The Origins of Germany’s Anti-Vaxxers

Photograph Source: 7C0 – CC BY 2.0

Germany’s anti-vaxxers have become more violent in recent months. In September 2021 the shooting of a petrol station attendant occurred. The young service station operator had simply asked an anti-vaxxer to wear a mask; in November 2021, anti-vaxxers sprayed the Nazi-like slogan Impfen Macht Frei at a local school in Germany’s south-western state of Baden-Württemberg.

It was a rumination of cynical Nazi slogan Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) placed on German concentration camps; in December 2021, anti-vaxxers held a Nazi-style torch rally at the house of a heath minister. Yet, German anti-vaxxers go back a long time.

In many German-speaking countries of course, Germany but also Austria, most of Switzerland, and some areas of northern Italy, there has been a long established distrust in vaccinations. Partly, this is because of 19th century German romanticism. But it is also because political failures and right-wing ideologies mixed with reactionary back-to-nature esoteric belief systems.

At the end of November 2021, far-right conspiracy theorist, former journalist, self-appointed author, banned You-Tuber, antisemitic conspiracy theory fanatic, and Neo-Nazi party AfD supporter, Oliver Janich wrote about so-called self-defense in the face of impending mandatory vaccination “everyone has the right to kill a policeman who intends to drag you to compulsory vaccination.” To show how to do this, Janich posted a photo of a gun. He also advocates the belief that mass vaccination will lead to “the biggest mass murder in the history of mankind.”

A whopping 160,000 people subscribe to Janich’s Telegram messages. Worse, corona protests and so-called hygiene rallies have caused the number of his cohorts to explode. Despite Janich’s enormous reach, hard core anti-vaxxers like Janich are a very small minority among those Germans showing vaccination hesitancy.

Yet, propagating fear of vaccination has become the anti-vaxxer’s preferred business model. It fuels their madness, particularly in German-speaking countries. A recent Financial Times article called it, “Nein Danke: the resistance to Covid-19 vaccines in German-speaking Europe.”

When it comes to vaccination in Europe, most German-speaking regions lag far behind. Among seventeen Western European countries, Germany, Austria and Switzerland were ranked 13th, 16th, and 17th among fully vaccinated adults (9th December 2021). Western Europeans know that the virus – at first Delta and later Omicron – is spreading into many other regions.

Yet, the question remains: “is there something specifically German that explains the fear of a little harmless syringe?” Throughout 2021, it became increasingly apparent that Germany’s rather low vaccination rate was also associated with vaccination hesitancy linked to the powerful arch-conservative ideology of German romanticism. Today, this is spiced up with vaccination skepticism, Christian fundamentalism, a rejection of modernity, spiritual anthroposophy, homeopathy, back-to-nature fantasies, occultism, right-wing and outright Neo-Nazi anti-vaxxers.

German anti-vaxxers and adjacent vaccination skeptics may well be a consequence of Germany’s anti-intellectual history. Yet, there is no one reason for German vaccine skepticism and the delusional belief systems held by many anti-vaxxers.

Not all believers in anthroposophy, for example, are against vaccination. Similarly, not all opponents of vaccination are esoteric believers. Yet, some of them organize anti-government rallies. Beyond that, there are historical and cultural factors that may explain Germany’s vaccination failure with just 70% Germans vaccinated by mod-December 2021.

Some of the 30% of unvaccinated Germans – particularly Germany’s hard-core anti-vaxxers – do indeed show some kind of distorted thinking mixed with dangerous and at times right-wing conspiratorial worldviews harvested in Germany’s so-called alternative milieu that rejects even the sciences of vaccination. It is not unreasonable to argue that there is a clear connection between Germany’s history of anti-intellectualism, its backward conservative, if not outright reactionary romanticism, and today’s rejection of vaccination.

In Germany’s romantic literature the so-called unspoiled and pure “natural” has been incredibly transfigured and declared to be of absolute value. Anti-modern and back-to-nature Romantics like Schiller even suggested that “those should be blessed and praise who innocently rest on nature’s breast far away from the confusing impact of modern life.” German poet Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg – known as Novalis – believed that “a poet understands nature better than any scientific mind.”

On the surface, Schiller and Novalis’ ideas appear rather harmless. But Germany’s reactionary ideology of Romanticism – unlike what is found in many other European countries – had gained a strong political-ideological influence in the German speaking world during the 19th century.

