being laid off. There was a slump in Germany’s gross domestic product in the second quarter of 2020. It fell by more than 10%. Germany’s outlook is still relatively gloomy with more than 300,000 infections and around 15,500 deaths.

Notwithstanding the continuing significant health risks posed by the virus, more and more Germans seem to be largely dissatisfied with the government’s measures to contain the virus. Many are simply fed up. At the beginning of the pandemic, only a few critical voices appeared. In recent months, however, the people who have doubts about the existence of the virus and who believe in obscure conspiracy myths have grown. They show a very serious dissatisfaction with the politically prescribed restrictions and the impact it has on them and public life.

Last August, this dissatisfaction culminated in a massive rally in Germany’s capital Berlin. An estimated 40,000 people took part in an anti-government rally on 29th August 2020. The attempted storming of Germany’s parliament had sent shockwaves through Germany. Some of the protesters were outright right-wing extremists and local Neo-Nazis while others just wore their tin-foil hats. The tin-foil hat remains an insignia of those believing in conspiracy theories. These rallies are organised under the popular heading of being so-called hygiene rallies. At times several hundred protesters including numerous right-wing extremists as well as AfD supporters and local Neo-Nazis blocked the entrance of the Reichstag – Germany’s parliament in Berlin – and thereby causing widespread horror on the democratic side of politics and society.

To understand the phenomenon of anti-coronavirus measure and the subsequent rallies against these government measures as well as the link to conspiracy theories spun about the coronavirus, Germany’s reputable Hans Böckler Foundation ran a survey. The survey found that there is a significant spread of right-wing ideology, conspiracy theories and sceptical attitudes towards the pandemic and the political handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The foundation’s analysis is based on two surveys conducted by data analyser KANTAR for the Hans Böckler Foundation that surveyed Germany’s labour force. Kantar’s computer-aided online interviews were comprised of 7,677 respondents who represented Germany’s working population aged 16 and over between the 3rd and 14th April 2020 and again between the 18th and 29th June 2020.

The HBS/Kantar analysis showed the following. While 15% of Germany’s working population supported the anti-coronavirus protests against the government’s measures, approximately one-third of all respondents were dissatisfied with the crisis management of the Federal Government.

Yet, many Germans saw government restrictions – lockdowns, etc. – also as a threat to democracy. Others were concerned that Germany’s restrictions on constitutional rights might not be taken back once the coronavirus pandemic ended. Around 40% of the respondents did not believe that the virus is as dangerous as it is claimed to be. Meanwhile, more hard-core conspiracy theorists also believe that elites are using the pandemic to protect the interests of the rich and powerful.

People holding these attitudes were anything but insignificant. These ideas, ideologies, myths, and conspiracy theories were found in large sections of Germany’s population. One might also like to consider that Kantar’s analysis revealed an increased tendency in dissatisfaction with the government, as shown in many anti-government statements and posters carried at these rallies. Over time, numbers of people rejecting government measures had actually increased. No less relevant was the finding that attitudes of dissatisfaction, doubting the government, and conspiracy myths existed close together. Kantar’s empirical data showed a clear link between them. In other words, those who were dissatisfied with the government were also likely to believe in conspiracy theories and – even worse – they were also willing to share conspiracy myths about the coronavirus with others.

Overall, anti-government rallies – the so-called hygiene rallies – were strongly supported by Germans aged between 18 and 29 rather than those aged above 65. Younger Germans do perceive the coronavirus pandemic as less of a risk and therefore, are more willing to go out and rally against the government, often violating local rules on mask-wearing and social distancing. In Germany’s still existing east vs west cleavage, anti-government rallies found stronger support in the former East-Germany compared to the former West-Germany. HBS/Kantar believe this is reflective of three facts:

1) The former East-Germany has more people living in rural areas compared to the former West-Germany, which as higher levels of the population living in cities. There is still an urban west and a rural east;

2) Not unrelated, the former East-Germany also showed fewer cases of coronavirus infections compared to the former West-Germany. This means that the level of threat is perceived to be lower in the former East-Germany compared to the former West-Germany. As a consequence, East-Germans found it hard to accept the harsh anti-coronavirus measures of the government; and

3) Finally, there still is a somewhat lower level of educational attainment in the former East-Germany compared to the former West-Germany. There has been a 30-year long brain-drain from east to west. Simultaneously, economic recessions such as those from the post-unification shock (1990s) to the global financial crisis (2008/2009) to the current coronavirus crisis (2020) have hit people in the former East-Germany harder compared to people in the former West-Germany.

