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The Far-Right Has Turned East Germans Against Vaccines

Global anti-vaccine lies are finding local footholds.

By , a scholar of 17th-century military history.
Demonstrators protest the vaccine mandate in Berlin.
Demonstrators protest the vaccine mandate in Berlin.
Demonstrators protest the vaccine mandate near the Reichstag in Berlin on Jan. 26. Omer Messinger/Getty IMages

Coronavirus cases have been spiking around the world, including in Germany. Regionally, the former East Germany has been hard-hit, while the German vaccination rate stagnates. That’s a marked failure in a region where compulsory vaccinations were once a routine part of life, in contrast to the former West Germany. But it stems from East German history—and from the popularity of the far-right, and newly anti-vaccine, Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

The AfD’s adoption of anti-vaccine beliefs in the last year has been a departure from 70 years of historical practices and the attitudes shaped by them—an extraordinarily rapid one.

In East Germany, vaccinations were compulsory and highly organized. In contrast, vaccination in West Germany was intended to be voluntary. Until very recently, this past difference in practice was reflected in a lower rate of anti-vaccine beliefs in the former East, and a higher rate of voluntary vaccination. Doctors in the former East were more likely to vaccinate their patients against influenza. Survey participants in 1999 from the former East were more likely to report being vaccinated against influenza and more likely to report positive attitudes toward vaccination.

Coronavirus cases have been spiking around the world, including in Germany. Regionally, the former East Germany has been hard-hit, while the German vaccination rate stagnates. That’s a marked failure in a region where compulsory vaccinations were once a routine part of life, in contrast to the former West Germany. But it stems from East German history—and from the popularity of the far-right, and newly anti-vaccine, Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

The AfD’s adoption of anti-vaccine beliefs in the last year has been a departure from 70 years of historical practices and the attitudes shaped by them—an extraordinarily rapid one.

In East Germany, vaccinations were compulsory and highly organized. In contrast, vaccination in West Germany was intended to be voluntary. Until very recently, this past difference in practice was reflected in a lower rate of anti-vaccine beliefs in the former East, and a higher rate of voluntary vaccination. Doctors in the former East were more likely to vaccinate their patients against influenza. Survey participants in 1999 from the former East were more likely to report being vaccinated against influenza and more likely to report positive attitudes toward vaccination.

East German vaccination history was even supposed to protect against COVID-19 directly. In 2020, a scientific study found a correlation between wide administration of the bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) tuberculosis vaccine and reduced mortality from COVID-19. A German team pointed out that this vaccine was obligatory in the former East Germany. This made modern Germany a perfect experimental location: united by genetics, habits, and lifestyle but divided by the health policies of a vanished government. Since BCG is administered to newborns and those most at risk for COVID-19 are the elderly, today’s East German retirees may have enjoyed some protection from their long-past infancy. This team found that as of April 2020, mortality from COVID-19 was lower in East Germany, but the relationship between the BCG vaccine and COVID-19 mortality remains ambiguous.

In January 2021, Deutsche Welle suggested that modern East Germans would be more likely to vaccinate than West Germans. A year later, the AfD—which, like the German far-right in general, is overrepresented in all states of the former East Germany except Berlin—leads anti-vaccine demonstrations.

East Germany is in trouble. The economic changes after reunification were wrenching, and the reconstruction took longer than expected. Excepting Berlin, the entire region has a comparable population the single state of Bavaria. And the population is declining; young people are moving away. The percentage of the population aged 15 and over who can pass the entrance examination either for a technical school or university is lower in the former East.  East Germany still lags behind West Germany economically.

It would be easy to explain the AfD’s prominence there as a revolt of those who have been left behind by modern global capitalism. But that’s not the whole answer, at least from the data. Neither a higher unemployment rate nor a higher percentage of migrants in an area correlates with the AfD’s vote share. While West Germans are more optimistic about the future and more positive about the European Union, East Germans are more likely to have unfavorable views about minorities and favorable views about AfD whether or not they are satisfied with life.

Two-thirds of AfD voters are male, and this party does best among the 35 to 59 age group. These men are more likely to be dissatisfied whether or not they are employed. These are middle-aged men with a grudge. East Germany is full of them: The most likely group to leave this region are young women.

The context for the AfD’s success is shaped by East German history. What AfD signals is a hostility to the postwar international order, which is liberal in the broad sense and explicitly anti-racist. Being anti-establishment in East Germany means being against Berlin, as well as against the great urban centers of the West. The establishment world order has the United States at its head and mainstream Germany as an enthusiastic participant.

In East Germany, anti-establishment feeling is also an implicit repudiation of what happened to West Germany after World War II. The relationship of these feelings to East Germany’s past in the Soviet orbit is complex, as shaped by Soviet propaganda as by anti-Soviet passion. Where these murky currents converge is a hostility to the former Western Allies, now represented by the EU and Germany as a whole.

