NUREMBERG, Germany — Maria Liebermann came wrapped in fairy lights and waved a peace flag featuring a white dove. Martin Schmidt carried a Germany flag with the word RESIST scrawled across it in capital letters.
She is a self-described “eco-leftist.” He votes for the far-right Alternative for Germany. They disagree on everything from immigration to climate change, but on a recent Monday they marched side by side against the prospect of a general Covid vaccine mandate, shouting “Freedom!”
At the start of the pandemic, Germany was widely lauded as a model of unity in combating the coronavirus. A general trust in government encouraged citizens to comply with lockdowns, mask guidance and social distancing restrictions.
But that confidence in the authorities has steadily waned as the pandemic enters its third year and the fight has shifted toward vaccines, exposing deep rifts in German society and setting back efforts to combat Covid cases.
Plans by the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to make the vaccine mandatory have galvanized a nationwide protest movement, mobilizing tens of thousands in marches in cities and villages every week even as Covid cases surge to new highs with the spread of the Omicron variant.
Germany, with a vaccination rate of 69 percent, has the largest share of unvaccinated people among big Western European nations, and its organized resistance to vaccines may be more pronounced than anywhere else in Europe.
Most Germans back not just vaccinations but also a vaccine mandate, but the opposition has forged an alliance of strange bedfellows that stretches across the political spectrum. Much of its center of gravity remains on the far right, giving new momentum to the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a party best known for its anti-immigrant views.
But the opposition is not limited to an extremist fringe. Anti-vax nationalists, neo-Nazis and hooligans are joined by hippies, so-called esoterics and many ordinary citizens spooked by two years of lockdowns, curfews and the prospect of a mandate.
They can all be found, sometimes marching just a few feet apart, from Berlin and Hamburg in the north to Stuttgart and Munich in the south, and across towns and villages in east and west alike. This past week, some 100,000 protested, according to police estimates, in hundreds of decentralized demonstrations.
The diversity of the anti-vax movement was on display one recent Monday night in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, where the crowd wound its way through the city center, banging drums, blowing whistles and, in at least one case, offering “cosmic energy” to bystanders.
There were naturalists and a smattering of neo-Nazis — men holding up placards against the “Great Reset,” code for antisemitic conspiracy theories — as well as plenty of families with children, and retirees carrying their own hand-drawn signs.
“We are no guinea pigs,” one sign read. “Hands off our children,” read another. One slogan that featured prominently: “Freedom, liberty and democracy.”
Ms. Liebermann, a 64-year-old retired physiotherapist, was among the demonstrators, blowing kisses to people watching the march from their windows.
“We are standing up for our constitutional rights,” she said. “A vaccine is an invasion of bodily integrity. It’s perverse that the state, which is supposed to protect its citizens, wants to force-vaccinate us.”
Asked whether it bothered her that some of her fellow protesters were not shy about their far-right views, Ms. Liebermann shrugged defiantly. “This march is a mirror of society,” she said. “The AfD is part of society. We are all here to demonstrate against a vaccine mandate.”
German politicians had long ruled out a vaccine mandate. But even as studies show that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent a Covid infection — and to avoid hospitalization or death if infected — persuading those who are deeply skeptical of vaccines has proved all but impossible.
Oliver Nachtwey, a sociologist at the University of Basel who has studied Germany’s coronavirus protest movement, calls the low vaccination rate “political noncompliance.”
“People are resisting the vaccinations,” Mr. Nachtwey said. “It’s a new and surprising movement because it connects two very separate milieus — people who have an alternative background and maybe voted Green or on the left before, and people who are on the hard right.”
In the former Communist East, the anti-vax movement has been fueled mainly by a far-right ecosystem that ranges from the AfD to neo-Nazi groups like the Free Saxons and the Third Way, which have called for leading politicians to be “hanged.” The governors of two eastern states have received death threats from vaccine opponents in recent weeks.
In western Germany, the picture is more complicated.
