The Pandemic Has Changed the View of the State in Germany

There seems to be a connection between those who protested against the influx of migrants into Germany a few years ago and people protesting the governmental anti-Covid measures. Both topics seem to be existential in nature, says German political scientist Eckhard Jesse in an interview with Robert Schuster.

There were massive protests in Germany last year against Covid-related measures. Where do you see the roots of the discontent?

We found ourselves in a paradoxical situation. The protests were vocal and powerful despite the fact that the steps and measures taken by the government appear to have been effective, as has been shown by the relatively low number of infections in comparison with other countries. The motives for the protests were quite diverse. There were many who thought that the government went too far, others were fearing the loss of their rights, and there were others who as a rule disagree with anything the government comes up with. The political left and right then tried to take advantage of the situation and gain potential followers.

The switch from public support to public resistance was quite dramatic. How would you explain that?

The initial support during the first wave of the pandemic could be explained by the fact that no one had really known the actual impact of the pandemic and all of the associated risks. As time went on and the effects on the economy, social lives and so on became clearer, more and more people began to be put off. Some government decisions were viewed as not completely rational and helped to fuel the skepticism, for example the implementation of a 9 pm curfew. One can not get infected when simply walking outside, so very few abided by this specific rule. Despite all this, it needs to be stressed that the majority of the public has supported the  measures during the pandemic.

Is it possible that the frustration felt by many of the protesters could have a lasting impact, for example, on the upcoming federal elections?

In the fall of 2021, the most likely outcome is once again a government of a grand coalition, yet this time consisting of different parties than Christian and Social Democrats (CDU and SPD). Neither SPD or Liberals (FDP) are likely to win enough seats to enter the government, and the same goes for the fringes—the Left and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Covid protests are unlikely to change that. The strongest parties will be CDU and the Greens.

There has been a paradigm shift during the pandemic. Many supporters of the left became strong supporters of the state and its institutions while voters on the right part of the spectrum have grown very distant from it.

The ‘lefties’, who used to fight against the state and the repression its bodies and policies represented, now view the state as their own and identify with its decisions. On the other hand, the political formations on the right side of the spectrum, though not all of them, are growing ever distant from the state and feel as if it does not represent them. 

Anybody who remembers the ‘Greens’ from forty years ago sees a bilateral difference. The way society has shaped the party, and vice versa. Today it is cosmopolitanism that has the upper hand over patriotism, or antifascism over anticommunism. One does not need to be a prophet to see that future non-parliamentary protest movements will likely be fueled not only by the left, but also by the political motives of the right. Fans of the student protests of the 1960s have managed to irritate their opponents on the right for a long time, for example with the issue of gender equality, or recently by so-called ‘neutral’ speech. It is not surprising that the success of the Greens in Germany has brought about the establishment and rise of AfD.

Can AfD hope to ride this wave in the nearest elections?

AfD may hope that its criticism of established parties and their somewhat questionable conduct will help its cause. It is far from certain that it will pan out that way. The key to the results is going to be the prevailing mood of the day.

Can we find in the recent history of Germany a similar level of distrust leveled against the state and its institutions?

The degree of mistrust is presently very palpable. It used to be that when citizens voiced their dissatisfaction with those ‘up there’ during various protests, you would usually find their roots in a clearly defined leftist environment—peace and nuclear disarmament movements or  anti-globalization protests. With the establishment of the anti-immigrant movement “Pegida” (so-called “Patriotic Europeans against Islamization of the West) and their regular ‘strolls’ against the migration wave in 2015, the culture of protest has changed significantly. Novel ways of protesting are increasingly being used by the followers of the non-parliamentary right. One used to hear the heckling “Kohl must go!” from the left activists, now you can hear “Merkel must go” from the right. Needless to say, they both belong to the same party, Christian Democrats. That is the most fundamental change.

You mentioned the migrant crisis that has shaken up Germany. Are there similar patterns in argumentation during protests then and now, when voicing dissent against Covid measures?

Yes, the connection and similarities are obvious. It is clear that the protesters significantly overlap. Both issues gave rise to serious anxiety, more specifically to some form of existential angst. Hence the number of people on the streets and in the squares.

There are differences, however, between the protestors against migrants and pandemic measures, an example being age. Protesters against migration policies were much older.

The central theme of the protests also differs. The pandemic is a global issue, whereas the migration crisis was most keenly felt by Germany, which led to a feeling of abandonment.

Is there a difference in pandemic protests between the former West and East Germany?

There are similarities and differences. The parallels are that pandemic-induced apprehension is felt both in the East and in the West, and more keenly among the older population, understandably. 

Although the fixation on the strength of the state, that it is here to take care of everything, is traditionally stronger in the East, it is there that people are more dissatisfied with the government’s response. Some bastions of protest are found in the West, however, for example Stuttgart being the first city where large anti-lockdown demonstrations took place.

What can be said about the participants in the anti-government corona protests? Can they be sorted out according to the usual left/right schematics?

