Dresden is one of Germany’s great cities, known worldwide for its meticulously rebuilt historic center, destroyed in one night at the end of World War II. Pre-Christmas shoppers have probably come across a Dresdner Christmas stollen, a bread full of nuts and candied fruit, coated in powdered sugar. Music lovers might have visited the city’s Semperoper and art lovers its famous Zwinger, one of Germany’s most important Baroque buildings. Not for nothing, Dresden was once known as the Florence of the North. Nowadays, it is unfortunately better known for its radical right-wing populist subculture, which some time ago fueled the demonstrations against the “Islamization” of Germany and the rest of Europe.
The Perils of Federalism in Time of Pandemic
Dresden is the capital of Saxony, the most southern federal state in the territory that once constituted communist East Germany. Saxony belongs to the more prosperous Länder in Germany. Yet it is also one of the most important strongholds of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). In the most recent regional election in September 2019, the party received more than 28% of the vote, second only to the Christian Democrats. This was about half a year before COVID-19 hit Germany.
With the second wave of the pandemic sweeping across Germany, Saxony has once again gained notoriety. In December, Saxony “boasted” by far the highest rate of new infections. A few days before Christmas, Saxony counted around 480 new cases for 100,000 inhabitants, more than twice as many as Germany’s two most populous Länder, North-Rhine Westphalia (199) and Bavaria (218). Two weeks earlier, six of Germany’s 10 most affected areas were in Saxony, with the small city of Bautzen (infamous for its prison during the GDR times) recording an index of more than 640. On December 14, Saxony decreed a hard lockdown.
Saxony has been closely followed by Thuringia, another Land in what once was East Germany. Like Saxony, Thuringia is a bastion of the AfD. In the regional election in October 2019, the party received 22% of the vote, closely behind the left-wing populist The Left (heir to the legacy of East Germany’s communist party) and the Christian Democrats. In early December, three of Germany’s 10 most affected areas were in Thuringia. One day before Christmas, the situation in Thuringia’s nursing homes reached crisis levels; a number of districts ordered new stringent anti-COVID-19 measures.
Again, the link between COVID-19 infection rates and support for the AfD is suggestive. Take the case of Gera, Thuringia’s third-largest city. In the local elections last year, the AfD received almost 30% of the vote, way more than all other parties. In late December, Gera’s infection index stood at 407. Compare this to Erfurt, Thuringia’s largest city. In 2019, the AfD received around 15% of the vote; in late December, the infection index in Erfurt stood at 180, less than half the value of Gera.
Ever since Saxony has emerged as the country leader in infection rates, German media have debated the question of whether or not AfD strongholds and COVID-19 hotspots might be related. Preliminary studies indicate that there is indeed a strong correlation between the two, not only with respect to Saxony and Thuringia, but across all of Germany. The findings are suggestive, but nothing more. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and with these kinds of data, there is always the question of ecological fallacy. It is, therefore, necessary to resort to an array of other evidence to put together a plausible case. Surveys are one such piece of evidence.
Unfortunately, in Germany, unlike in the United States, there are few COVID-19-related surveys that disaggregate the results according to party preferences. The ones that exist, however, speak a clear language. Take the case of demonstrations against the government’s pandemic measures. In late summer, more than 75% of the population said they had no sympathy for the protesters; among AfD supporters, 80% said the opposite. AfD supporters were also significantly more uneasy about wearing a mask than the supporters of any other relevant party.
A few months later, in early December, the vast majority of respondents said they thought COVID-19 was more serious than the flu; among AfD supporters, a mere third agreed. Observations of medical personnel from Saxony’s hospitals provide some insight into the persistence of denialism even among those most affected by the virus: In a number of cases, patients treated for severe symptoms associated with COVID-19 refused to acknowledge that their condition had anything to do with the virus.
It is fitting that in a representative survey from early December, almost two-thirds of AfD supporters said they either believed or thought it probable that the pandemic represented a conspiracy designed “to oppress the people.” Hardly surprising, AfD supporters expressed the highest level of reluctance to get themselves vaccinated against COVID-19; in late December, roughly 50% expressed their hesitation.
What Must Not Be
In early December, the town council of Böhlen, a small town near Leipzig in Saxony, announced the death of one of its members, representing the AfD. A few weeks earlier, he and other AfD officials had taken part in a mass demonstration against the government’s COVID-19 measures in Berlin, organized by the so-called Querdenken (out-of-the-box thinking) movement.
The movement was founded in April in Stuttgart as an “initiative” against the curfew and contact restriction measures in force at the time. In the months that followed, the movement organized a growing number of demonstrations, which brought together a wide range of individuals and groups, including believers in various conspiracy theories, far-right groupuscules such as the neo-Nazi Der III Weg (The Third Path), anti-vaxxers and, last but not least, officials and supporters of the AfD.
