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Covid-19 restrictions vs. basic human rights?

As historical comparisons show, we do not live in times of high popularity, rather, we live in times of high visibility of conspiracy theories. In Germany, especially since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemics, conspiracy theories have attracted the attention of public debate.

Suddenly, there was an easy way to reveal if a friend or relative was a “believer” of conspiracy theories, as he or she would not hold on to restrictions or get vaccinated with rather strange argumentations. This had direct consequences for daily life. Would you go to see a relative who argued to be worried about his or her health if getting vaccinated – and thus take a risk for your own health and for the people you live with? Would you invite a friend who shared inflammatory opinions on the pandemics, saying that:

… Covid-19 does not exist, but the government made it up to restrict basic rights?
… Bill Gates planned the pandemic to establish compulsory vaccination and reduce the global population?

Again, what are the three core assumptions of a conspiracy theory? 

”First, they assume that nothing happens by accident, in other words, everything was planned. Second, they assume that nothing is as it seems. In other words, you always have to look under the surface, because the crucial things happen in secret. And third, they claim that everything is connected. So that there are connections between people, institutions and events that you would never have thought possible and that only make sense if you assume a great conspiracy”, Michael Butter, Professor of American Literary and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen/Germany, explained in an interview with us.

With the pandemics, life started to circle around thoughts on physical contact chains and for people following the tragedy of deaths around the world, those first months were full of insecurity.  Even if controversially debated, a majority of people living in Germany supported restrictions and vaccinations, but up to ten thousands of people legally protested against those measures several times. Especially in the beginning, the participants of so-called hygiene demonstrations had heterogeneous political views. There were believers of a planned “vaccination dictatorship” shouting anti-Semitic slogans, “Reichsbürger” waving the black, white and red imperial tricolour flag and supporters of various conspiracy theories such as the QAnon movement – easy to identify by the letter “Q” on their posters – members of the longer existing, broader anti-vax movement, members of the right-wing political party Alternative for Germany, former hippies, and next to them, citizens only opposing certain anti-pandemic measures.


In mid-2020, “lateral thinking” (“Querdenken”) became the organiser of most demonstrations, a group that is based mainly in Western Germany and originated in the South, but protests took place in the whole country. Who are the supporters? According to sociologists (in German) some of them hold esoteric views, many – mostly in Western Germany – have middle incomes, argue with the values of personal responsibility and individuality and have never been on demonstrations before. Over time, right-extremist protesters have become more visible in these protests and they became more and more violent. For example, in 2021 in the state of Saxony politicians and journalists got attacked. Right-extremists demonstrating against Corona measures tried to storm the German parliament in Berlin in August 2020 and some reached the stairs of the building. 

A video went viral in April 2020 of German singer Xavier Naidoo who referred in tears to a conspiracy theory about a satanic sect abducting and abusing children, producing a rejuvenation elixir out of their blood. This is part of a conspiracy theory supported by the loosely organised “QAnon” or “Q” movement. Supporters believe in a conspiracy of a “deep state” who rules the world and an elitist child traffickers ring. It started in the US in 2017 in an online forum, when anonymous users who called themselves “Q” wrote rather incomprehensibly about politicians’ and media workers’ satanic and paedophile practices. In Germany, more than one in ten believe in the main conspiracy narratives of QAnon, a study showed, and they are especially popular on Telegram and YouTube. The pandemic meant an explosive growth of subscriptions with six channels having more than 100,000 subscribers. Besides the US, German-speaking regions are a centre of the QAnon scene.

Source: Center for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategy (CeMAS)

For more information on QAnon in Germany read the publication (in English) from 2020 by the Amadeu Antonio foundation.

Reichsbürger believe that the Federal Republic of Germany never existed or disappeared in the course of reunification, instead a limited company of Germany was founded. Supporters demand a return to the borders of 1937 and argue that the German “Reich” has not legally ceased to exist. They often refer to themselves as “self-governors” as they are opposing the administration and state authorities. Their defining characteristics are racism, anti-Semitism, violence and the rejection of democracy and they are observed by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as a right-wing extremist movement. Some of the supporters develop their own passports, refuse to pay fines and taxes and listen to the judgments of their own “court” as well as various groups proclaim their own Reich governments. Although the numbers of Reichsbürger are low, around 21.000 according to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, due to their aggression and radicalisation they are seen as a serious threat.