First, it needs to be said that what is actually happening at these protests is of a very diffuse nature and as such it is hard to put it into a neatly labelled box. You would find anti-vaxxers, esoterics, followers of conspiracy theories, adherents of various sects and cults, counter-culture types and so on: people impossible to assign to a conventional left/right label. Let us also not forget that there were people without a specific political background. They were those who simply found intolerable the curtailing of fundamental rights, and warned against collateral damage of preventative measures: economic losses, social isolation of the elderly and a delay in non-covid medical procedures.

There is no doubt that the economic, social, and health repercussions of the pandemic will be felt for quite a few years to come, and no one is trying to say otherwise—even the government. As far as political affiliations are concerned, the fact is that it was the right that set the tone of the protests. The vast majority of the left-leaning population accepted the pandemic measures and respected them.

Take the symbol of the fight against the pandemic—the face mask. While for one segment of society it represents safety and prevention, for the other it is a kind of ‘muzzle’ that needs to be fought against in the name of freedom.

In April 2021, the German internal intelligence agencies began to track some of the followers of the “Covid alternative viewpoints,” deeming their activities at odds with the German Constitution. The official report stated that their activities lead to the delegitimizing of the state. It needs to be said that as the lockdown measures were being eased and inoculation has been moving forward, the number of protesters has gone down drastically. It then begs the question of whether the security apparatus’ response was adequate or indeed necessary.

Is it feasible that anti-immigration AfD will attempt to ‘lure’ the disenfranchised segment of voters?

Any protests offer a political opportunity. For many protesters, the pandemic has become a mere pretext. There is also another phenomenon, quite unique to Germany, that could be called a fear of “the applause from the wrong crowd”, in other words that you get unsolicited support by someone who is problematic or controversial. In April 2021, there was an Internet campaign of 53 actors who uploaded short videos under the common hashtag #allesdichtmachen, meaning “all to be boarded up”. The reaction on social media was swift and hugely negative, alleging that the videos simply help various conspiracy theories and many took their videos down. It’s all just another example of how difficult it is to have a discussion in Germany about fundamental issues. The primary concern should be about the quality of a certain measure or policy, and not who decides to tag along or hijack it.

Has Covid changed the culture of protest in Germany when compared with other European countries?

The protest culture in Germany is very intensive. Street protests have a long, storied history here. They have always been indicators of a social crisis, and can point out the existence of various deep-seated problems. Take the movement “Fridays for the Future”, for example. It started in 2019 and brought about a massive criticism of climate policies, followed by the even more radical “ Extinction Rebellion”. Or take the protests around the year 1968, environmental / peace movements of the 1970s and 1980s, the critique of globalism from the left, and of immigration policies from the right. Most of the protests serve an integration function, even when that is not the organizer’s intention. That is a hallmark of an open democracy. When compared with other European countries, Germany does not stand out. At the root of the protests here there is often a deep underlying cultural issue at stake, unlike in other countries that have a traditional protest reputation, such as Italy or France, or in Eastern Europe where the trigger often is the situation of the economy. 

When discussing the situation in Germany, often there is a comparison being made with U.S. society and the deep division there—take the attack on the Capitol, for example. The protesters in Germany have tried to breach the Reichstag as well. How do these two countries compare in this aspect?

American society is much more polarized. The Capitol attack, indirectly supported by President Trump, was far more dangerous than the “little tempest in front of the Reichstag”, so the comparison here does not hold much water.

Polarization manifests itself in many ways. Liberal campaigns in the U.S. have gone so far that they are very different from the campaigns in Germany. Several examples: at some universities or newspapers, such as the New York Times, you cannot come forward with certain views concerning gender, race or religion; they are simply forbidden, so that no one present might feel hurt or threatened by them. Philosophers, composers, politicians and researchers whose statements, however minute, do not meet today’s moral standards are being purged from collective memory, their monuments removed, their works deleted from the literary canon of university seminars. Anybody who ignores the new correct language standards, guarded with missionary zeal by the proponents of political correctness, risks being vilified, morally discredited, and ‘canceled’.

The woke culture that is becoming prevalent at publishing houses and news editing rooms is building ground in academia and is threatening its scientific foundations. What began as an understandable and fair attempt to provide space for disadvantaged groups to express themselves and get their view across is becoming a postulate, that during an analysis of an issue that concerns them the only valid and legitimate view is theirs. The concept of “Safe Spaces” in educational institutions, where people who feel marginalized can only be among themselves and be protected from the expectations and unfair demands of the cultural majority, is the same part of woke culture as are the warnings against opinions, films or literary works that might be viewed as unpleasant or detrimental to one’s own needs.

Robert Schuster

is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard in the Czech Republic from 2000 to 2012. He has been a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

Eckhard Jesse

a foremost expert on political radicalism and extremism in Germany, was Professor of Political Science at the Technical University in Chemnitz from 1993 – 2014 and chairman of the German Society for Political Science from  2007 -2009. Today he publishes an annual report Extremism and Democracy.

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