The official line in East Germany was that after the war, the fascists fled to the west. In this viewpoint, East Germany was the successor state to the anti-fascist fighters of the 1920s and 1930s, and the great failed revolutions of 1848; but West Germany was fascist. The East German state also created the cult of “victims of National Socialism,” which focused on political violence, not the victims of the Nazi’s racist worldview. Its explanation of Nazism never described it as wrong because it was racist: This inheritance left East Germans potentially more vulnerable than their Western counterparts to hatred of foreigners or Jews, and it left them with a legacy of victimhood, rather than the somewhat self-conscious post-1970s guilt complex of the West.

Since all the Nazis were supposedly in the West, in this narrative East Germany was the victim of the West Germans as well as their capitalist/fascist supporters in the United Kingdom and United States. East German propaganda also claimed that these powers had been the moral equivalents of Nazi Germany during the war. Since the Soviet Union was East Germany’s ally, atrocities committed by the Western Allies like the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 were the only traumas that were licit to publicly discuss. Dresden became a symbol in part because it was a displacement for things like the Red Army’s sack of Berlin. Present hostility to the EU, the international liberal order, and anti-racism as a political project as expressed in initiatives such as refugee resettlement make sense not only as reactions to the dislocation after East Germany’s collapse, but also as organic inheritances from East Germany’s history.

The AfD lays claim to this history explicitly and vocally. Its banners proclaim, “The East Rises Up,” and its chants evoke the 1989 protests in Leipzig against the East German government. AfD members claim they are completing the revolution that brought down the East German state: Just as East Germans were not free to speak their minds then, goes the argument, they are not free to speak their minds now. The shifting references of East German trauma refer to the Nazis, the Western Allies, the USSR, and the German Democratic Republic at the same time.

What is new is the far-right’s hostility to vaccinations.

As one of the first areas where the power of the state was applied directly to the individual, vaccination has always been a politically loaded topic in Germany. Before the unification of the German Empire in 1871, different German political entities had different smallpox vaccination policies. The German Empire mandated smallpox vaccination in 1874.

The Weimar Republic initially maintained the health policy of the Second Reich, including obligatory smallpox vaccination. Public opposition to compulsory vaccines grew during the late 1920s and early 1930s; the ensuing government compromise maintained mandatory vaccination officially while introducing freely interpreted exceptions. This change was accelerated by the Lübeck vaccine scandal in 1930, in which 252 newborns were accidentally infected with tuberculosis from a tainted tuberculosis vaccine, and more than 70 died.

It would be easy to conclude that the AfD’s rejection of COVID-19 vaccination is a continuation of Nazi practice, because anti-vaccine sentiment in Germany was historically tied up with antisemitism. But like the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime continued the policies of its predecessor, carrying forward the anti-vaccine sentiment of the 1930s. While the regime preferred to persuade the so-called “people’s community”  to vaccinate through propaganda and social pressure rather than risk alienating them, this does not mean most of its functionaries were opposed to vaccination as such. These aims changed again during World War II, when interest in mandating vaccines grew even as Nazi antisemitic policy and actions radicalized: The conditions of war spread disease, and doctors were scarce.

The AfD is changing under the influence of its links to wider networks. One of these links is through the Querdenker movement. This movement was founded in 2020, linking vaccine skeptics across the political spectrum: “Querdenker” is German for someone who thinks outside the box, but to me it is also reminiscent of “Querfront,” a political alliance of far-right and far-left. This movement is full of cranks like the Reichsbürger, German versions of sovereign citizens. Although its founder presents the movement as peaceful, its rallies are often violent.

The Querdenker movement did not originate in the former East Germany: It was founded by an IT entrepreneur in Stuttgart, the affluent capital of Baden-Württemberg, and many of its inner core are from that region. (As a blunt illustration of just how regionally specific German life is, its original name was “Querdenken 711,” for the Stuttgart area code.) While East Germans are largely irreligious—if East Germany were still a country, it would be the most atheistic place on earth—some major Querdenker figures are or were preachers, such as Samuel Eckert, a former Seventh-day Adventist. But it has found purchase in the former East, and AfD members demonstrate at Querdenker events.

Another avenue of influence is the far-right in the United States. Originating in its devotion to former U.S. President Donald Trump, the United States’ far-right is strongly opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine. Many Republicans, right-leaning independents, and/or believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory remain unvaccinated, which fueled the spread of COVID-19’s omicron variant. (Ironically, Trump himself is proud of having helped fund the vaccine, and is fully vaccinated and boosted.) Opposition to so-called establishment medicine and the mainstream was already common in Germany’s alternative milieu, and it has now fused with obsession with Trump, who has become a symbol for the global far-right. The Querdenker movement contains QAnon believers.

Far-right extremists believe they are engaged in “a global struggle against a global enemy” and must therefore network and cooperate across borders. The far-right is made up of many globally linked phenomena—but as the AfD’s toxic influence shows, its harms play out in intensely regional ways.

Lucian Staiano-Daniels is a scholar of 17th century military history, who was most recently a Dan David Prize Fellow at Tel Aviv University.  He is finishing a book on the historical social anthropology of early seventeenth century common soldiers. His most recent academic article was "Masters in the Things of War: Rethinking Military Justice during the Thirty Years War."

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