The Meaning of the German anti-lockdown Movement

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Ferdinand Hardekopf examines the German anti-lockdown movement against the backdrop of the culture of the German state and the EU. He finds dilemmas for the German left.

If you’ve been following Germany’s anti-lockdown movement on places like the BBC, pictures of sunglass-wearing hipster types, some wearing aluminium foil hats, may have lodged in your mind. You may also have caught the photos of Christian evangelicals in the movement brandishing large crucifixes in the faces of perturbed riot police officers. But you’re less likely to think of besuited German judges and state attorneys, going breezily about their well-salaried business.

Scotland and the rest of the UK are now emerging from lockdown in a mostly rational way, which could provide the basis for a new stability. Conditions are remarkably different in that gargantuan polity that the UK has finally managed to leave: the EU. By 1 June the British state had managed to give 58% of its residents one dose of Covid-19 vaccine, with the rate in Scotland of adults who have received the first dose considerably higher. The German state, by contrast, had provided the jag to only 44% of its population by 1 June. If this seems slow, less than four from ten people had received at least one Covid vaccine dose by the same date in Italy and France, countries where reluctance about vaccination is even greater than in Germany. In some of the EU’s poorest corners like Bulgaria, where poverty coincides with high levels of distrust about vaccination, the state has only succeeded in vaccinating 12% of the population.

Although the vaccination program has now finally accelerated, German weekly rates for new Covid 19 cases remained high throughout the first five months of 2021, matching the sluggish roll-out. Federal government leaders and the minister-presidents of the sixteen Bundesländer were mostly unwilling to reopen schools and ease other restrictions until the rates fell much further. Hamburg was one of the last federal states to reopen its school doors to full-time teaching for all classes on 31 May, after students in several age brackets had been following (or not following) remote lessons at home for nearly six months.

In the fractious atmosphere of these months, with rates remaining high for weeks and weeks, political leaders turned to blaming the personal behaviour of individual citizens, rather than admit responsibility for poor roll-out. Merkel’s personal hobby-horse has been the systematic airing of rooms, even those containing just a single worker, something far more technical than the sensible measure of just frequently opening windows and doors. As Wolfgang Streeck has half-jokingly put it: “Merkel … at one point seemed to have fallen into the hands of a gang of ZeroCovid zealots composed of virologists, theoretical physicists and philosophy professors.” He went on to argue: “At some point someone will put numbers on the deaths caused by the Great Vaccination Slowdown.” Perry Anderson’s recent EU critique has illuminated how European Court of Justice decisions at decisive stages in EU history, and especially its voluntarist creation of a “new, auto-nomous legal order” through the February 1963 judgment, helped establish the determinedly anti-democratic organization we have today. When we get to Streeck’s point of counting the unvaccinated or too-late-vaccinated dead, which groups of protagonists will hold which leaders and advisers to account? And will they be able to use German and EU courts to do so?

It was in this atmosphere of frustration and tense, mutual recriminations that two German local court judges recently put the law to unexpected purposes. Both were family judges, who assess cases relating to “child well-being” in the lowest-level courts, the Amtsgerichte. On 8 April, a judge in Weimar, Christian Dettmar, enjoined that face-to-face teaching had to take place at the schools of two boys whose mother had brought the case, that mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and asymptomatic testing did not apply at these schools, and that these judgments apply to all students at the two institutions in question. Clearly aiming at a copy-cat effect, he managed to stretch his ruling to 178 pages, which soon appeared in anonymized form online: the document has been analysed by the fact-checker organization “Correctiv”, and by several other pro hard-lockdown groups. Dettmar didn’t have to wait long to see if his gamble had paid off: on 13 April in Weilheim, Bavaria, another family judge ordered that two school students did not have to wear masks at school. In her more modest 27 page ruling, she explicitly drew from the arguments expounded by her Weimar colleague, in the neighbouring Bundesland of Thuringia.

Christian Dettmar structured the reasons behind his ruling under five main headings:

“2. The lack of benefit of mask-wearing and of complying with social distancing regulations for the children themselves and for third persons. 3. The unsuitability of PCR and rapid tests [e.g. antigen rapid tests] for measuring infections. 4. The violation of the right to informational self- determination through rapid tests in schools. 5. The right of children to education and to school teaching.”