As a rejection of modernity, Enlightenment, and in particular the much-hated French Revolution, its anti-scientific legacy lives on. As a full-blown ideology, it promoted a mystification of nature and something that might best be described as a kind of “re-spiritualization of the mind.”

It is a rejection of science and even of something as simple as the basics of cause-and-effect connections. It distanced itself to supposedly “cold” science and the so-called mainstream medicine (Schulmedizin) which includes vaccination.

At the beginning of the 20th century, this ideological position mutated into what might be called an anti-modern life-reform movement(Lebensreformbewegung). One of its more famous representatives was the Austrian founder of anthroposophy, esoteric and Waldorf school inventor, Rudolf Steiner.

Until today, life-reformers are still longing for a restoration of harmony with nature. This deeply anti-modern movement criticizes modernity’s excesses – an ideological trapdoor to entice people into its conservative orbit. Its ideology had a rather dramatic effect during the early 20thcentury.

For example, it correctly forecasted the 1929 stock market crash – one of the more severe crises of capitalism. Today, it highlights capitalism’s environmental destruction. Yet, unlike traditional 19th and 20th century socialism and 21st century’s democratic eco-socialism, its solution is not forward-looking but backward-looking and deeply anti-democratic. Unlike democratic socialism’s idea to make the promises of Enlightenment reality of the betterment of humanity, it is a radical departure away from Enlightenment.

It is a deeply anti-modern ideology. It formulates a “man-vs-nature” separation that can only be imagined as the work of an evil enemy and some never specified dark forces. Until today, German romanticism represents the extreme opposite of socialism’s promise to build a better world with rationality, science, and logic.

Modernity, democracy, and socialism are fought against by Germany’s esoteric and its anti-modern right-wing. It fancies the hallucination of an unspoiled unity of a pure Volk and nature. This natural Volk-spirit is to be defended against the dark forces of modernity.

Today, this is expressed among Germany’s anti-vaxxers by, for example, the slogan don’t give Gates any chance! – Bill Gates’ trust in science and advancement symbolizes the much-hated modernity. It is the belief that a rejection of modernity, science, and ultimately the Covid-19 vaccination will finally defend the purity of an always over-romanticized nature against an evil capitalist, e.g., Bill Gates. It conjures up a fantasy image of a pristine nature in which the inhumanity of the Dark Ages and feudalism vanishes into thin air – romantic images overlay reality.

With hallucinations like these, romanticism was able to become ideologically effective in Germany. Its nationalistic conservatism spread even more when used as a Germanic defense against “Enlightenment as it was riding on horseback into German mini-states,” as the philosopher Hegel once noted.

German conservatism strongly believed that Enlightenment came from France and meant trouble for anti-democratic Germany that was still characterized by an agricultural economy ruled by a landed miniature aristocracy. Today, it has become rather difficult to imagine how much Germanys’ anti-democratic and conservative elites hated Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

These ruling elites also included the large land-owning nobility in far Eastern Prussia. For them, the specter of the French Revolution was a true nightmare because it would overthrow the landed ruling class while freeing peasants from serfdom. As a consequence, Germany’s conservative elites asphyxiated Germany’s intellectual development for a very long time – writing about democracy was verboten (forbidden). Worse was to come. It mixed anti-Enlightenment, anti-democracy, and anti-modernity with anti-Semitism.

Thus, a conservative, backward-looking, and anti-modern spiritual climate were created. It gave birth to the life-reform movement with its deep hostility to science. It also gave the world Germany’s version of eugenics, an overtly natural religiosity, and worse of all ethno-racist thinking.

Its mysticism, irrationalism, and anti-Semitism, mingled with the reactionary components of so-called “alternative” (anti-mainstream) thinking continues to this day. This may well be the way in which anti-Semitic anti-vaxxers images such as Impfen Macht Frei! have been passed on to today’s anti-vaxxer rallies.

For many 19th century and early 20th century conservatives and their rejection of modernity was nearly always understood as a fight against Jewish science and Jewish conventional medicine (jüdische Schulmedizin) – a term dating back to the inventor of the pseudo-scientific –crypto-medicine of homeopathy: Samuel Hahneman.

Not surprisingly, German Nazis had a great interest in alternative medicine. In 1933, super-Nazi SA-Obergruppenführer and Reichsärzteführer Gerhard Wagner emphasized the superiority of so-called “alternative” medicine over Jewish medicine. Shortly, thereafter the Nazis founded the Aryan Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft Neue Deutsche Heilkunde in 1935.