Stigmatisation vs. wide acceptance of conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories are not published by public broadcasters in Germany. Instead, web portals such as KenFM or kla.tv, who reject “mainstream media”, spread them and they also can be found especially on German-speaking YouTube and Telegram. One reason for that is that conspiracy theories are highly stigmatised in German society, meaning that they are by the majority of people not accepted and are not part of public debates anymore. Nevertheless, around one third of the German population believes in some kind of conspiracy theories. As mentioned before, researchers do not see a general rise of the “believers”, but Telegram groups and other channels were significantly growing during the pandemic and there is a concern about the radicalisation of its members. See what surveys reveal on different beliefs in German society:

Conspiracy mentality and Covid-19 conspiracy theories in Germany 2020/2021

Not at allRather notPartlyRather yesEntirely
There are secret organisations, which have a high impact on political decisions26.9 %25.4 %24.8 %14 %8.9 %
Politicians and other leading personalities are marionettes of powers in the background who are in control29.6 %25.2 %24.7 %12.7 %7.8 %
Media and politics collude with each other27.7 %25.4 %22.7 %11.4 %12.8 %
I trust my feelings better than so-called experts15.2 %18.8 %33.8 %13.4 %18.9 %
Studies that verify climate change are mostly a fake44.8 %33.9 %13.4 %3.9 %4.1 %
Secret powers are responsible for Covid-19 pandemics61.6 %20.2 %8.5 %6 %3.8 %
Covid-19 pandemics are used to introduce forced vaccination56.5 %18.2 %8.2 %10.1 %7.1 %
Source: Pia Lamberty and Jonas H. Rees (2021) Gefährliche Mythen: Verschwörungserzählungen als Bedrohung für die Gesellschaft

“One of the main differences that we have been able to identify in Europe is that in large parts of Eastern Europe, conspiracy theories are socially accepted and legitimised. This is not the case in Scandinavia or Western Europe, for example. There, they went through a process of stigmatisation after World War II. In these parts of the world, conspiracy theories have become more of a form of elite criticism”, said Michael Butter, Professor of American Literary and Cultural History at the University of Tübingen/Germany, in an interview for the website of the German government.

Do you agree?  Would you say that in the country you grew up in, conspiracy theories are mostly accepted or neglected? What do you know about neighbouring countries?

German conspiracy theorists reacting on the war against Ukraine

Returning to Germany – since the beginning of the Russian full-scale war against Ukraine, in Germany the scene of conspiracy theorists has visibly shown support for the Russian government on demonstrations, following war propaganda and associated conspiracy theories. Already since 2014 support of the scene for Putin had been voiced. Most Telegram channels that spread conspiracy theories support the war of aggression, a few did not mention their views. They excuse the war crimes with the provocation of the West, especially NATO, some repeating Putin’s words of a “denazification” of Ukraine or the conspiracy theory around bio labs financed by the US in Ukraine. In a repulsive way, some channels concentrate on the “losses” for the German population. The Telegram channel with the widest reach, “reitschuster.de”, opposes the war against Ukraine as well as some others, who have been criticised within these circles. Nevertheless, the support for the war predominates and gets integrated in the “theories” of a world conspiracy (see another article in German).

A challenged democratic society

There are reasons to be worried about the radicalisation of people believing in conspiracy theories in Germany, their recent visibility and outspokenness. A feeling of a growth of conspiracy theories on the pandemic prevails as those voices can be heard loud and clear – on the streets bringing together people with disturbing worldviews, by processions of cars driving through Berlin evoking images of dark times through loudspeakers and through very active Twitter accounts and Telegram channels. And to the surprise of many, some publicly known people started to spread conspiracy theories in the last years. Despite this perception, researchers cannot confirm a general rise of conspiracy theories or their believers in Germany, but they see a high activity of the field online and signs of radicalisation. While before conspiracy theories were rather related to the topic of immigration and other worldwide conspiracies, the pandemic brought these even closer to everyday life.

In Germany, a country that was shocked by several deadly, right-extreme terrorist attacks in the last years, some people fear further radicalisation of parts of the society and many describe a feeling of helplessness when interacting with those who consume “alternative” media. Despite these challenges, German society is now, in 2022, not as polarised as some of its neighbouring countries. Also, its long tradition of political education next to school education, which originally was introduced after Second World War in the Federal Republic of Germany by the Allies to “re-educate” a society that widely had supported the fascist Nazi regime, led to a diversity of institutions and initiatives that take up the newest questions and societal challenges. Nevertheless, a part of the society feels detached to any democratic institutions and decision-making processes, which will stay as a challenge for the whole democratic society.

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