DRESDEN, Germany – The first vaccine opponent attacked the police. Then a bunch of them talked online about killing the governor. And one day, an angry mob beating drums and carrying torches appeared outside the home of the health minister of the eastern state of Saxony.
The minister, Petra Köpping, had just arrived home when her phone rang. It was a neighbor and he sounded scared. As Miss Köpping looked out the window in the dark, she saw dozens of faces across the street, glittering in the torchlight.
“They came to threaten and threaten me,” she recalled in an interview. “I just got home and was alone. I’ve been in politics for 30 years but I’ve never seen anything like this. There is a new quality to this. “
The crowd was quickly dispersed by police, but the December incident marked a turning point in a country where the SA, Hitler’s paramilitary organization, is notorious not only for showing up at the homes of opponents. political with torches and drums, but also to attack. and even kill them.
It is the clearest sign yet that a movement against the Covid measures that has mobilized tens of thousands of people in cities and villages across the country is increasingly uniting with the far right, each side seeking to new purpose and energy and further radicalize the other.
The dynamics are the same in Germany or Canada, and the protests in different countries echo each other. On the streets of Dresden on a recent Monday, signs and slogans closely resembled those on the streets of Ottawa: “Liberty,” “Democracy” and “Great Resistance.”
In Germany, at least, the fusion of movements has become increasingly sinister, with the specter of violence setting the security agencies on alert. Since December, the threats have only intensified.
Last month, the far-right Alternative for Germany party called for another protest outside Ms. Köpping’s home. (The police stopped it.) Hospital staff in Dresden, the Saxon capital, were attacked. A second governor received death threats. And when police raided the homes of nine people who had argued over how to kill Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, on the Telegram news service, they discovered weapons and bomb-making ingredients such as gunpowder and sulfur.
As the pandemic enters its third year, Germany is emerging from another long winter with a high number of cases now dwindling. As the government prepares to lift restrictions, Prime Minister Olaf Scholz is determined to turn vaccine regulation in general into law before next fall.
The Covid restrictions debate has fueled a far-right scene that thrives on feelings of crisis and apocalypse.
Germany’s far right, which in recent years has used anger at the influx of refugees and Europe’s debt crisis to recruit, has cited the virus as its latest cause.
If things were otherwise, the message of the organizers of the protests is familiar: The state is failing, democracy is being overthrown by shadowy “globalizers”, and people are urged to resist again.
Now, what started with protests against government policy has become personal. According to federal police statistics, the number of verbal and physical attacks against politicians tripled last year to 4,458. It is no longer just the target of regional and local politicians. The federal health minister and the prime minister’s crisis chief for the pandemic are among a growing group of officials who need police protection.
Two and a half years after a regional politician defending Germany’s asylum policy was shot dead on his porch by a neo-Nazi, security agencies fear that far-right fighters want to use the pandemic. to usher in another wave of political violence.
Dirk-Martin Christian, Saxony’s director of domestic intelligence, said in an email interview: “Violent resistance to democratic norms is now a constant demand during anti-graft protests. optical. “The frequent assertion that we are living in a dictatorship and under an emergency regime that needs to be eliminated, and that it is legitimate to resist public resistance, is proof of radicalization. the growing evolution of this movement.”
“More and more people are willing to use violence in the context of protests,” added Mr. Christian, noting the “murder fantasies” directed at Mr Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, and the “SA-style procession” ‘ outside Mrs. Köpping’s house.
The radicalization of protesters against Covid measures can be most clearly seen in the formerly Communist East, where far-right extremists now dominate the organization of protests and control. control information – and misinformation – on popular Telegram channels related to the movement.
Saxony, the most populous state in the east, has a long history of far-right protests, which began with annual neo-Nazi marches on the anniversary of the 1945 Dresden bombing.
In 2014, the anti-Muslim Pegida movement – short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West – was founded here, then spread to other cities. For years, its supporters marched on Monday night, much like the protesters who had overthrown Communism a quarter-century earlier.
“We are the people,” the tagline relates to Pegida’s marches, which are also popular at Monday night’s anti-coronavirus rallies.
Officials say these similarities are worrisome because protracted street protests have proven to be powerful incubators of far-right violence.
“Regular demonstrations have the effect of giving extremists the sense that public opinion is on their side and now is the time to act,” said Michael Nattke, a former neo-Nazi who left the scene and is now standing. do the work against extremism said. past two decades. “It creates its own dynamic.” ”
For intelligence officials, the issue is no longer if, but when.
“We are very concerned about the potential for radicalization of individual perpetrators,” said Christian of the Saxon intelligence agency.
One concern is that far-right extremists are exploiting the frustrations and fears of ordinary citizens who march alongside them. That constant proximity erodes boundaries.
“Something is becoming normalized that cannot be normalized,” said Ms. Köpping, Minister of Health. “It’s disturbing that you can’t tell who’s on the street because of vaccines and Covid restrictions – and who’s been radicalized.”
On a recent Monday night in Dresden, eleven different “walking” protests, advertised on Telegram, passed through different parts of the city before regrouping into one march. with about 3,000 people. Some carried candles, like the peaceful protesters who marched against the Berlin Wall in 1989. Others waved the flag of the Free Saxons, a new party hitherto considered “founded.” Alternative for Germany party.
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In the crowd was Betina Schmidt, a 57-year-old bookkeeper wearing a red beanie. Ms Schmidt said she is not only opposed to government plans to mandate vaccines in general – but also a broader plot by powerful globalists to “destroy the land” Germany”.
Until a few years ago, she voted for the Green. “Now I know they are not green, they are dictatorial,” Ms. Schmidt said. “What they want has nothing to do with the environment. They want Germany to be destroyed.”
She stopped watching news on public television last summer and now receives most of her information on Telegram. Like many others here, Ms. Schmidt cited “The Great Reconstruction,” a book by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which Ms. Schmidt said was like “a scenario for how a group of powerful globalists planned to destroy the German nation and create a mixed crowd of people who could be easily led. “
“I didn’t believe it either six months ago,” she added.
Matthias Pöhlmann, author of Right-wing Esotericism, a book about merging far-right conspiracy theories with other perspectives, says such theories are spreading rapidly – and goes beyond people traditionally open to the very right ideas.
“These conspiracy theories are powerful drivers of radicalization,” he said. “If you believe that someone wants to erase you, that you are living in a dictatorship, then violence is justified.”
Germany’s federal intelligence agency, known as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, recently created a new category for dangerous conspiracy theorists dubbed “state mandates.” . It has also established a “special organization” tasked with monitoring about 600 channels on Telegram related to the protest movement.
The security agency was already caught off guard. When asked in September in Parliament if there was a “specific danger” posed by the pandemic protest movement, the government denied this, saying only that “some” of the protesters showed signs of radicalization and “willing to be more violent”.
Ten days later, a gas station employee was shot dead by a customer after the employee asked him to wear a mask. The attacker has regularly participated in protest marches.
Mr. Nattke, who regularly meets with officials about the far-right threat, said he had been warning them for months. “It wasn’t really until the torch relay outside Petra Köpping’s house that they took it seriously.”
In Dresden, the group that fantasizes about killing the Saxon governor, and is currently being investigated for a terrorist plot, is discovered by journalists for the first time. Now, Mr. Christian’s office has its own team of half a dozen Telegram followers, who sift through hatred and misinformation to identify serious threats.
“It’s scary how many people are following these appeals,” said Christian. “Erosion of the political center has begun.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contribution report.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/world/europe/germany-covid-far-right-protests.html In Germany, threats grow as Right-wing and Pandemic protesters merge