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The German Faith in Authority

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The ongoing pandemic revealed two problematic aspects of German society. Firstly, there appears to be widespread faith in government bodies and their decisions – and secondly, and conversely, there is a lack of scepticism towards the political process and the players in it. This includes the lack of a critical approach towards mainstream media. 

As a lecturer in adult education and at universities, I discussed the issue of mandatory vaccination with my students. I was expecting some sort of awareness that you shouldn’t give up your basic rights of protection lightly. 

To my surprise the students were on board with mandatory vaccination – their argument being that it protects people in general and helps getting out of the pandemic; no downside to be seen. In this they were following the official line in government and media. 

The basic rights, laid out in the constitution, appeared to be taken for granted, so much so that they didn’t appear to be important enough to fight for at all. The overall assumption seems to be: Basic rights are written down on paper, hence they are guaranteed. QED. 

The second observation is that many Germans show a willingness to adopt governmental policies: wearing masks, reminding other citizens to do so, discriminating against the unvaccinated, and having no problem with giving up fundamental rights in exchange for mitigating circumstances. To make matters worse, there appears to be a radicalisation in thought and action of people that seems disturbing, especially in light of German history. A few examples from 2021 and 2022:

  • In the run-up to the German federal election a graffiti on a huge candidate’s poster read: ‘Tötet die Ungeimpften’ (‘Kill the unvaccinated’). 
  • In Gelsenkirchen a shopkeeper wrote ‘Ungeimpfte unerwünscht’ (‘Unvaccinated unwanted’) on his window.
  • Someone sprayed ‘Kauft nicht bei Ungeimpften’ (‘Don’t buy from the unvaccinated’) on a shop window on the island of Usedom – in reference to the Nazi-graffiti on jewish shops (‘Don’t buy from Jews’). 
  • In an interview sociology professor Heinz Bude expressed regret that the unvaccinated couldn’t be transported to Madagascar – referencing the Nazi idea to deport Jews to Madagascar. 
  • A hospital in Greifswald declared that they will no longer treat unvaccinated patients. 
  • Andreas Schöfbeck, CEO of the health insurance company ProVita BKK, published an analysis of adverse events (AE) after a Covid vaccination based on the data of almost 11 million insurants. According to BKK data, the number of AE is at least twelve times higher than official figures show. As a result, Schöfbeck, BKK CEO for 21 years, was fired by the board of directors, effective immediately. 
  • Waleri Gergijew, Russian native and director of the Munich Orchestra, was fired effective immediately by the mayor after being asked to distance himself from Russia’s attack on Ukraine and refusing to do so. 
  • Professor Ortrud Steinlein, head of Ludwig Maximilian University’s own hospital, wrote in a leaked email that “due to the violation of international law by Vladimir Putin we refuse to treat Russian patients as of now. Ukrainian patients are of course heartily welcome.“ Upon request, the hospital later labelled this the private emotional outburst of a professor and not the hospital’s official position.

Not only do media commentaries and politicians casually discuss discriminatory measures against unvaccinated people without being attacked for it by their peers, but ‘normal’ citizens, including highly accomplished academics, are doing so as well. The sudden switch of the political agenda from Covid-19 to the Ukraine illustrates that this is not Covid-exclusive behaviour.

By now there are numerous examples that reveal a seemingly peculiar relationship many Germans seem to have with constitutionally guaranteed rights, such as freedom of speech, the medical paradigm of “do no harm,” or tolerating differing opinions. 

Of course it is difficult to say how widespread this kind of transgressional behaviour is. It does, however, speak volumes that discrimination has gained a foothold in the middle of society, that people openly engage in it, and that those remarks and actions remain widely uncriticised – in stark contrast to commentaries from the ‘other’ side, e.g. people warning against adverse events of vaccines, who are then being strongly attacked for it. 

Oftentimes people don’t even seem to realise that they are engaging in discriminatory behaviour. An example being someone suddenly in favour of 2G-rules (admission only for vaccinated and recovered people and hence excluding the unvaccinated from social life) because he felt that the unvaccinated were to blame for the ongoing pandemic and had to be punished for it. 

Despite scientific evidence showing that vaccination doesn’t protect the vaccinated against infections and doesn’t prevent spreading the virus – which makes differentiating between the recovered, vaccinated and unvaccinated moot – the political message was: 2G is needed to protect some groups from the unvaccinated. 

The obvious intent is to pressure the unvaccinated into getting the jab. For them, life felt like being an outcast: Imagine walking through Berlin past cafés and restaurants and not being allowed to even use the bathroom. 

