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Democratic Corrosion at the Heart of Europe

Covid-19, the War in Ukraine, and the Security Threats Posed by Polarization and Radicalization in Germany
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The Covid-19 pandemic crystalized the myriad challenges facing the modern world like few crises before it. Its impacts were so far reaching, its insights so diverse, that even the metaphors created to understand it spun off their own field of study. It seems impossible to conceive of another event that revealed so much about the very nature of our globalized world, system of international relations, and forms of governance. Throughout history, “pandemics [have] expose[d] and exacerbate[d] the existing inequalities, divisions, and other fault lines of our society,” stated Brian Michael Jenkins, author of Plagues and Their Aftermath: How Societies Recover from Pandemics and a senior advisor to the RAND Corporation. And Covid-19 was no different.

In Germany, Covid-19 and the measures introduced by the government to halt its spread sparked a nationwide protest movement that revealed a startling level of mistrust and skepticism towards democratic institutions. The anti-lockdown and subsequently anti-vaccine protests – elements of which bore the moniker “Querdenker ” (“lateral thinker”) after their most successful chapter, the Stuttgart-based Querdenken 711 – waxed and waned between 2020 and 2022, mirroring the changing severity of government restrictions. While this period witnessed a shift from massive gatherings in cities like Berlin to spontaneous, localized “walks” taking place throughout Germany, protest in some form remained a constant.

As a diverse slice of the German population came together on the streets, the country’s far right, sensing an opportunity to attract new supporters and keen to exploit the energy of the protests, sought to coopt them. From 2020 to 2022, elements of the Covid-19 protest scene radicalized sharply. The protests – and the Telegram channels through which they were organized – served as touchpoints between middle-class Germans and various anti-democratic actors seeking to spread their worldviews and beliefs. Though the protest scene may not have given its wholesale support to the radical right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), more Germans have now been exposed to corrosive, antisemitic conspiracy theories that serve as a pre-political accelerant for hard-right ideologies as a result of its efforts. Political discourse in Germany has roughened. The country’s citizens have come to view their society as deeply polarized around Covid-19, and many have lost faith in their government’s capacity to act. Random acts of violence, purported terrorist plots, and even a disturbing yet somewhat farcical alleged coup attempt have been connected to individuals associated with the protests.

The dangers posed by the most radicalized elements of the protest movement and the sharp polarization that has accompanied it were thrown into sharp relief by the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Russia’s full-scale invasion, which occurred as the pandemic was beginning to wind down, re-energized a movement that had started to flag as more and more Covid-19 restrictions were dropped. Almost immediately after the invasion, Telegram groups that had spread conspiracy theories about Covid-19 began to incorporate conspiratorial, Russian-aligned explanations for the outbreak of the war. That this shift was so seamless appears anything but coincidental. In psychological terms, those who believe in one conspiracy are more likely to believe in others. For many of the protestors, opposition to and criticism of the perceived mainstream were seen as fundamental goods. And politically, Russian state propaganda outlets such as RT (formerly Russia Today) played an important role in supporting the protest movement’s worldview, while anti-Ukrainian conspiracies began to flow into Covid-19 protest channels even before Russia launched its attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian government in February 2022. Actors who played a prominent role in the Covid-19 protests had also helped stoke pro-Russian sentiment at Pegida protests or during the Monday “vigils for peace” (Montagsmahnwachen für den Frieden) following the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. It is therefore unsurprising that researchers have identified a strong link between those who believe conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and those that subscribe to conspiracy-heavy defenses of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In seeking to understand these developments, this paper first takes a closer look at the 2020-2022 Covid-19 protests in Germany and examines their domestic impacts in the context of a period rife with societal and geopolitical challenges, chief among them the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The findings are troubling, both for Germany specifically and regarding the national security risk posed by heightened polarization and anti-democratic radicalization. While Russian propaganda outlets sought to propagate conspiracies about Covid-19 and Ukraine in Germany, it was Germans themselves who created the audience for these narratives.

The Covid-19 protest scene has been referred to by experts as a “society of rejection” and a form of counter-Enlightenment. That this dynamic not only applies to domestic policy decisions but also permits the justification of a brutal attack on a nearby democracy should raise concern about the subterranean processes underway in German society.

The German anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests marked neither a beginning nor an end, but rather a waypoint in a continuum of internal and external challenges faced by German democracy. At the domestic end of the spectrum, they reveal an existing, virulent anti-democratic sentiment that can be spread through the exploitation of various crises, to the detriment of German society. And in foreign and security policy terms, the growth of the protest movement marks the visible expansion of a diverse political scene that fundamentally rejects the basic tenets of German liberal democracy, thus serving as a useful tool for foreign adversaries seeking to influence the direction of German policy. As breaking German solidarity occupies a central place in Vladimir Putin’s strategy to undermine sanctions and weapons support for Ukraine, this could have extremely dangerous consequences.

Product details
Date of Publication
January 2024
Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, DC
Number of Pages
Language of publication
Table of contents


  1. Introduction 4
    1. No port in the storm: Germany, mid-2022 6
  2. The domestic security implications of the Covid-19 protests 7
    1. The protests in overview 8
    2. Key features 9
    3. An opportunity for the far right 10
    4. Impacts 12
    5. Unfinished work 14
  3. The foreign and security policy implications of the Covid-19 protests 16
    1. The real threat is us 16
    2. From the “corona dictatorship” to the war in Ukraine 18
    3. Sand in the gears of the Zeitenwende 20
  4. Conclusion 22

Acknowledgements 24
References 25