A well-established tradition of homeopathy and natural cures has meant that a certain distrust of science and medicine has long been widely accepted in Germany’s middle class. Homeopathic doctors are commonplace, their services reimbursed by public health insurers. Germany’s new age esoteric industry — books, crystals, courses and the like — brings in an estimated 20 billion euros in revenue a year. Bavaria has the highest number of certified healers in the country.
Add to that a streak of romanticism regarding nature that dates to Germany’s industrialization in the 19th century, and the German backlash against the vaccine is in some ways more mainstream than marginal, said Miro Dittrich, founder and senior researcher at CeMAS, a Berlin-based research organization focused on disinformation and conspiracy theories.
“We were looking for the problem on the fringes of society, but it was always in our middle,” Mr. Dittrich said.
“There is a certain regressive and unscientific worldview that comes from the esoteric corner where alternative cures have long been mainstreamed in a certain Green and lefty nonconformist milieu,” he added. “These are middle-class people who trust their feelings more than they trust experts, and in the pandemic that’s a problem.”
Unlike in the United States, where the anti-vax movement in many ways overlaps neatly with the Republican Party, in Germany no political party has been able to capture the disparate groups of people taking to the streets.
“In Germany we still don’t have the group polarization we’re seeing in the U.S.,” said Edgar Grande, the founding director of the Center for Civil Society Research at the WZB Social Science Center in Berlin. “One part votes for the AfD. But it’s mostly people who no longer feel represented by any party or group. They are politically homeless.”
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
Omicron in retreat. Though the U.S. is still facing overwhelmed hospitals and more than 2,000 Covid-19 deaths a day, encouraging signs are emerging as new cases have started to fall nationally, signaling that the Omicron-fueled spike has finally begun to relent.
Free tests and masks. Americans have started to receive free tests from the U.S. government in the mail after it began accepting orders last week. The Biden administration said it would send 500 million rapid tests to Americans via the U.S. Postal Service and make 400 million N95 masks available at pharmacies and health centers.
Around the world. New Zealand imposed its highest level of Covid restrictions across the country after at least nine Omicron cases were reported. In Hong Kong, multiple apartment buildings were locked down and 37,000 people were ordered to undergo testing after an outbreak in a housing complex.
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Sophia, a 22-year-old who described herself as an “energetic healer,” and who was chatting to friends about an hour before the Nuremberg march, lamented the lack of opposition coming from parties on the left like the Greens that had traditionally challenged the status quo.
“Now they’re all backing the vaccine mandate,” she said. In the recent German election, Sophia, who declined to give her last name, supported the Basis party, a newly founded anti-vax party that garnered less than 3 percent of the vote.
Sophia comes from a family of doctors, and both her parents and her older brother got fully vaccinated and have urged her to do the same. But she is concerned that the vaccine was developed too fast, and doesn’t trust the government to disclose any serious side effects.
“My body is telling me that this is not a good idea,” she said. “I have a pretty good connection to my body.”
Her friends concurred. “It’s not about keeping us healthy, it’s about giving us all a QR code,” said Stefan, a 35-year-old father of five who advocates civil disobedience and also did not want his full name used. “They rule with fear. It’s a kind of tyranny.”
“Mainstream science is a religion,” he added.
Distrust in “mainstream science,” and mainstream politics, is one thing esoterics and the far right can agree on, said Mr. Grande of the WZB.
“The common denominator is distrust,” he said. “What unites these two very different groups is an alienation from traditional parties, from science, from media.”
Mr. Grande said the high levels of trust in government shown by Germans early in the pandemic, when nine in 10 backed the coronavirus restrictions, began to erode after the first lockdown as weariness with the pandemic set in.
The danger now, Mr. Grande said, is that the weekly contact with the far right on the streets normalizes that group for those who belong to what he calls “the distrustful center.” Both camps share a belief in conspiracy theories, which have the power to radicalize the movement beyond the fringes.
The vaccine mandate, which will be debated in parliament at the end of the month, is the decisive driver of the protests. “The debate about vaccine mandate is oil into the fire of the radicalization,” Mr. Grande said.
“I fear we have a difficult political phase ahead of us in this pandemic,” he said.