Threats Emerge in Germany as Far Right and Pandemic Protesters Merge

DRESDEN, Germany — First vaccine opponents attacked the police. Then a group of them chatted online about killing the governor. And one day an angry crowd beating drums and carrying torches showed up outside the house of the health minister of the eastern state of Saxony.

The minister, Petra Köpping, had just got home when her phone rang. It was a neighbor and he sounded afraid. When Ms. Köpping peered out of her window into the dark, she saw several dozen faces across the street, flickering in the torchlight.

“They came to intimidate and threaten me,” she recalled in an interview. “I had just come home and was alone. I’ve been in politics for 30 years but I have never seen anything like this. There is a new quality to this.”

The crowd was swiftly dispersed by the police, but the incident in December marked a turning point in a country where the SA, Hitler’s paramilitary organization, was notorious not just for showing up at the homes of political rivals with torches and drums, but for attacking and even murdering them.

“They came to intimidate and threaten me,” said Petra Köpping, the health minister of Saxony.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

It was the clearest indication yet that a protest movement against Covid measures that has mobilized tens of thousands in cities and villages across the country was increasingly merging with the far right, each finding new purpose and energy and further radicalizing the other.

The dynamic is much the same whether in Germany or Canada, and the protests in various countries have echoes of one another. On the streets of Dresden one recent Monday, the signs and slogans were nearly identical to those on the streets of Ottawa: “Freedom,” “Democracy” and “The Great Resist.”

In Germany, at least, the merging of the movements has taken an increasingly sinister turn, with a specter of violence that is alarming security agencies. Since December, the threats have only intensified.

Last month the far-right Alternative for Germany party called for another protest outside of Ms. Köpping’s home. (Police stopped it.) Hospital staff in Dresden, the Saxon capital, have been attacked. A second governor has received death threats. And when police raided the homes of nine people who had debated ways to kill Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, on the messenger service Telegram, they discovered weapons and bomb-making ingredients like gunpowder and sulfur.

As the pandemic enters its third year, Germany is emerging from another long winter of high case numbers that are now slowly receding. While the government is preparing to lift restrictions, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is determined to turn a general vaccine mandate into law ahead of the next fall.

The debate about Covid restrictions has energized a far-right scene that thrives on a sense of crisis and apocalypse.

Germany’s far right, which in recent years used anger over an influx of refugees and Europe’s debt crisis to recruit, has seized on the virus as its latest cause.

Empty tables at a restaurant in Dresden’s old town. Restaurants can only seat customers who are fully vaccinated.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

If the issue is different, the messaging of those organizing the protests is eerily familiar: The state is failing, democracy is subverted by shady “globalists” and the people are urged to resist.

Now as then, what began with demonstrations against government policy has become personal. The number of verbal and physical attacks on politicians tripled last year to 4,458, according to federal police statistics. It is no longer just regional and local politicians who are targeted. The federal health minister and the chancellor’s chief crisis manager on the pandemic are among a growing group of officials requiring police protection.

Two and a half years after a regional politician who defended Germany’s refugee policy was shot dead on his front porch by a neo-Nazi, security agencies worry that far-right militants want to use the pandemic to unleash another wave of political violence.

“Violent resistance to democratic rules is now a frequent demand in the anti-corona protests,” Dirk-Martin Christian, domestic intelligence chief of the state of Saxony, said in an email interview. “The routine assertion that we live in a dictatorship and under an emergency regime that must be eliminated, and against which public resistance is legitimate, is evidence of the progressive radicalization of this movement.”

“There is an increasing willingness to use violence in the context of the protests,” Mr. Christian added, noting “the fantasies of murder” targeting Mr. Kretschmer, the Saxon governor, and “the SA-style procession” outside Ms. Köpping’s house.

The radicalization of protesters against Covid measures is most visible in the former Communist East, where far-right extremists now dominate the organization of the protests and control the information — and disinformation — on popular Telegram channels associated with the movement.

“We keep our promise: No to vaccine mandates!” read a placard displayed by the far-right Alternative for Germany party at a march in Dresden.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

Saxony, the most populous eastern state, has a long history of far-right protests, starting with the annual neo-Nazi marches on the anniversary of the Dresden bombing in 1945.

