By Alec Medine
On August 31st, after weeks of extensive protests across Berlin against Coronavirus restrictions, a large crowd from Germany’s far-right stormed the Bundestag. Many of the demonstrators were waving German imperial flags in a show of force that looked like something out of the tumultuous days of Weimar Germany. Far from being something banished to the history books after 1945, right-wing extremism in Germany is alive, well, and only further emboldened in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This attack on the center of Germany’s government marks one of the most flagrant acts of European ultranationalism to date.
Since the start of August, Berlin has seen massive demonstrations, with the first day of protests advertised as “Freedom Day” against lockdowns and mask-wearing requirements. Although the protests are comprised of people from a variety of different ideological backgrounds, the movement has garnered the most popularity with those from Germany’s far-right, including members of the Reichsbürger movement and Q-Anon. Right-wing extremists on social media called to “storm Berlin” in language based in fascistic rhetoric evoking memories of Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome or the invasion of Nazi Stormtroopers onto the streets of German cities in the early 1930s. All of this bluster and threatening culminated in a direct attack on the Bundestag as right-wing extremists briefly pushed the police barrier protecting Germany’s parliament aside.
The Bundestag (formerly called the Reichstag) is steeped in historical significance. Previously, the legislatures of Weimar Germany and the German Empire also sat in the massive stone building. In 1933, when an arsonist attempted to set fire to the Reichstag, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party used the event as a pretext to seize full dictatorial control of Germany, plunging it into twelve years of darkness and war.
Direct assaults on democratic institutions, not just in words but also now against physical places, indicates a crumbling sense of trust towards these institutions. We’re seeing the same in the USA; last May, well-armed protestors in Michigan stormed their state capitol trying to force the state to end its lockdown against COVID-19.
These situations show us, too, that the skepticism about the Coronavirus pandemic and distrust of the government are often interlinked. The Reichsbürgers deny the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany, preferring instead to show their allegiance to a dead, authoritarian German Empire. The Q-Anon movement on both sides of the pond believes that western governments are dominated by corrupt and shadowy figures concerned with controlling the masses for power and profit. By denying the legitimacy of their government, supporters of these factions can also deny any directives and advice from their governments concerning how to protect the public health, writing off these initiatives as devices of mass-control.
Finally, the presence of Reichsbürgers and Q-Anon supporters at the forefront of these protests indicates a growing confidence among the fringe political right in their ability to threaten and strongarm the legitimate authorities through brute force. These conspiracy theories harken back the antisemitic conspiracies that fed the Nazi movement a century ago, and continue to influence the far-right today.
We as democratic citizens everywhere must believe in our democratic institutions and protect them from attacks like this. We have to resist the far-right’s siren call to bigotry, broadcast through misinformation and propaganda. It is every person’s duty to protect freedom and tolerance from hatred.