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15th Apr 2024

Far right using pandemic to win friends in Germany

  • Extremists freely mingled with other corona-deniers at mass rally in Berlin on 29 August (Photo: Matthias Berg)

Far-right zealots in Germany are using the pandemic to "build bridges" with more mainstream corona-deniers, in a sign of the political and social damage being caused by Covid-19 in Europe.

Right-wing extremists "carried out or dominated" 92 anti-mask rallies in recent months, the German interior ministry told EUobserver on Thursday (24 September).

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They mobilised 1,500 people in Berlin on 16 May at their own biggest event.

Most of the rallies attracted numbers of participants "in the two to three-digit range", the German ministry noted.

But far-right infiltrators also won visibility at a mainstream anti-mask protest in Berlin in August, which attracted a "heterogeneous gathering" of 20,000 people, and in which extremists staged incidents at the Russian embassy and German parliament buildings.

The groups and social media agitators behind the drive come from what German security services called "Reichsbürger/Selbstverwalter" and "Rechtsextremisten".

Reichsbürger/Selbstverwalter groups reject government authority and adhere to the former German Reich, which ended in 1945.

Rechtsextremisten are a broader spectrum that includes everything from neo-Nazis to some voters for Germany's far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the third-largest in parliament.

Their aim was "to use the displeasure in parts of the population in view of the restrictions on public life ... and to expand their ability to connect to the 'middle class' under the common objective of opposing the measures," the German interior ministry told EUobserver.

Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), was "closely monitoring the developments".

And there were signs that the extremists' outreach was gaining traction, the interior ministry said.

The mainstream corona-deniers at the big Berlin rally in August did "not make any effort" to separate themselves from the far-right fringe, who brought their own flags and banners, the ministry noted.

"Rather, they denied the presence of extremist people and content or rated it as unproblematic," the ministry added.

"They thought it was OK to march alongside them", a German contact said.

The extremist groups were "mobilising intensively on social media", the German ministry noted.

And their stories appeared to be winning an audience in German society.

The extreme-right narrative was that "the aim of the corona measures is not to fight the pandemic, but to ultimately restrict basic rights as an end in itself," the ministry said.

"For this purpose, false reports and conspiracy theories are also used, according to which the federal government is exploiting the crisis to install comprehensive monitoring mechanisms," the ministry added.

Wider malaise

The German developments mirrored elements in a wider anti-mask movement in Europe.

Some corona-denier and anti-mask rallies in Brussels, Dublin, London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Rotterdam, and Zurich have attracted thousands of people in recent weeks.

The protesters taking part were also consuming extreme far-right content, including antisemitic coronavirus conspiracy theories, via leading social medial platforms.

And, as in Germany, they contained a "middle-class" or mainstream element.

The typical anti-mask protester at a recent rally in Paris, for instance, was a professional, middle-aged woman, according to a Facebook survey by French think-tank the Fondation Jean Jaurès.

"The anti-mask movement seems to be associated with an objection to challenged personal freedom", Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK, told EUobserver.

"Being made to wear a mask challenges people's civil liberties, and it might therefore make sense that more privileged groups in society would adopt this standpoint," she said.

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