In 1933, the demagogic and deeply anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda leaflet Der Stürmer carried a picture of a blonde mother with a baby in her arms with the caption, “unnatural and evil physician.” It showed a doctor with a syringe in his hand. The antisemitic hooked nose of the doctor in the cartoon is Nazi anti-Semitism. The mother looks at the Jewish doctor and says in rhythmical German, “Es ist mir sonderbar zumut, denn Gift und Jud’ tut selten gut” – “I feel strange, poison and Jews don’t do good!”

Not surprisingly, German Anti-semitism has a long history. It has been linked to vaccinations. In this ideology, vaccinations are understood as a Jewish conspiracy of a secret global elite seeking to intrude your body. The resulting strong rejection of so-called conventional medicine continues to this day. It is a German peculiarity that originates in Romanticism, conservatism, and anti-Semitism.

This can be seen in the fact that naturopaths, as a state regulated profession, exist only in Germany (since the Nazis’ NS-Naturopath Act of 1939) and parts of Switzerland. Yet, its legal and ideological spirit carries on until today. Then as today, this ideology argues that “people want to be free to decide which therapist they visit.” Much of this fits neatly in neoliberalism’s propaganda of free decision-making, free choice, and individual responsibility.

Today, “free-choice” people like the former Waldorf school teacher Christoph Hueck and Wilfried Kessler speak on anti-vaxxers rallies. The latter likes to compare anti-vaxxers and their resistance against government measures to those who resisted the Nazi regime. Some anti-vaxxers – the notorious Jana from Kassel, for example – even believe to be the Sophie Scholl of Germany’s anti-vaxxers.

One should distinguish different types of German anti-vaxxers as not all of them can be traced back to Germanic Romanticism. There is also a strong libertarian tradition in Germany. Historically, libertarians have rejected compulsory vaccination and did so in Prussia, for example, until it was mandated by law in 1874.

For many of today’s German anti-vaxxers, it is about the question in which society they want to live and who determines what goes into the body? Unfortunately, the Coronavirus will not ask such questions. It has already determined its answer: enter the body and destroy it.

Undeterred by rising Corona infections and the 5.4 million global Covid-19 deaths, the neoliberal and libertarian misunderstanding of individual freedom holds sway. It is found in people with an anthroposophical background but also in the educational petit-bourgeois milieu in which the neoliberal ideology of personal responsibility and self-determination is seen as absolute.

It carries forward the ideology that the evil state, intrusive governments, the nanny state, red tape, and zealous bureaucrats who have no business to interfere in personal lives. Yet, without the modern state, the Coronavirus pandemic would have led to plague like conditions depopulating vast areas of Europe.

Undeterred, the dominant anti-vaxxer attitude is, “the state has nothing to say to you.” Other anti-vaxxers believe, “I sit in my home office … I am not exposed to any increased risk of infection … it’s all well and good … I just eat healthy … Corona doesn’t bother me.”

Unlike in former East-Germany and particularly in states like Saxony anti-vaxxers are closely linked to local Neo-Nazis. In Germany’s western parts, one finds semi-academic petit-bourgeois protest supported by an anthroposophical, romantic, and esoteric rejection of vaccinations.

There are fundamental differences in anti-vaxxer rallies in East Germany compared to those in the western states of Germany. In former East-Germany, anti-vaxxers rallies are more strongly influenced by Germany’s extreme right and adjacent Neo-Nazis. Esoteric and anthroposophical features are less significant in former East-Germany.

Overall, one can see a willingness to vaccinate as a measure of confidence in the state. This means that the rejection of the state and of vaccination is an expression of anti-state right-wing extremism. This is prevalent in former East Germany.

Meanwhile, in the western parts of Germany, anti-vaxxers tend to be supported by esoteric romanticism spiced up with anti-modernity and back-to-nature ideologies. Almost since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, an already existing dissatisfaction with the state has been mobilized by esoteric spiritualists (west) and right-wing extremists (east).

Former East Germany is not completely free of anti-vaxxer esotericism because even in the former DDR, there was an alternative milieu. Post-1990 and during the yearly years of German re-unification, this milieu undertook a strong turn to esotericism. In other words, capitalism gives you the freedom to become nuts.

Leading figures of the former Eastern eco-movement include people like Michael Beleites who believes in a biological – anti-democratic, racist, anti-Semitic, and Aryan – Volksgemeinschaft based on a natural race. Traces of this can indeed be found among today’s anti-vaxxers. Beleites is also linked to the AfD’s semi-Neo-Nazi Institute for State Policy in Schnellroda.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Austria, Neo Nazis and Corona opponents have been demonstrating for months despite exploding infection numbers. Yet, in close-by Switzerland, about 60% recently voted in a public referendum for the continuation of Switzerland’s Covid Certificate as a prerequisite to access public buildings, restaurants, and public events.

