Outside Germany’s Parliament building, a vegan celebrity cook grabbed the mic and shouted that he was “ready to die” to stop self-serving elites from using the pandemic to topple the world order. Some distance away, a group of women discussed how Bill Gates was plotting to force immunisation on the population. Youngsters sporting cardboard cutouts of the German Constitution chanted: “End the corona dictatorship!” Few wore masks, and those that did came with slogans like “Merkel’s muzzle.”
Even as Germany is celebrated as Europe’s foremost example of pandemic management, an eclectic protest movement that began last month with a few dozen people marching against coronavirus restrictions has ballooned into more than 10,000 demonstrators in cities across the country.
The one driving force behind the mobilisation is the country’s far right, particularly the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, which had been marginalised by the pandemic. Now, the AfD’s leaders see the protests as a first step toward moving back into the national conversation, using them to position their message for the months ahead, when Germany must confront job losses and a battered economy.
“The crisis is coming, it isn’t here yet,” said Nicolaus Fest, head of Berlin’s AfD chapter, who was protesting near the Brandenburg Gate on Saturday. “Some time soon, a lot of people will be unemployed.”
Alongside anti-vaxxers, anti-capitalists, and ordinary citizens concerned about job losses and safety at reopened nurseries and schools, the marches have attracted neo-Nazis, hooligans and, consistently, members of the AfD, a party best known for its noisy nationalism and anti-immigrant views.
They rarely organise the protests. But the AfD and more extreme far-right groups are trying to capitalise on the discontent as they begin positioning themselves for what may be a much uglier political scene some months from now if the economy deteriorates further, as most economists expect.
“When the depression hits and people really start feeling it, they will start asking: Who do we share the little that is left with? Who belongs and who does not?” said Götz Kubitscheck, a far-right publisher and the most prominent ideologue of Germany’s so-called New Right.
Then, Kubitschek predicted in a recent interview, “it will become a question of identity.”
Germany’s domestic intelligence office, which recently classified both Kubitschek’s Institute for State Politics and a group of AfD politicians close to him as extremist, is worried.
“We see a trend that extremists, especially far-right extremists, are weaponising the demonstrations,” Thomas Haldenwang, president of the agency, told the German newspaper Welt on Sunday. “There is a risk that far-right extremists, with their image of who the enemy is and their ambitions to undermine the state, will take the lead of a movement that for now is attended mostly by citizens who are loyal to the constitution.”
“We are concerned that extremists are using the current situation in exactly the same way as the so-called refugee crisis,” Haldenwang said.
Some have already compared the coronavirus protests to the protests against the refugee crisis in 2015, when PEGIDA — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West — drew hundreds and then thousands of marchers every week before turning into a potent incubator of far-right extremism.
“We are the people,” the slogan associated with PEGIDA marches, is now popular at the coronavirus protests, too.
Then as now, Chancellor Angela Merkel was celebrated as an exemplary leader who navigated her country through extraordinary circumstances.
But in early 2016, the mood began to shift. A year later, the AfD became the first far-right party to enter the federal Parliament since World War II. It is now the biggest opposition party, with seats in every state legislature in the country.
Some lawmakers from Merkel’s Christian Democrats speak privately of a sense of déjà vu — and worry that by the time the next election is scheduled, in the autumn of 2021, the AfD might once again eat into conservative votes.
The pandemic arrived in Germany at a moment when the influence of the far right, and its ability to crack open the political system from the local level up, was strong. Mainstream parties, Merkel’s Christian Democrats included, worried about losing votes.
As recently as February, the fallout from an inconclusive election in the eastern state of Thuringia, where a particularly extreme chapter of the AfD became the second-strongest party, ultimately brought down the chancellor’s anointed successor in Berlin.
When the virus began spreading, the situation changed. Almost overnight, Germans rallied behind their chancellor and the monthlong shutdown that slowed the spread of the virus and allowed the country to get through its first wave of infections with a relatively low death toll.
But now that very success has become one thing driving the protests.
“They told us this virus was so dangerous that we had to give up all our democratic freedoms,” said Sabine Martin, a mother of two who marched in Berlin on Saturday for the third weekend in a row. “But we are no fools: Our hospitals are half empty.”
“I’m not afraid of this virus,” she added. “I’m afraid of the recession.”
Some call it the prevention paradox: Because Germany has been relatively successful in containing the disease, it is becoming harder to persuade people that the pandemic still presents a real danger, and easier for conspiracy theorists and populists to spin narratives of deceit.
“This so-called pandemic is nothing but the flu,” scoffed Robert Farle, a state lawmaker of the AfD. He has been joining protests in his eastern hometown, Magdeburg.
For now, despite the noise they make, the protesters remain a small minority. A recent survey found that 2 in 3 Germans are satisfied with the government’s response to the crisis. Six out of 10 say they are not worried if certain freedoms have to be curtailed for longer. Merkel’s party remains the most popular in the country, with nearly 4 in 10 voters saying they would support it, the highest level since 2017.
But the European Commission expects the German economy to shrink by 6.5% this year, the worst performance since World War II. The AfD’s popularity, which early on in the crisis slumped below 10%, has begun to edge up.
Many worry that a prolonged economic slump might open up new voter potential for the party, which has found most of its support in the former communist East. The biggest protests in recent weeks, however, have been in Stuttgart, the wealthy western heartland of Germany’s car industry.
In the seven years since the AfD was founded, Germany has consistently enjoyed economic growth and low unemployment, said Matthias Quent, an expert on far-right extremism and the director of an institute that studies democracy and civil society. “We just don’t know what the AfD looks like in a recession,” Quent said. “It worries me,” he added.
Historically, big recessions tend to feed populist narratives.
And it is not just the AfD that has seen the fallout from the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity.
Message boards are flush with far-right conspiracy theories and prepper groups, which have long fantasised about a crisis so deep that it would lead to the collapse of Germany’s liberal order, said Stephan Kramer, the head of the regional office of the domestic intelligence agency in Thuringia.
“They are mobilising,” Kramer said. “The corona crisis feeds into their narrative of a decline in Western liberalism. It feeds militancy and potentially violence.”
The authorities are on high alert. Over the past year, far-right terrorists have assassinated a regional politician on his front porch near Kassel, attacked a synagogue in Halle, and in February, killed 10 people in Hanau. Even before the pandemic hit Germany, far-right extremism and far-right terrorism had been officially identified as the biggest danger for the country’s democracy.
“That has not changed,” Kramer said. “On the contrary. This plays into their hands.”