In 2014, the anti-Muslim Pegida movement — short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West — was founded there, then spread to other cities. For years its supporters marched on Monday nights, like the protesters who brought down Communism a quarter century earlier.

“We are the people,” the slogan associated with Pegida marches, is now popular at the coronavirus protests on Monday nights too.

The parallels are worrying, officials say, because prolonged street protests have proven to be powerful incubators of far-right violence.

The Frauenkirche in Dresden. The church is a rallying point for the far right to recall the bombing of the city by the Allied forces in 1945.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

“Regular protests have the effect of giving extremists the feeling that public opinion is with them and that the time to act is now,” said Michael Nattke, a former neo-Nazi who left the scene and has been doing anti-extremism work for the last two decades. “It creates its own dynamic.””

For intelligence officials, too, it’s no longer a question of if, but when.

“We are very concerned about the possible radicalization of individual perpetrators,” said Mr. Christian of the Saxon intelligence service.

One concern is that far-right extremists are tapping into the frustrations and fears of ordinary citizens who march alongside them every week. That regular proximity erodes boundaries.

“Something is becoming normalized that mustn’t be normalized,” said Ms. Köpping, the health minister. “It’s worrying that you can’t distinguish anymore who is on the streets because of vaccines and Covid restrictions — and who is already radicalized.”

“Regular protests have the effect of giving extremists the feeling that public opinion is with them and that the time to act is now,” said Michael Nattke, a former neo-Nazi.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

On a recent Monday night in Dresden, eleven different protest “walks,” which had been advertised on Telegram, snaked their way through different parts of the city before coalescing into one march with some 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 that is so far right it considers the Alternative for Germany party “establishment.”

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In the crowd was Betina Schmidt, a 57-year-old accountant in a red woolly hat. Ms. Schmidt said she was not just protesting government plans for a general vaccine mandate — but also a broader conspiracy by powerful globalists to “destroy the German nation.”

Until a few years ago she voted for the Greens. “Now I know they are not green, they are totalitarian,” Ms. Schmidt said. “What they want has nothing to do with the environment. They want the destruction of Germany.”

She stopped watching news on the public broadcaster last summer and is now getting most of her information on Telegram. Like many others here, Ms. Schmidt cited “The Great Reset,” a book by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which Ms. Schmidt says reads like “a script for how a group of powerful globalists plan to destroy the German nation and create a mishmash of people that can be led easily.”

“I didn’t believe it either six months ago,” she added.

One of the biggest concerns officials have is that far-right extremists are tapping into the frustrations and fears of ordinary citizens who march alongside them every week.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

Matthias Pöhlmann, the author of “Right-Wing Esotericism,” a book about the fusion of far-right conspiracy theories with alternative views, said such theories were spreading fast — and well beyond the milieu of people traditionally open to far-right ideas.

“These conspiracy theories are powerful accelerators of radicalization,” he said. “If you believe someone wants to erase you, that you live in a dictatorship, violence is justified.”

Germany’s federal intelligence service, which is known as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, recently created a new category for dangerous conspiracy theorists dubbed “delegitimization of the state.” It has also set up a “special organization” tasked with monitoring some 600 channels on Telegram associated with the protest movement.

Security agencies have been caught off guard before. Asked in September in Parliament whether there was “a concrete danger” coming from the pandemic protest movement, the government denied this, saying only that “some” protesters showed signs of radicalization and a “greater readiness to commit violence.”

Ten days later an employee of a gas station was shot dead by a customer after the employee asked him to put on a mask. The attacker had been a regular at the protest marches.

“They have been very slow to understand the risk,” said Mr. Nattke, who regularly meets with officials about the far-right threat and says he has been warning them for months. “It wasn’t really until the torchlight procession outside Petra Köpping’s house that they took it seriously.”

In Dresden, the group that fantasized about killing the Saxon governor, and is now under investigation for plotting terrorism, was first discovered by journalists. Now Mr. Christian’s office has its own team of half a dozen Telegram watchers, who scroll through hatred and disinformation to identify serious threats.

“It’s frightening how many people are following these calls for mobilization,” Mr. Christian said. “The erosion of the political center has already begun.”

In Dresden’s old town.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.

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