Last year, I felt lucky to be an American in Germany. The government carried out a comprehensive public-health response, and for the most part, people wore masks in public. More recently, COVID-19 cases have surged here, with new infections reaching a single-day zenith in late March. Germany has lagged behind the United States and the United Kingdom in vaccination efforts, and German public-health regulators have restricted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 60, after seven cases of rare cerebral blood clots. Key public-health measures, particularly lockdowns and vaccination, have been divisive. Among some people, even the magnitude of the virus’s infectious threat has been in question.
Over the past year, Germany’s sprawling anti-lockdown movement has brought together a disquieting alliance of ordinary citizens, both left- and right-leaning, and extremists who see the pandemic response as part of a wider conspiracy. In August, nearly 40,000 protesters gathered in my neighborhood to oppose the government’s public-health measures, including the closure of stores and mask mandates. It was unnerving to hear German chants of “Fascism in the guise of health” from my window, and all the more given that the same day, a subgroup of those protesters charged Parliament. In a moment presaging the U.S. Capitol insurrection, 400 German protesters, including a group carrying the Reichsflagge, emblematic of the Nazi regime, rushed past police and reached the building’s stairs. Germany is riddled with QAnon adherents, some of whom are anti-vaccination, and some people are using this pandemic to articulate their anti-Semitic beliefs. They might deny COVID-19 exists, then play it down, and eventually blame 5G and Jewish people for the pandemic. In Bavaria, vaccine skeptics now use messages such as “Vaccination makes you free,” an allusion to “Work makes you free,” a horrific maxim of Nazi concentration camps.
Like the United States, Germany has a thriving anti-vaccination movement, and here it has encompassed conspiracy theorists, left-leaning spiritualists, and the far right. These last ties are the most troubling. In German-speaking lands, anti-science sentiment, right-wing politics, and racism have been entwined since even before Jews were accused of spreading the bubonic plague in the 14th century. These movements illustrate a grim truth: In both the past and the present, anti-science sentiments are inextricably tangled with racial prejudice.
Anti-vaccine movements are as old as vaccines, the scholar Jonathan M. Berman notes in his book, Anti-vaxxers, and what is striking, according to the author, is that early opponents at the turn of the 18th century believed that vaccination was “a foreign assault on traditional order.” But beliefs linking anti-science sentiment and anti-Semitism were already deeply set. During the plague outbreak of 1712 and 1713, for instance, the city of Hamburg initiated public-health measures including forbidding Jews from entering or leaving the city, Philipp Osten, the director of Hamburg’s Institute for History and Ethics of Medicine, told me. By the time cholera emerged in the 19th century, sickening thousands of people in the city within a matter of months, these antiquated ideas had taken on a new form.
Because this new disease was poorly understood, doctors, scientists, and laypeople promulgated competing theories about its spread. Some physicians blamed cholera on alcohol consumption, others on sadness or fear. Self-published pamphlets circulated misinformation much as social-media posts do today, and the public’s understanding of the disease was capacious, in many cases reflecting people’s anxieties. These ideas might have been innocuous enough on their own, but consummated through social movements and disinformation, they often posed a threat to people’s lives. As the historian Richard J. Evans has noted in Death in Hamburg, some Germans blamed the spread of cholera on Jews. These sentiments then extended to other epidemics, and to the vaccination movement. By the middle of the 19th century, anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets were being written against smallpox vaccination.