Overall, there was no distinguishable difference between German women and men. However, 43% of those aged between 18 and 29 and 23.4% of those older than 60 agreed with the statement – the coronavirus is not as bad as claimed. Next to age, education emerged as a relatively stable predictor. A whopping 70.5% of people who had basic schooling and no formal degree believed that the rich and powerful use the coronavirus pandemic to gain more power. In comparison, only 31.2% of those with a high-school degree or above believed that.

This somewhat mirrored income levels. Only 24.7% of those earning €4.500 per month believed the statement that the coronavirus is not as bad as claimed. While 40.3% of those earning between €900 and €1.500 per month believed the same. Interestingly, only 38.8% of those who earned less than €900 per month believed this. Overall, those who suffered a loss of income because of the coronavirus pandemic are more likely to support right-wing attitudes and hygiene rallies.

Simultaneously, 50.4% of Germany’s unemployed believe that the current restrictions on individual liberty will not end once the coronavirus pandemic ends. 30.3% of small business owners and 24.5% of the self-employed also think this will happen. On the upswing, only 16.4% of Germany’s civil service employees agreed with that. General agreement also increased when it came to white-collar workers and middle-managers (33.9%) and manual workers (46.7%).

Being a trade union organisation, the Hans Böckler Foundation was keen to see whether the existence of works councils – supported by law in Germany – and the presence of a collective bargaining agreement made a difference when it comes to believing in conspiracy theories. The surveying agency KANTAR found no recognisable difference between German workers employed in companies with an existing works council and those without. Equally, there was no difference when it came to believing in conspiracy theories between companies with or without a collective bargaining agreement.

The survey also showed that the belief in conspiracy theories remained relatively constant throughout early 2020. 60.7% of German workers did not change their minds when it came to viewing the government’s restrictions as a danger to individual liberties. Overall, the number of German workers who were satisfied with the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic also remained constant (61.1%).

Overall, the survey found that about 15% of workers support the hygiene rallies against the government’s anti-coronavirus pandemic measures, while 66% of all workers support the government’s measures. Yet, about 40% believe that the virus is not as dangerous as it is claimed to be. Interestingly, the survey found that those who doubt the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and those who reject the government’s approach were also those who were most likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

Remarkably, young workers are more likely to be found in this group rather than older workers. Two factors might explain this. Firstly, young workers are more likely to experience a direct impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their work (job loss) and income (unemployment). Secondly, young people appear to be somewhat distant to the factual realities of the coronavirus pandemic. Twenty-year olds seem to believe in their own invincibility – nothing can bother me!

A clear result was found with the link between conspiracy theories and education. The lower the educational achievements, the more likely people reject government measures, think that the coronavirus pandemic is not as severe as it actually is, and tend to believe in conspiracy theories.

Perhaps those Donald Trump calls “the poorly educated” exist not only in the USA but in Germany as well. These are also the people often suffering disproportionally from job insecurity, diminished incomes, and unemployment. In other words, as British economist, Guy Standing, identifies as the precariat.

Finally, and this comes thirty years after Germany’s reunification, there is a marked difference between the former East-Germany and the former West-Germany. This, in turn, is linked to the impact of the current crisis, which has hit former East-Germans harder compared to former West-Germans. Chancellor Merkel’s management of the coronavirus pandemic is more likely to be rejected in the former East-Germany and more likely to be accepted in the former West-Germany even though Angela Merkel grew up in the former East-Germany.

Overall, the survey shows that there is a significant level of conflict in Germany’s population about the government’s coronavirus measures. Secondly, general dissatisfaction and obscure conspiracy myths are inextricably related. This represents a rather corrosive decoupling of democratic discourse from Germany’s mainstream, as right-wing advocates of violence took over numerous hygiene rallies. Many of them rallying against the government are not – as often claimed – so-called concerned citizens. Instead, they follow conspiracy theories and myths often propagated by right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis.