German Vaccination Hesitancy: a Union View

By early November 2021, Germany’s Corona infection numbers reached new highs. Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) registered 40,000 new infections within 24 hours, the 7-day average climbed to 30,000, the 7-day “incidence” (infection rate) to 232.1 – that measures infections per 100,000 people. German officials use simple numbers – they are not percentages. This infection rate or incident rate indicates the probability, likelihood or risk of a Corona infection in the population of Germany. It measures the frequency of occurrence Corona infections within the German population during a set time period. The “rate of infection” = the number of infections divided by the number of those at risk of an infection.

By mid-November 2021, this number, according to Germany’s most recognized news broadcaster “Die Tagesschau” was above 300. Meanwhile, the total number of all infections had risen to over 50,000. All these indicators were markedly higher than two years ago, at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Germans are increasingly worried about the stratospheric growth rate just before the beginning of the 4th Corona wave. The RKI notes that vaccinated people are currently still four times less likely to develop symptoms of Covid-19 than unvaccinated people. If infection numbers continue to rise – so will the number of deaths.

At the end of Germany’s 1st wave (2020), about 4.5% of newly infected people had died, at the 2nd wave it was 2.5%. In the 3rd wave, which was not quite as serious because of the vaccinations already in effect in the spring of this year, about 1.5% died.

Even if this rate would fall to about 1% during the current 4th wave, around 5,000 people will die in the coming weeks. With currently around 30,000 new infections per day, a death rate of 1% means that around 300 deaths will be added every day. Given all this, Germany’s foremost virologist Christian Drosten warned,

if there is no progress in vaccination, Germany must prepare for at least 100,000 more corona deaths before the waters calm down. This is a conservative estimate.

Even though the link between vaccination and death during a pandemic is well known, and we also know that vaccinating people saves lives, only around 70% of all Germans have been vaccinated. Ironically, Germany is the country that invented the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine. Well, the vaccine was actually invented by two Turkish migrants. So much for those who reject migration and people of the Muslim faith. Yet, despite Germany’s advancements in science, about 30% of all Germans remain unvaccinated. As a consequence, the issue of mandatory vaccination is hotly debated.

According to a recent poll on party affiliation and mandatory vaccination, 56% of those who voted for Merkel’s conservative CDU support the mandatory vaccination of all Germans. Among social-democratic SPD supporters, the percentage is 54%. This is just a tick below neoliberal FDP voters (52%). Meanwhile, 46% supporters of Germany’s only socialist party, The Linke, favor mandatory vaccination, while 44% voters of Germany’s environmental, Die Grünen, support mandatory vaccination.

Less than 1/3 of Germany’s Neo-Nazi AfD support it (31%). This is slightly less than those who do not vote at all (32%). In other words, around half of all voters of Germany’s major political parties (SPD, CDU, FDP, Greens, and the Left) support mandatory vaccination.

Yet, despite Germany’s advancements in research and science, Germany does not have any mandatory vaccination. In addition, Germany remains a country with plenty of anti-vaxxers and adjacent conspiracy fanatics. By 2021, the refusal to get vaccinated had become so bad that Germany’s foremost trade union peak body – the DGB – felt the need to issue a pro-vaccination brochure investigating vaccination hesitancy, Covid-19 protesters, and their links to Germany’s right-wing extremists.

From a democratic point of view, it may appear legitimate to question encroachments on personal rights in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. From a trade union’s point of view, it remains necessary to ensure that government measures against the Coronavirus pandemic are not taken unilaterally to the detriment of employees.

However, the state of emergency has created space for anti-democratic forces trying to present themselves as Germany’s new freedom movement. They mix conspiracy fantasies with the hallucination of an impending Corona dictatorship. This is the movement of right-wing pandemic deniers, conspiracy fantasists, extremists, and Germany’s ever present Neo-Nazis have been craving for.

On March 18, 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared, “since the Second World War, there has been no challenge to our country that depends so much on our joint solidarity action.” On this basis, a number of government measures had to affect personal freedoms in order to protect society from the virus.

Initially, these measures were met with broad approval. However, a new protest movement against these measures had developed since April 2020. Characteristic for them – one might call them anti-vaxxers – is the hallucination and the conspiracy fantasies of an impending Corona Dictatorship. German anti-vaxxers claim that there will be a compulsory vaccination and the gradual abolition of freedom leading to a new dictatorship. None of this has happened.

At the beginning of the protests, the Kommunikationsstelle Demokratischer Widerstand was organizing the first anti-vaxxer rallies in Berlin. It also published a newspaper Democratic Resistance. Merkel’s government was described as a “fascist Corona lie regime.” Soon, they linked themselves with an organization called Queerdenken 711. In this context, “queer” means “across” and “denken” means “think”. The ideology behind it is that Queerdenken means thinking across party lines. Queerdenken 711 includes progressives as well as, reactionaries and Neo-Nazis.

By May 2021, YouTube had banned Queerdenken 711. But before that, the organization had become the central institution of the anti-vaxxers. A group called WIR 2020 played a similar role. At one point, it claimed to have 70,000 members but only by registering every click on its website as registered members. After internal quarrels, WIR 2020 was disbanded.

On of the more unfortunate highlights of Germany’s anti-vaxxers were two rallies held in Berlin in August 2020. On 29th August, about 40,000 esoteric believers, ex-hippies, so-called “concerned citizens” (reactionaries), self-proclaimed alternative thinkers, outright anti-vaxxers, conspiracy believers, right-wing extremists, member of the AfD, militant Reichsbüger, common hooligans, so-called Identitarians, and neo-Nazis took part. Among the motives of the participants were:

+ they believe that an elite enslaves children;

+ they also believed that mandatory vaccination is imminent;

+ Merkel will abolish democracy; and

+ there will be a total control of humanity via a chip implanted into the ear by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

German anti-vaxxers are supported by a handful of so-called celebrities. One of them is German anti-vaxxer and conspiracy fantasist Xavier Naidoo. His song “Marionettes” parrots the right-wing extremist ideology of the militant Reichsbürger. Naidoo also denounces the killers of children  whose blood is used to rejuvenate people. He also spreads QAnon conspiracy narratives to his followers.

Among the many anti-vaxxers, is also anti-pandemic celebrity and former vegan TV chef Attila Hildmann who broadcasts the Reichsbürgerideology, as well as anti-Semitism. Anti-vaxxer Hildemann is suspected to have an unfiltered attachment to National-Socialism. Yet, anti-vaxxers are not entirely known.

Historically, opposition to vaccinations has existed before. Opponents of vaccination have existed since there have been vaccinations in Germany. Some date back to Germany’s Imperial Vaccination Act of 1874. The act combated smallpox. Yet, the law faced protests particularly in the southern state of Baden Württemberg. Shortly before WWI, Hugo Wegener wrote books against compulsory vaccination. Some are still reprinted today. Fortunately, German anti-vaxxers didn’t have much political cloud. It became obvious that smallpox actually disappeared with vaccination.

Yet, some of the anti-vaxxers were found in Germany’s Nazi party – NSDAP – before 1933. Anti-vaccination never became an official Nazipolicy – to the enduring upset of today’s Neo-Nazis. Yet, their ideology has survived. Currently, numerous anti-vaxxers are found in the Corona protest movement, in which they are trying to create a mood against a possible mandatory vaccination.

Anti-vaccination rallies have been characterized as a rather colorful crowd. Some are Germany’s esoteric believers and ex-hippies. Esotericism is an ideology that eludes scientific verifiability. Meanwhile, homeopathy and anthroposophy also play a significant role in Germany’s anti-vaxx movement. They reject the so-called “conventional medicine” and steadfastly stand in Germany’s anti-vaccination tradition.

Yet, its umbrella organization, the Anthroposophic Medicine in Germany says, “Anthroposophic medicine is participating in the fight against the Corona virus.” Similarly, “Homeopaths Germany” says, “we strongly advise all our members to adhere to the specifications of the RKI .” The RKI is Germany’s version of the USA’s CDC.

Undeterred, many anti-vaxxers demand the protection of their very own “I” which they – mistakenly – see as representing the whole of society. Their deeply ideological, zealous, and foremost missionary character is also directed against German vaccination centers.

Worse in attacking vaccination centers are QAnon and adjacent conspiracy fantasies. The far-right and anti-Semitic QAnon ideology has truly arrived in Germany. It has been an initiative from the United States to mobilize a so-called global war of patriots against the much-hated liberal elite. This conspiracy narrative has found strong echoes among German anti-vaxxers. Much of this has led to a further radicalization of German anti-vaxxers.

One of the more obscure QAnon conspiracy fantasy believes there are underground factories where children are tortured, and their blood is taken to rejuvenate pedophile elites. This carries antisemitic connotations. Historically, QAnon’s origins date back to a post on 4 Chanduring October 2017 and a secret informant called “Q” – an employee of Donald Trump. Q fights against the so-called Deep State run by the global elite.

QAnon also campaigned against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats cooking up pizzagate. Not far off from QAnon, is the antisemitism of German anti-vaxxers. The so-called global elite is not just seeking to create a New World Order, but this also includes Bill Gates and George Soros. This ideology is based on a world run by powerful puppet masters. It too has anti-Semitic connotations. Quite often, this is accompanied by excessive hostility to science and the press.

Yet, some German anti-vaxxers even appear with the Yellow Star equating anti-vaxxers with Holocaust victims. It is antisemitic and belittles the Holocaust. At the end of November 2020, the 22-year-old anti-vaxxer so-called Jana from Kassel compared herself to Sophie Scholl – most disturbingly.

Never far away is the anti-Semitic Russian hallucination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion spiced up with antisemitic rumors about rich Jews, such as the investor George Soros or the Rothschild banking family. Antisemitic conspiracy fantasies like these conjure up the evil Jew who has been responsible for the plague epidemic of 1348. It led to numerous anti-Jewish pogroms.

Today, anti-Jewish traditions come to light in QAnon fairy tales. One of the oldest anti-Semitic stereotypes is that of the child molester and ritual killer. These stories were once invented to justify pogroms against Jews. With German anti-vaxxers they re-appear and are re-shaped, once again, by German anti-vaxxers.

Today, this includes prominent Neo-Nazis like Jürgen Elsässer and his magazine Compact which covers extreme right-wing, völkisch, nationalist, and authoritarian ideologies. The man and his propaganda brochure are making a significant contribution to anti-vaxxer conspiracy fantasies. Elsässer likes to talk of a Left-plus-Neo-Nazi alliance that supposedly dates back to the Berlin tram strike of November 1932, supported by a cooperation of the NSDAP (Nazis) and the KPD (communists).

Then as today, Germany’s Neo-Nazis invite everyone to take part in their fight against the democratic state. This includes, of course, their very own Neo-Nazis and the Reichsbürger, but also Germany’s three Neo-Nazi parties: the NPD, Die Rechte, and the more brutal, The Weg III.

The aforementioned rally on 29th August in Berlin was by far the largest run-up of the extreme right in recent years. It included the temporary occupation of a staircase of the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament), during which, among other things, imperial Reichs-flags were waved. Increasingly, Germany’s right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis consider this flag to be an effective symbol of their anti-democratic nationalist uprising. Waving Hitler’s Nazi flag is illegal in Germany and, so far, German police steps in rather harshly if they spot the swastika.

Recently, there has also been increased evidence of a violent radicalization of German anti-vaxxers. These are manifested in an ever-increasing number of threatening letters and emails to well-known virologists, politicians, and members of the media. It is also seen in the implementation of these threats. There has been an arson attack on the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin.

Much of this is used by Germany’s Neo-Nazi party the AfD. Yet, during the pandemic, the AfD undertook a 180-degree turn-around. In March 2020, the AfD’s Alice Weidel accused the federal government of being “idly issuing hollow appeasements while watching the spread of the Corona pandemic to Europe for far too long.” Suddenly, the accusation of not doing enough was turned into the exact opposite when forty parliamentarian members of the AfD took part in anti-vaxxer rallies in Berlin on 29th August.

AfD mini-Führer Tino Chrupalla, his vice-Führer Stefan Brandner, and Swiss Lesbian Alice Weidel quickly hammered the anti-vaxxer drum for publicity. AfD man Thomas Röckemann and supporter of the AfD’s even more far-right wing – der Flügel – believes that Germany is approaching a dictatorship with giant steps, as he says. Meanwhile, numerous AfD party officials publicly joined forces with Neo-Nazis, Reichsbürger, anti-Semites, esoteric illusionists, and anti-vaxxer conspiracy believers.

Inside Germany’s parliament, the AfD called for the establishment of an investigative committee on the Corona pandemic arguing that Germany’s federal government had massively intervened in the constitutionally protected rights of citizens and the economy through the lockdown. In short: The AfD is trying to make political use of anti-vaxxer rallies against the state’s Corona measures. The AfD sought to harness anger channeling it into her right-wing populist agenda. This did not quite work out as the AfD’s support declined in a recent German election.

Undeterred and lacking another issue to frighten people, the AfD still sees itself as a natural ally of anti-vaxxers offering a similar potpourri of anti-democratic ideologies. The AfD’s Hansjörg Müller, for example said, “we have a government that has abolished democracy through emergency regulations. It has established a Corona dictatorship. Our political system must be returned from dictatorship to a democratic system.” The AfD is presenting Germany as a dictatorship which is most obviously nonsense. This links the ideology of the AfD to the ideology of the violent Reichsbürger. The party actively contributes to the radicalization of Corona protests.

In the end, German trade unions are concerned that a far-reaching anti-democratic and right-wing radicalization is emerging in sections of anti-vaxxers’ protests. This is made worse through an increasing spread of conspiracy narratives in popular online platforms. Much of this is accompanied by a rejection of state protective measures to contain the Coronavirus pandemic.

German anti-vaxxers propagate neoliberalism’s ideology of a right to maximum self-realization even when this comes at the expense of the weak, the elderly, the poor, etc. This is where neoliberalism’s ideology meets fascist social-Darwinism.

The deeply Social-Darwinistic ideology of Germany’s right-wing extremist anti-vaxxers demands that only the stronger survives the pandemic. German anti-vaxxers and its dehumanizing ideology should serve as a dire warning. German trade unions forewarn us that we should keep in mind that democracy is fragile and in need of protection.

Yet, there is also a danger that, if the crisis continues to escalate, a political void could open up, which might be filled by right-wing extremists’ ideologies such as, for example, conspiracy thinking, Social-Darwinism, and nationalism. This can lead to an authoritarian mass mobilization against democracy.

One of the challenges of trade unions is to prevent this through emancipatory education, decisive resistance against anti-democratic forces, and through a commitment to a solidarity-based and socially-just prevention of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Thomas Klikauer (MAs, Boston and Bremen University and PhD Warwick University, UK) teaches MBAs and supervises PhDs at the Sydney Graduate School of Management, Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 700 publications and writes regularly for BraveNewEurope (Western Europe), the Barricades (Eastern Europe), Buzzflash (USA), Counterpunch (USA), Countercurrents (India), Tikkun (USA), and ZNet (USA). His next book is on Media Capitalism (Palgrave).

Meg Young (GCA and GCPA, University of New England at Armidale) is a Sydney Financial Accountant & HR Manager who likes good literature and proof reading.