Among Switzerland’s anti-vaxxers, esotericism is weaker, but conservatism is stronger. Extreme individualism also plays a major role in Switzerland but there are also groups like the Freiheitstrychler which is a peculiar Swiss anti-vaxxer believing in apocalyptic conditions that are immanent while hoarding canned food, toilet paper, and diesel fuel. They don’t act as democratic citizens or citoyens and they are not committed to the community but are often loners and self–employed egomaniacs. They agree on one thing: refusing to be vaccinated.

It is primarily rural German-speaking Switzerland that will not be vaccinated. They follow the ideology of “everyone for himself.” If that does not work during the Coronavirus pandemic, perhaps the local municipality can help, at some point maybe the local canton but certainly not Switzerland’s federal government and most certainly not the WHO.

Resistance to vaccinations has a long tradition in German-speaking Austria’s remote region of Tyrol. A local anti-vaxxer uprising occurred in 1809 fighting against smallpox vaccination. Smallpox was introduced by the occupying force from neighboring Bavarian. Local Austrians – wrongfully – feared that vaccinations would introduce a “Bavarian mentality” into Tyrolean souls via vaccination.

Today, such esoteric ideas remain only one factor among many of Austria’s anti-vaxxers. Austrian anti-vaxxers can even be found among academics but this is only half as prevalent compared to Austria’s average population. There is also relative a small group of well-educated esoteric people who refused to be vaccinated – but they are a minority.

In German-speaking areas, one of the most important factors is the anti-vaxxer’s doubt that vaccination actually helps. This is reinforced by media reports that even vaccinated people can end up in intensive care units. Worse, there is still the belief in conspiracy theories. For many anti-vaxxers, science is part of the global vaccination conspiracy.

Many anti-vaxxers are convinced that researchers are in cahoots with the ever-elusive global elite. Finally, there is also a trumped-up fear of vaccination’s side effects. This is a rather widespread phenomenon. In November 2021, a staggering 34% of non-vaccinated Austrians wanted to wait for vaccine approval. They called it, dead vaccine or Totimpstoff. Austrian anti-vaxxers mix their suspicion of a mysterious and global elite with a kind of pseudo-self-assurance that nothing will happen.

German anti-vaxxers and unvaccinated people often lack confidence in vaccine safety. In addition, they see the Coronavirus pandemic as a lesser threat compared to getting vaccinated. One has to make the facts about Covid-19 very clear and transparent to them to battle these misconceptions. This includes the much higher risks of a Covid-19 infection compared to the rather mild vaccination side effects.

In many cases, a willingness to get vaccinated often depends on the quality of communication of a government’s vaccination campaign. For many, it has become clear that governments need to support, educate, and introduce a wide range of vaccination offers.

Perhaps government agencies need to work with people who had contacts with anti-vaxxer communities. Trust in government vaccination programs can hardly be established in two or three days. It has to be built in the long term. When there is trust, even hard-core anti-vaxxers might eventually take up government offers to get vaccinated.

In Portugal and Spain, for example, where the vaccination rate is close to 100%, local authorities have knocked on doors, sent SMS outlining vaccination requests, and allowed vaccination in dental offices, and supermarkets. Solidarity wasn’t simply called upon. It was proactive explaining why vaccination is important. Portugal and Spain were able to build on a long-established tradition of community-based action programs. It paid off.

Following romanticism and neoliberalism’s free choice ideology in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, vaccination is –wrongfully– considered an individual choice. The Coronavirus did not make an individual choice about who to attack. So far it has killed 5.4 million people and it will continue killing unless widespread vaccination can be achieved.

Some might argue that local authorities need to consider that effective communication requires a rather individual approach: “if you try to reach everyone in the same way, you’re ultimately not reaching anyone.” In many countries, for example, individuals from a certain age onward are asked to participate in a preventative cancer program. This has been highly successful. It also shows that the right communication works.

Yet, in German-speaking countries, the Coronavirus pandemic has not been treated with the same urgency perhaps out of an unfounded fear of a very vocal but microscopically small minority of hard-core anti-vaxxers and the neoliberal misbelieve in its free choice and individual responsibility ideologies. These are ideologies that kill.