In Germany’s east, far-right extremists find footholds in escalating anti-vaccine protests

“We feel left out of society,” said Stephanie Handrick, 37, who was demonstrating for the first time with her mother, Karin, 62.

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Protests in Germany — the majority in the form of Monday evening “walks” — are growing. According to official estimates, there were 1,700 demonstrations across the country in the third week of January alone, drawing around 400,000 people, said a security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.

Anti-vaccine movements have hardened across Europe in recent months — and at times drifted into violence — as winter surges in infections have brought new restrictions and mandates. There have been threats against French members of Parliament and clashes on the streets of Rotterdam. On Jan. 23, demonstrators at a 50,000-strong demonstration in Belgium attacked European Union buildings. There were also large-scale protests in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, on Saturday.

But in Germany, organizers have moved toward more community protests, aiming to strengthen movements locally and overwhelm the police by stretching security forces thin. The eastern German state of Saxony has emerged as a particular epicenter, with as many as 200 demonstrations each week drawing some 50,000 people, according to police estimates.

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In Saxony, which has the lowest vaccination rate in Germany, far-right extremists also have tried to gain ground in the growing movement against vaccine mandates and other health measures. Demonstrators come from a mix of backgrounds, said Saxony’s Interior Minister Roland Wöller, but he said extremist groups are attempting to use them to “move into the middle of society.”

“Week by week, we have more and more participants, and nothing speaks to a situation that this will come to an end,” Wöller said. “It’s a minority,” he added, but it’s a “loud minority.”

The dangers were thrown into sharp relief in December when a group of more than two dozen demonstrators, some carrying flaming torches, descended on the house of Petra Köpping, the state’s minister for social affairs. Just days later came the disruption of an alleged plot, by people opposed to coronavirus restrictions and vaccinations, to assassinate the state’s prime minister, Michael Kretschmer.

In Saxony, just 65 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, compared with 74 percent nationwide, according to Germany’s official data. In areas like Bautzen, that drops to 51 percent. (About 64 percent of U.S. residents are fully vaccinated, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus database.)

At the demonstration next to Bautzen’s 15th-century tower earlier in January, groups of demonstrators broke off from the main crowd to “walk” through the city, not allowed under ordinances that restrict protests. Police vans sped away to deal with scuffles on nearby streets, and a cheer went up from the crowd when a projectile hit the side of one of the vans. Later, law enforcement used pepper spray to disperse crowds trying to break through police lines.

Saxony’s domestic intelligence agency deems a group called Free Saxons, which it classified last year as a right-wing extremist movement, to be the “mobilization machine” of protests against coronavirus measures in the state and beyond, promoting the demonstrations on its Telegram channel.

“It is frightening how many people follow these mobilization calls,” said Dirk-Martin Christian, the head of the state’s domestic intelligence agency. “The almost conspicuous lack of distance shown by non-extremist protesters toward the extremists strengthens the backs of enemies of the constitution and makes their slogans and verbal threats increasingly acceptable in mainstream society.”

In his office in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, on the second floor of a dilapidated, graffiti-covered building, Martin Kohlmann, the main public face of Free Saxons, makes no secret that eroding people’s “trust in this system” is a wider goal.

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The 44-year-old lawyer was a leading figure behind the anti-immigration protests that convulsed Chemnitz four years ago after a resident was fatally stabbed by an asylum seeker. Demonstrators performed Hitler salutes as bottles and fireworks flew between the far-right crowd and counterdemonstrators.

But now vaccine mandates and coronavirus restrictions are Kohlmann’s rallying call.

While Kohlmann contends that Free Saxons is not an extremist group, German authorities say it is clearly so. The co-founder, Stefan Hartung, is a member of the district council for Germany’s National Democratic Party, a neo-Nazi party. Kohlmann professed to seek the return of the Saxon monarchy and independence for the state.

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He said the pandemic is an opportunity to reach more people. A “much broader range” of demonstrators join the weekly walks on Monday than anti-immigrant rallies.

He doesn’t have to reach out to people, he said. They are coming to him.

“It’s exploding,” he said of the group’s social media presence. The Free Saxons’ Telegram channel had 48,000 followers in August 2021, it has now grown to more than 140,000.

The Monday walks have particular resonance in eastern Germany, with peaceful Monday demonstrations having been used in protest of the former communist government of East Germany. Mondays also became the day for the anti-Islam and anti-immigration protests during the refugee crisis of 2014 and 2015.

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“If we look at these far-right actors that are on the streets and call for protests — at least in the places I have an overview of — then those are exactly the same people that called for protests in 2015 and in the following years,” said Annalena Schmidt, a former city councilor in Bautzen who has been active against far-right extremism in the area.

And on the other side, it’s hard to organize counter-demonstrations given coronavirus restrictions, she said.

“The right-wing extremists know exactly how to capitalize on these conspiracy ideologies to stir up fear.”

Köpping, the state minister for social affairs, attributes the low vaccination rates in the state to distrust in the government, which is high across all of eastern Germany, thanks in part to the region’s experience under communism. That’s also apparent in the resistance to coronavirus measures.

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“People experienced a dictatorship which mandated what they had to do,” she said. “So now there is greater resistance here than where people had a different experience.”

And Alexander Ahrens, the mayor of Bautzen, said Saxony has been slow to address its neo-Nazi problem, with previous state leaders reluctant to tackle it.

The increasingly brazen displays from far-right extremists are concerning, he said.

Among the marchers are members of more established organizations like the neo-Nazi Third Way party, whose online channels now also mix anti-vaccine and anti-restriction messages with antisemitic diatribes. Its Telegram channels post videos of the Monday walks set to dramatic music with its members marching with banners. “Prevent compulsory vaccination,” read one banner held up by men in balaclavas. “The system is more dangerous than corona. Fight the system.”

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There is concern such groups are also networking to mobilize behind similar demonstrations across Europe.

Security officials in Austria, which has also seen regular demonstrations in the wake of a vaccine mandate there, say they have noted cross-border coordination, particularly among the German-speaking extreme-right factions. “We take the threats very seriously and therefore are monitoring the scene very closely,” the Austrian Interior Ministry said in a statement.

While Germany’s vaccine mandate for health-care workers is set to be introduced in March, lawmakers are still debating a full mandate. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has said that he’s convinced that one is needed. At the moment, the unvaccinated are barred from activities like dining out and shopping in nonessential stores unless they had the coronavirus in the past three months.

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But those in the security sphere have concerns about mandates. The introduction of compulsory vaccination would “probably act as a catalyst and further increase the radicalization of those opposed to vaccination and those who deny the coronavirus,” said Christian, Saxony’s intelligence chief. “In our opinion, it can even be assumed that physical attacks against people and facilities related to government anti-corona measures will increase significantly.”

He said the protest at the social affairs minister’s house had crossed a “red line,” harking back to the torch-lit Nazi brownshirt rallies of the 1930s.

Köpping said she didn’t really think about fear when the group of 30 demonstrators — some carrying torches — turned up at her doorstep in early December. But what concerns her more are the threats against people who are not public figures: doctors and people giving vaccinations.

“And these people don’t have the protection I have,” she said.

Kohlmann says he has no qualms with taking demonstrations to the homes of public officials.

“Now they come to our houses,” he said, citing German restrictions limiting the unvaccinated from having more than two non-household members in their homes simultaneously.

“Then we come to their homes, too.”