Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia are the center of extreme right-wing "Corona protests"
Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia are currently experiencing a growing mobilization of protests in the wake of the Corona crisis and are becoming the engine of a nationwide radicalization of the pandemic denialist scene. The demonstrations pose a great challenge for civil society actors who are committed to a democratic culture on the ground. If they take a clear stand against the anti-democratic character of the demonstrations, they become the focus of the protesters and are attacked and threatened.
The following analysis is based on consulting work in the three eastern German states and aims to contribute to an understanding of the current protest events.
The actions of the "lateral thinkers" and opponents of vaccination are ostensibly directed against the measures taken by the authorities to contain the pandemic. At first glance, the protest is also characterized by its ideological heterogeneity. There is no doubt that no united right-wing extremist movement is currently forming here. However, the majority of the protesters are united by an aggressive attitude against parliamentary democracy and its representatives. The demonstrations are characterized by authoritarian narratives, anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives and a trivializing instrumentalization of the history of National Socialism. The Corona crisis is interpreted as a crisis of democracy, in line with the extreme right, and linked to fantasies of overthrow. In doing so, the spokespersons of the protest deliberately draw on the experiences of upheaval and crisis in East Germany. As early as 2014, during "Pegida" and the anti-asylum protests of 2015/16, the extreme right was able to mobilize numerous people from different spectrums of society with its positions. Since then, this protest experience can be drawn upon again and again in a similar form on various occasions.
Authoritarian East German Discourses as Ideological Bracket
What is striking about all the protests is the attempt to tie in with the aesthetics and rhetoric of the demonstrations at the end of the GDR in the summer and fall of 1989. Thus, the "strollers" are asked not to carry banners, if possible, but to carry candles and to place them in front of city halls, as well as to "refrain from violence. Again and again, the narrative is used that the "system" is at its end. Even the police would soon side with the demonstrators. At the moment, people are living in a dictatorship that will be overcome with the help of the protests. This permanently legitimizes the violent overthrow fantasies of the protest participants. The AfD in particular is one of the proponents of these narratives. On the streets and in parliamentary debates, it deliberately contributes not only to the delegitimization of the Corona containment policy, but also of liberal democracy.
The extreme right-wing critique of elites and institutions finds major points of contact in the eastern German states in particular, which can be explained by a distrust of state action that has existed for decades and is in part culturally established. The debate about appropriate measures to contain the pandemic is increasingly fading into the background. Instead, every action and every decision by the government and parliament is listed as further evidence that the "establishment" wants to suppress the freedom of expression and the freedom of citizens.
The inconsistency and contradictoriness of the state in enforcing its own rules - which apply to everyone - does not weaken the radicalization potential of protest actors. Already in 2020 it became clear that this rather strengthens the feeling of self-efficacy of the anti-democrats and inspires fantasies of subversion. In this way, the state unintentionally contributes to the radicalization of "lateral thinking". This danger is criticized by numerous civil society actors, whose open letters and public appeals are hardly heard.
Protest actors and mobilizations
Mobilization for the "Corona protests" takes place predominantly via social networks and messenger services, with the barely regulated "Telegram" in particular enjoying great popularity. In the rarest cases, the political gatherings are registered. As a result, it is difficult to determine which local actors are the driving forces behind the demonstrations.
Since the beginning of the protests, we see an active participation of the organized extreme right, especially the AfD, but also of actors of the NPD, the III. Weg and local groups such as the network "Free Saxony" in the organization and implementation of the rallies. These protagonists of the extreme right - unlike the majority of participants - have protest experience and can draw on infrastructural resources to carry out demonstrations, which was of central importance, especially at the beginning of the 2020 protest.
The AfD in particular has changed its strategy with regard to the protests over time: Whereas the party initially kept its distance from "lateral thinking" and later focused on organizational support in the "second tier," it is now taking on a prominent leadership role in many places. This is evident in Thuringia, for example, where Björn Höcke, the state chairman who has just recovered from Covid, has a presence at numerous rallies in rural areas.
However, it is noticeable in the current protest events that apparently leading organizations or individuals are no longer needed for mobilization. In many places, the authoritarian and ostidentitarian protest counts are now able to bring several hundred people onto the streets via individual sharepics or messages in messenger services.
The narratives of the pandemic deniers and trivializers have already proven their ability to mobilize in eastern Germany for many years with the anti-asylum demonstrations. The extreme right-wing spokespersons thus succeed in drawing on a solid protest potential, regardless of the topic and the occasion. At the same time, the narratives promote a radicalization of the current protest. By interpreting it as an act of resistance and self-defense against an "unjust regime," it provides its protagonists with a supposed legitimization for acts of violence and threats against actors from politics, the media and academia.
Even if the protesters are a manageable minority, their potential danger - especially for political decision-makers, healthcare and retail workers, journalists and public figures - must be taken seriously. In recent decades, we have repeatedly observed that in the course of a dynamic protest movement on the streets, individual actors resort to violence as a means of choice. The end of the first wave of racist protests in 2015 heralded a widespread wave of attacks on refugee shelters. At that time, hundreds of arson attacks took place. The attacks in Hanau and Halle, as well as the murder of Walter Lübcke, were also the result of hate-filled protests, discourses and narratives. The murders of Idar-Oberstein and Königs Wusterhausen show that serious acts of violence are also possible within the corona context. Recent events show that, in principle, any person who enforces or even just complies with the measures can be read as a "systemling" and thus marked as an enemy. The increase in discursive public pressure regarding vaccination and the expansion of a pressure for control in public space both gives new occasions and confirmation to the protests and carries the risk of further radicalization.
However, this is not a reason to agree with the demonstrators' demands. In order to prevent a further increase in the resonance space of the current protests, on the one hand, consistent action by state actors is needed to punish and prosecute violations of protective orders to contain the pandemic at the protests. On the other hand, the resonance space for those who comply with the measures to contain the pandemic and accept restrictions in their everyday lives must be increased. Criticism of the crisis policy must also be possible. Those who discuss whether certain measures are purposeful in containing the pandemic or whether certain restrictions are proportionate must find a legitimate space to do so without immediately being accused of disregarding people's health and lives.
Kulturbüro Sachsen e.V., Miteinander e.V., MOBIT - Mobile Consulting in Thuringia