The concept of “informational self-determination” has been publicly nurtured by the EU in recent years, with the European Commission strongly plugging this thoroughly neo-liberal “right”: it sounds emancipatory, apparently costs little to implement, but offers only debatable benefits to EU residents. Judges whose worldviews conflict with those of the majority of member state leaders have thus been supplied with an opening to attack lockdown measures. The “Right to be Forgotten”, written for the Commission as an ode in 2013 by law professor Cécile de Terwangne, now feels inexcusably naive. A fine right – for those who can afford to go to court about it. The regional state prosecutor’s office responsible for Weimar has responded to Dettmar’s unscheduled intervention by launching criminal proceedings against him for perverting the course of justice.

In line with the anti-lockdown movement as a whole, the two family judges in Weimar and Bavaria put Germany’s written constitution, the Basic Law of 1949, at the heart of their argument. Like their fellow travellers protesting on Germany’s streets, they are convinced that the country’s constitutional framework empowers them to challenge national and supranational state power.

What might useful reactions look like when it becomes clear that the argumentation provided by Dettmar, and other judges of his mind-set, overlap in key sections with that given by reputable bodies, like the British Medical Journal? The BMJ contended , on 23 February, 2021, that “Closing schools is not evidence based and harms children”, and put the issue in class terms: “This pandemic has seen an unprecedented intergenerational transfer of harm and costs from elderly socioeconomically privileged people to disadvantaged children.” It went onto argue unequivocally against school closures, because of the associated short-term and long-term negative health impact on children: “In the absence of strong evidence for benefits of school closures, the precautionary principle would be to keep schools open to prevent catastrophic harms to children.”

Armed with such strong medical evidence, what has stopped working class parents and guardians in Germany campaigning more strongly than they have done against school closures? Writing in this magazine, not about the Covid response but about the professional managerial class, James Foley has noted that while a working class remains the social majority, a “void”, as Peter Mair has put it, “separates [that class] from political and cultural representation.” Applying this theory to responses to German government Covid politics, working class people are massively underrepresented in the sixteen Landtage, the parliaments of the individual federal states of Germany, as they are in the Bundestag. Parents of “disadvantaged children”, as the BMJ understands this category, are even less represented.

Despite the understandable grievances suffered by those worst affected by school closures and other lockdown measures, research into those actively engaged in the anti-lockdown movement reveals that participants come more from the middle-strata of society, and less from the traditional working class. One vociferous group involved are shopkeepers and other small business-holders, whose campaign “We’re opening up!” (Wir machen auf!), focussed on symbolically opening shops, in violation of lockdown stipulations. “We’re opening up!” was organized by Mecit Uzbay who owns a cosmetic parlour in the city of Krefeld, on the southern edge of the economically depressed Ruhr Conurbation. Like many anti-lockdown initiatives, Uzbay’s project had a greater digital impact than it did on the ground: 60,000 users signed up to his Telegram group, but only twenty-seven shops committed to closing. Anti-lockdown activists from Uzbay’s class, in Marxian terms the petit bourgeois, are invariably accused of having links to the so-called Querdenker, which translates literally as “lateral thinkers”, but is applied to anyone taking part in the numerous anti-lockdown demonstrations. It has a similar history to the label Brexiteer, which started life as a put-down, and ended up as a badge of pride for thousands.

One peak, in terms of the numbers participating, was the large demonstration on 29 August, 2020 which ended in disgusting scenes of right-wing extremists attempting to storm the Reichtstag Building that houses the current Bundestag. Numerous photos showed individuals waving the black, white and red German First World War flags, and wearing t-shirts embellished with the same symbolic colours of the so-called Reichsbürger – “the Citizens of the Reich.” This dangerous terrorist movement subscribes to the conspiracy theory that Germany never actually lost the Second World War, that the country has merely been under foreign occupation since 1945, and that members thus have a duty to use violence against this “occupying power” i.e. against ordinary German state employees. The murder of a special forces police officer by a Reichsbürger in Bavaria in 2016 was just one of many acts of extreme violence that the movement has executed in recent years, which have also led to a number of prosecutions. Also prominent among the photos of those milling about in front of the German parliament on 29 August were people wearing slogans from the QAnon conspiracy movement, including the barmy, and potentially deadly “WWG1WGA” meme: “where we go one we go all.”