What united them was the belief that official justifications for the various lockdown measures were nothing but lies. In reality, the measures were part of a large conspiracy to eliminate fundamental rights and liberties. This might sound slightly unhinged. Yet in May, more than a quarter of the German public thought that what was behind the COVID-19 restrictions was quite different from what the government and the media wanted the population to believe.
The demonstrations attracted considerable attention. They reached their height in late August, when more than 38,000 demonstrators gathered in Berlin, followed by a number of smaller demonstrations in November in Leipzig and Berlin. It was there that the AfD town councilor from Böhlen presumably caught the virus — presumably because until today, the AfD leadership has been quiet about what led to their councilor’s death. It cannot be, as we say in German, what must not be.
There are good reasons for the AfD’s silence. They have nothing to do with honorable considerations, such as respect for the privacy of the deceased. The simple fact is that a COVID-19-related death does not jibe with the party’s narrative. It is embarrassing enough that over the past few weeks, a number of prominent corona-denying AfD Bundestag deputies found themselves infected with the virus. One of them ended up in the hospital.
As soon as the pandemic hit Germany, leading AfD officials questioned its significance. One of its representatives, who would later characterize himself as an “economics ‘corona expert’” of the AfD’s parliamentary group, claimed as early as March that concern about the pandemic was nothing but “hysteria” designed to distract the public from inquiring who was really responsible for the “collapse of the global economy,” namely the “global financial oligarchy” and from its “puppets in national parliaments.”
Later on in the year, when the second wave started to sweep over the country, he continued to insist that COVID-19 was no more serious than the ordinary flu and that the official measures were nothing more than an attempt to distract from “the destruction of Germany’s economy.” At the time these claims were made, COVID-19 had become central to the AfD’s political strategy.
And for good reason. In the most recent federal election, in 2017, the AfD garnered more than 12% of the vote. In addition, the party won three direct mandates, all of them in Saxony — a remarkable feat for a new party, given Germany’s peculiar electoral system. The future appeared bright for the AfD, until COVID-19. The pandemic has not been particularly kind to the party, for a number of reasons. Like other radical right-wing populist parties in Western Europe, the AfD has seen itself deprived of its winning issues — xenophobia, and particularly Islamophobia. As a result, support for the party has been down for most of the year. In recent surveys, it has been hovering around 10%.
Ironically enough, the pandemic offered the party a new opportunity to mobilize its dwindling voter base by promoting itself as the only voice that dared to speak out against the government’s restrictive measures, presenting itself as the advocate of liberty and individual responsibility. In this narrative, masks are turned into “muzzles”; restrictive legislation is equated to Hitler’s Enabling Law of 1933, which marked the end of German parliamentary democracy; and the government’s COVID-19 measures are characterized as the beginning of a “corona dictatorship.”
As a leading party official put it in the German parliament, the government’s COVID-19 measures amounted to a “corona dictatorship on demand,” which was incompatible with Germany’s liberal-democratic order; an order, he added, which Germany had achieved through too much pain to abandon it frivolously. Another leading AfD representative, who holds a doctorate in physics from Berlin’s Humboldt University, charged that the lockdown was “unconstitutional” and, therefore, illegal. And this from the representative of a political party that is hardly known for its dedication to liberal democracy and the rule of law, a political party, whose supporters have shown a particularly pronounced affinity to authoritarian and right-wing extremist positions, including support for a dictatorship if it serves the national interest. (This appraisal, by the way, was published in a prominent German center-right magazine generally sympathetic to the type of positions espoused by the radical populist right.)
To be sure, as a democratically elected party, the AfD has every right to criticize the German government’s pandemic politics — as long as its criticism is issue-oriented and constructive. This, however, has hardly been the case. In fact, the AfD has used the pandemic to stoke the fire of latent resentment, disseminate misinformation, reinforce the appeal of conspiracy thinking and encourage its supporters to flout and defy the most basic protective measures. The high rates of infections in Saxony and Thuringia suggest that the AfD’s positions on COVID-19 do have consequences, potentially causing significant harm to its supporters and sympathizers.
Past research has shown that populism tends to have significant negative economic consequences. Turkey is but the most recent example. The case of Saxony and Thuringia suggests that radical right-wing populism, particularly when combined with conspiracy thinking, can be deadly. Over the past few days, various German media have reported that the AfD is likely to be put under observation by Germany’s office for the protection of the constitution. The main reason is the growing influence of right-wing extremist tendencies within the party. An even better reason would be that with its rhetoric, the AfD has encouraged behavior among its supporters and sympathizers that is harmful to themselves and to the country as a whole.