In Germany, threats grow as far-right and pandemic protesters merge
DRESDEN, Germany — Early vaccine opponents attacked police. Then a group of them discussed the governor’s murder online. And one day an angry mob beating drums and carrying torches showed up outside the house of the health minister of the eastern state of Saxony.
Minister Petra Köpping had just returned home when her phone rang. He was a neighbor and he looked scared. When Ms Köpping looked out the window in the dark, she saw several dozen faces across the street, twinkling in the torchlight.
“They came to intimidate and threaten me,” she recalled in an interview. “I had just come home and I was alone. I’ve been in politics for 30 years but I’ve never seen anything like it. There is a new quality to this.
The crowd was quickly dispersed by police, but the December incident marked a turning point in a country where the SA, Hitler’s paramilitary organization, was known not only for showing up at political rivals with torches and drums, but also for attacking and even murdering them.
It was the clearest indication yet that a protest movement against Covid measures that has mobilized tens of thousands of people in cities and towns across the country was increasingly merging with the far right, each finding new purpose and energy and further radicalizing the other.
The dynamic is much the same whether in Germany or Canada, and the protests in the different countries echo each other. On the streets of Dresden on a recent Monday, the placards and slogans were almost identical to those on the streets of Ottawa: “Freedom”, “Democracy” and “The Great Resistance”.
In Germany, at least, the merger of movements has taken an increasingly sinister turn, with a specter of violence that worries security agencies. Since December, the threats have only intensified.
Last month, the far-right Alternative for Germany party called for another protest outside Ms Köpping’s home. (Police arrested him.) Hospital staff in Dresden, the Saxon capital, were attacked. A second governor received death threats. And when police raided the homes of nine people who had debated ways to kill Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, on the Telegram messaging service, they discovered weapons and bomb-making ingredients like gunpowder. and sulfur.
As the pandemic enters its third year, Germany is emerging from another long winter of high case numbers that are now slowly receding. As the government prepares to lift restrictions, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is determined to turn a blanket vaccination mandate into law before next fall.
The debate over Covid restrictions has energized a far-right scene that feeds on a sense of crisis and apocalypse.
Germany’s far-right, which in recent years has used anger over an influx of refugees and the European debt crisis to recruit, has seized on the virus as its latest cause.
If the matter is different, the message from those organizing the protests is eerily familiar: the state is failing, democracy is being overthrown by shady “globalists” and the people are being called on to resist.
Now as then, what began as protests against government policy has become personal. The number of verbal and physical attacks on politicians tripled last year to 4,458, according to federal police statistics. It is no longer just regional and local politicians who are targeted. The Federal Minister of Health and the Chancellor’s Chief Crisis Manager on the Pandemic are among a growing group of officials in need of police protection.
Two and a half years after a regional politician who championed German refugee policy was shot on his porch by a neo-Nazi, security agencies fear far-right activists want to use the pandemic to spark a new wave of political violence.
“Violent resistance to democratic rules is now a frequent demand in anti-corona protests,” said Dirk-Martin Christian, head of domestic intelligence for the state of Saxony, in an email interview. “The routine assertion that we live in a dictatorship and under an emergency regime that must be eliminated and against which public resistance is legitimate, is proof of the progressive radicalization of this movement.”
“There is a growing willingness to use violence in the context of protests,” Mr Christian added, noting “murder fantasies” targeting Mr Kretschmer, the Saxon governor, and “the SA-style procession” ahead. Mrs. Köpping’s house. lodge.
The radicalization of protesters against Covid measures is most visible in the former Communist East, where far-right extremists now dominate the organization of protests and control information – and disinformation – on popular Telegram channels associated with it. At the move.
Saxony, the most populous eastern state, has a long history of far-right protests, starting with the annual neo-Nazi marches on the anniversary of the 1945 Dresden bombing.
In 2014, the anti-Muslim movement Pegida – short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West – was founded there and later spread to other cities. For years, his supporters marched on Monday nights, like the protesters who toppled communism a quarter of a century earlier.
“We are the people”, the slogan associated with the Pegida marches, is now also popular during coronavirus protests on Monday nights.
The parallels are worrying, officials say, as the prolonged street protests have proven to be potent incubators of far-right violence.
“Regular protests have the effect of giving extremists the feeling that public opinion is with them and that the time has come to act,” said Michael Nattke, a former neo-Nazi who left the scene and is doing a job of fight against extremism for the past two decades. “It creates its own dynamic.”
For intelligence officials too, it is no longer a question of if, but of when.
“We are very concerned about the possible radicalization of individual perpetrators,” said Christian of the Saxon intelligence service.
One concern is that far-right extremists are exploiting the frustrations and fears of ordinary citizens who march alongside them every week. This regular proximity erodes borders.
“Something is normalizing that should not be normalized,” said Ms Köpping, Minister of Health. “It is worrying that you can no longer distinguish who is on the streets because of vaccines and Covid restrictions – and who is already radicalised.
On a recent Monday evening in Dresden, eleven different protest ‘marches’, which had been advertised on Telegram, made their way through different parts of the city before coalescing into a single march with some 3,000 people. Some carried candles, like the peaceful protesters who marched against the Berlin Wall in 1989. Others waved the flag of the Free Saxons, a new party that is so far to the right that it considers the Alternative party for the Germany as “the establishment”.
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In the crowd was Betina Schmidt, a 57-year-old accountant wearing a red cap. Ms Schmidt said she was not just protesting the government’s plans for a blanket vaccination mandate – but also a wider plot by powerful globalists to “destroy the German nation”.
Until a few years ago, she voted for the Greens. “Now I know they’re not green, they’re totalitarian,” Ms Schmidt said. “What they want has nothing to do with the environment. They want the destruction of Germany.
She stopped watching the news on the public broadcaster last summer and now gets most of her information from Telegram. Like many others here, Ms. Schmidt cited “The Great Reset”, a book by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which Ms. Schmidt said reads as “a script about how a group powerful globalists plan to destroy the German nation and create a hodgepodge of people who can be easily ruled.
“I didn’t believe it either six months ago,” she added.
Matthias Pöhlmann, the author of ‘Right-Wing Esotericism’, a book about fusing far-right conspiracy theories with alternative viewpoints, said these theories were spreading fast – and far beyond the middle people traditionally open to far-right ideas.
“These conspiracy theories are powerful radicalization accelerators,” he said. “If you believe that someone wants to erase you, that you live in a dictatorship, violence is justified.”
Germany’s federal intelligence service, known as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, recently created a new category of dangerous conspiracy theorists called “state delegitimization.” He also set up a “special organization” to monitor some 600 Telegram channels associated with the protest movement.
Security agencies have already been caught off guard. Asked in Parliament in September whether there was “a concrete danger” coming from the protest movement against the pandemic, the government denied this, saying only that “some” demonstrators showed signs of radicalization and a “greater disposition to commit violence”.
Ten days later, a gas station employee was shot dead by a customer after the employee asked him to put on a mask. The attacker was a regular at protest marches.
“They’ve been very slow to understand the risk,” said Mr Nattke, who regularly meets with officials about the far-right threat and says he’s been warning them for months. “It was only during the torchlight procession in front of Petra Köpping’s house that they took it seriously.”
In Dresden, the group which fantasized about the murder of the Saxon governor and which is currently being investigated for a terrorist plot, was first discovered by journalists. Now Mr Christian’s office has its own team of half a dozen Telegram watchers, who scroll through hate and misinformation to identify serious threats.
“It’s scary how many people are following these calls for action,” Christian said. “The erosion of the political center has already begun.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed report.