Nonetheless, the presence of a few hundred, or at the worst, a couple of thousand hardened rightist conspiracy theorists at the demonstrations says little about the movement as a whole. There is, for example, no evidence whatsoever that Uzbay has any history of far-right political activity, either before or since he initiated his “We’re opening up!” project in January of this year. Police reports estimated that thirty-eight thousand took part in the 29 August, 2020 demonstration: what then are the worldviews of the majority section of the movement?

The largest study to date on the “Political Sociology of the Corona Protests” was undertaken by Nadine Frei, Oliver Nachtwey and Robert Schäfer from the University of Basel, and was published in December 2020. Evaluating the results of 1150 questionnaires, they found that participants do “not belong to one, but rather to several, frequently disparate social groups, who are united across diverse mentalities. What they share is that the majority of them are educated members of the middle-class.” 65% either had a university degree or university entrance level school-leaving qualifications; 25% of participants were self-employed: both figures are substantially above average for the German population as a whole. More voted for the Greens (23%) at the last German general election in 2017 than for any other party, though a full 21% voted in 2017 for small parties who did not pass the 5% barrier needed to get into the Bundestag. 18% voted for the LEFT / die Linke in 2017, double the percentage won by die Linke in the population as a whole that year.

Contrasting the Corona Protests with the Islamophobic and anti-immigration Pegida movement, which also focussed on street demonstrations, and started in Dresden in 2014, the Basel University researchers found that anti-lockdown in Germany was “not markedly Islamophobic or xenophobic, indeed tended rather in an anti-authoritarian [direction] in a small number of areas.” Anti-lockdown was “not a genuinely authoritarian movement.” This last, generalizing sounding claim was arrived at through concrete, statistical findings: attendees at the Corona Protests were less likely to relativize the mass crimes of National-Socialism than the German population as a whole, and displayed almost no sympathy for “social-Darwinistic” attitudes. Finally, in some of its core values, the movement is clearly Social-Democratic, at least in an “Old Left” sense: over seventy percent of those surveyed were against the privatization of the most important public services, while only twenty-eight percent were against the redistribution of income.

Why then is Germany’s parliamentary and institutional Left utterly unwilling to build a dialogue with the anti-lockdown movement? To say to the protesters: we actually share some core social-democratic politics, but you need to distance yourself unconditionally from the far-right, and to demonstrate that you are doing so? Why is this parliamentary and institutional Left unwilling or unable to talk with the disaffected, to use political education in the locations where people are actually politically active, to help people move from common-sense to good-sense political positions?

These questions can partially be answered by looking at the entirely different experiences of various societal groups going through lockdown. Long-term school closures with the kids at home in a one or two child household, with a salaried parent, or parents, with job protection rights, with expensive laptops and functioning wifi is an inherently different experience to school closures with the kids in a three or four child household, if you’re zero hours contracted or on the lowest social security band, if your wifi functions at all, or if you’re behind with the bills to the internet provider. Over a year into the lockdowns, there were still tens of thousands of children stuck at home, and even in schools in so-called “emergency supervision” groups, who were unable to access the only means by which the only formal teaching on offer was being provided: wifi, and functioning tablets, laptops, or PCs.

These huge concrete differences in lived experience stand for a growing disjuncture between the class composition of the left, particularly its leaders and office bearers, and wider elements of society. This disconnect also exists between the institutional left and a popular sentiment which, as discussed, derives to a large degree from those classified as self-employed, including small business owners. These are elements of the precarized middle class under enormous strain in the lockdown conditions, which have caused no significant economic losses to the left’s leaders and office bearers in the professional managerial class.

A good example of how the institutional left functions in Germany is the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, (or foundation), hereafter called the RLS, which has struggled for public relevance in recent years. Each of the parties in the Bundestag have a think tank allocated to them, funded by German taxpayers: in an age of non-progressive taxation, lower-earners have to pay proportionately more of their incomes for such bodies. The people who work for the think tanks don’t like them being called think tanks, and insist they’re called “political foundations.” The RLS is of course the think tank for die Linke. As of 2017, it was receiving €62 million in federal subsidies annuallyi for its “political education” workii – the same official remit that each of the six main think tanks have. Yes, other think tanks are getting even more state cash. The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung received €171 million in federal funding that same year and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung €188 million for 2018, nominally for educating the parties and potential voters of the SPD and CDU respectively. But €62 million isn’t too bad for an organization with only 120 members (as of 2020) and over 200 salaried staff.iii Membership of the RLS is available for as little as €12 per year,iv but you may be getting an impression of the organization’s culture, which will demotivate some supermarket employees from handing over those bank details on the application form. Since 2020, the RLS has been headed by Daniela Trochowski, who was formally voted in as managing director on the board of the organization in November 2019. At the press conference in In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung on 29, October 2020 to mark the opening of the foundation’s new prestigious head office beside the River Spree in Berlin, which came in at a mere €25 million, Trochowski made much of the fact that all construction workers involved in the project had been paid according to collective labour agreements. This emphasis somehow got people interested in the agreements through which Trochowski’s own pay is managed. During her ten years as state secretary in the Finance Ministry of the state of Brandenburg, she was elevated in 2012 to the status of “political civil-servant” [politische Beamtin]: “political” in the sense of closely allied to the “Red-Red” coalition of the SPD and die Linke / the Left that ruled Brandenburg from 2009-2019. Accepting the major boost to her professional and financial well-being in 2012, Trochowski was able to overcome her own political objections to this handsomely paid niche in German public life: she’s stated on several occasions that she wants to abolish “the estate of the vocational civil-service”: das Berufsbeamtentum. But which readers of this article would be able to resist such strong incentives to help prop up the existing system? As of 2012, Trochowski was only on €9300 gross monthly for her services to the state, but that sum has been generously added to since then by the standard compensations available to people in this milieu. Formally retired from her state duties when the Brandenburg Red-Red coalition were voted out in November 2019, Trochowski can now enjoy her delicious-sounding “nonactive status retirement” [einstweiliger Ruhestand], which gives her at least one-third of her former state salary, task-free, up until, and past, the normal state pension age – which in Trochowski’s case would be 2036.v Plus, of course, whatever the RLS are now paying her. We know that such income levels are next-to-nothing, again, compared to what the landowners and property-development company owners beside the Spree are making. This, however, is hardly the point. How a person with Trochowski’s societal status is meant to represent the working class in Germany during the Corona Crisis remains what fans of Wittgenstein like to call one of “the imponderables.”

Intuitionalism, and the lack of initiative that accompany it, hamper not only the RLS but also Die Linke, in its attempts to expand out of a shrinking support base, much of it accruing among the young, urban middle-class. Another bad result for the party in elections for Saxony-Anhalt’s parliament on 7 June – the vote down five percentage points to only eleven percent – underlines the structural problems facing this electoral wing of the left. Alongside those societal elements thrown into the anti-lockdown movement in recent months, the party is also failing to get the non-demonstrating sections of the working class, who the pandemic has hit hardest, to identify with it. These include recipients of Harz IV, Germany’s main lowest band of social benefit, who suffer an 84% higher chance of being hospitalized with Covid. This figure emerged from research, published in April of this year, which analysed data from over 1.3 million German residents, and political leaders were eager to take it seriously: chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz (SPD) responded by arguing Harz IV recipients should get immunization priority. Such policies matter, but will not be enough to mitigate further attacks on working class living standards in the coming phase of ‘recovery’. Progressive forces in Germany will need to reach outside of their comfort zones in order to reach various class elements struggling through the turmoil.

In tackling the tenacious tail-end of the Covid pandemic, and in planning for future pandemics, could a policy of significantly reducing poverty and income inequality be put at the heart of pandemic response, alongside accelerating vaccine roll out? If residents of a state see governments finally acting in the interests of majorities in the population, for working class interests, and in the interests of the lower-income, precarized section of the middle-class – and not, for once, in defence of ruling class, and professional managerial class interests – might this draw people away from knee-jerk, anti-state politics, and into the fold of something larger, and more meaningful? The still unfulfilled strategy articulated by Rudi Dutschke and others on the 1968 Student Left of the “long march through the institutions” has not lost its concrete utopian promise. This was never intended by Dutschke as a call for the kind of institutionalist careerism that many ex-“1968ers” ultimately opted for. Rather, it was conceived of as a mass participation of leftists in everyday institutions: in schools, in local government offices. A major force throwing Dutschke’s strategy off its rails was the Bill on Extremists [Extremistenbeschluss] passed by federal and state governments in 1972vi, through which applicants for “public service” had to be screened for their “loyalty to the constitution.” This covered applicants for state school and university teaching jobs, leading to 1250 school teachers and university lecturers not being appointed, primarily because they were categorized as “left-extremist”, between 1972 and 1991. The law also enabled two hundred and sixty persons already holding state jobs, most of them school teachers, to be made redundant. While these figures seem small, a total of 3.5 million applicants were scrutinized for their “loyalty to the constitution” – a flimsy euphemism for “loyalty to the status quo” – in the same period. The law is historically significant not for the numbers actually blocked from state jobs, but for the hegemonic signals it sent out.

We won’t know how many leftists were dissuaded from even applying for a German state job in the 1972-1991 period by the Bill on Extremists. The success of the 1968ers in finally pushing forward de-Nazification probably hasn’t been praised enough, but it was a hard-fought, drawn-out process. Even until the late 1970s there was a considerable number of ex-NSDAP functionaries clinging to state jobs, including higher-level positions, in badly lit corners of Germany’s bureaucracy. Under these malignant conditions, it is understandable that many young leftists in the early 1970s didn’t even consider applying for state positions.

Conditions for state-sector workers in Germany in 2021 are very different, with no formal political screening of applicants still in place. The 750,000 state school teachers and 250,000 police officers with civil-servant [“Beamten”] status, are the largest elements amongst the total of 1.7 million people with civil-service jobs, much sought after because of the strong pension and job security rights they offer. There is nothing to say that we have to have predominantly right-wing police officers for ever. There is nothing to say that 1.7 million people are not enough to start a mass movement: millions more have German state-sector jobs of course, but simply without the “Beamten” status. If more people were “marching through the institutions” of the state for the purpose of enforcing the working-class’s economic and other interests, do you really think they would be marching in the streets of Kassel, Leipzig and Berlin, wearing aluminium foil hats?

i Full figures for federal subsidies for both 2017 and 2018 are given on p. 93, in the entry for “Zuwendungen des Bundes”, of: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Jahresbericht 2019, 93. Last accessed on 9 June, 2021, at: The annual federal subsidy for 2017 was in no way exceptional: in 2018 it rose to €66 million.

ii The foundation’s English language mission statement describes this remit straightforwardly: “The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung is one of the six major political foundations in the Federal Republic of Germany, tasked primarily with conducting political education both at home and abroad. The foundation is closely linked to Die Linke, the German Left Party.” Last accessed on 9 June, 2021 at:

iii This is the figure given on the foundation’s own German-language webpage as of 9 June, 2020. Interestingly, in the English translation of the same webpage does not mention paid staff numbers, but does claim that the foundation’s “ work is supported by the dedication and commitment of a large number of volunteers across the country.” This is hyperbole. Why, with membership available from just €12 annually, would not more of this “large number of volunteers” join up formally, to exercise democratic rights on the political direction of, and appointments within, the organization?

iv Finding information on the foundation’s own website about how to actually become a member of the Germany-wide and international organization is tricky: there’s no sign that the foundation is prioritizing recruiting new members. This webpage gives information on a “supportive membership” [Fördermitgliedschaft] from €25 annually, with no information as to whether this comes with voting rights. Additionally, each of the sixteen federal states have their own Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, subordinate to the national / international organization; membership of these starts from €12 annually.

v On Trochowski’s promotion to the category of „political civil-servant” / politische Beamtin in 2021, her earlier outspoken political opposition to such appointments, her civil service salary from 2012, and her pension from retiring from state duties aged fifty, in 2019, until her death, see: “Plötzlich Beamte: Trochowski wird gut versorgt” in the Postdamer Neuste Nachrichten from 26 October, 2012. Last accessed 9 June, 2021: More details on the law on pension entitlements for high-level German civil servants can be found in the Beamtenversorgungsgesetz [Law on Providing for Civil Servants].

vi There is not much English-language literature on the Bill on Extremists, which its opponents polemically called the Radikalenerlaß – the Decree on Radicals. It was passed on 18 February, 1972, after a joint meeting of the minister-presidents of the Bundesländer, and the chancellor of the time, Willy Brandt. The text of the original bill is reproduced here, last accessed 9 June, 2021:

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