The tearing of the veil of what has been commonly agreed upon as civilised behaviour by politicians and media commentators alike was in no way met with a strong and swift public outcry or opposition. On the contrary, it had the effect that apparently many people felt free not only to act in the same manner, but to even go a bit further. 

Verbal and practical transgressions into discriminating behaviour have become a common phenomenon. German society these days feels like it’s less based on principles and more based on hysteria and acting out on a day-to-day-basis. For me it is shocking to see how easily politicians and even academics resort to extreme positions and how citizens are falling in line. 

In this climate, on 3 March 2022 more than 200 Members of Parliament presented a proposal for a new law mandating the Covid vaccination – while daily mounting evidence is showing the inappropriateness of widespread vaccination in tackling the pandemic, how dangerous the vaccines are, and while Austria was actually considering to suspend their mandatory vaccination (meanwhile they did suspend it). 

One can only wonder how those representatives can be so detached from reality and the scientific discourse at large, and even from developments in other countries. While the UK or Scandinavian countries have dropped all Covid restrictions by now, Germany plans to keep some of them in place and is even laying the groundwork for more severe measures to be revived in the upcoming fall.

Of course there is opposition – some experts speaking out, risking their careers; citizens meeting for, let’s call them, ‘freedom walks’ on Mondays in many cities to protest pandemic restrictions – and getting harsh reactions from the media and politicians. 

Still, this is remarkably little in comparison with the US, Australia or Canada. Would something like the Freedom Convoy be possible here? I don’t think so. Too many people just accept the necessity of said restrictions. The difference becomes striking when compared to Portugal, Spain or Italy – the latter two had implemented some of the strictest restrictions in the pandemic, yet in daily life citizens showed a much more casual and liberal attitude in abiding them. And even if Germans’ discontent with frequent booster shots is growing and there are clear majorities against mandatory vaccination, this ‘protest’ is a more or less silent one. 

So, how come? Why do so many Germans trust and blindly follow their government? I would like to offer a twofold explanation. 

Firstly, from a German perspective it seems understandable. On a superficial level, things work in this country. You have a welfare system, society appears not to be as polarised as in Anglo-Saxon countries. Politicians in Germany have always accepted that there is a need to balance out public and corporate interests. 

One should also mention that streets are getting built, public transportation is reliable and the garbage gets picked up. Compared to other countries this is a comfy situation, where individuals have a heightened sense of social security and of a more or less proper function of government. All of this gives you the overall impression that the German government cares for its people. So why distrust it in a health crisis when even more than usual is at stake?

There is a second reason, a historical approach as to why Germans are so complacent and trusting in their government, and consider a “good German” to be someone who follows the rules: Contrary to the US or France, Germans have never been successful in fighting for their democracy and their rights. 

The French Revolution of 1789 has left its mark on civil society up to this day; people in France have a strong sense of national pride and awareness of how important it is to take to the streets and fight for their rights. 

A quote attributed to German author Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) illustrates the difference: “While the German is still pondering, the French have been to the streets three times already.” In today’s Germany there is still a certain reluctance to protest because people want to rely more on consensual discussion. One might say there is no rebellious spirit at all.

The American Revolution and the subsequent American Constitution were based on a deep mistrust of rulers and central government, which was accompanied by an awareness for keeping your rights and freedoms. Germans lack this very fundamental collective experience altogether, which is why the American way – for example the sensitive issue of the right to carry guns – appears to be a bit weird in German eyes. 

The German revolution of 1848 failed, suppressed by Prussian and Austrian forces, driving thousands of democratically minded people into exile. The first German national state came about in 1870/71 with the proclamation of the German Kaiserreich – a Prussian initiative that was not based on any idea of common identity. The latter only started to emerge in the trenches of World War I and during the Nazi dictatorship. 

The Weimar Republic (1918-1933), the first real democracy in Germany, did not only have an economically rough start, but was continuously confronted with conservative, anti-democratic parties which longed for the restitution of a more authoritarian state. When Hitler came to power in 1933 and did exactly that, he had strong support even amongst academics. 

So, in essence, up until 1945 Germans were mostly socialised by an authoritarian, anti-democratic environment in which the government took care of things. 

Modern day democracy in Germany arose thanks to Allied forces and reeducating people by showing them the German atrocities and the crimes of the Holocaust. The process of accounting for the past and accepting responsibility for Nazi crimes has come a long way, and is still ongoing: At Göttingen University, for example, only in 2004 did an exhibition remember all the Jewish scientists who were deprived of their PhD status, and not before 2011 did the university commemorate the forced sterilisation practice in the university’s hospital and removed the bust of one of those men responsible.

Our fascist past is a recurring topic in schools. Every German is good at spotting Nazis. But – I would argue – what they are not really good at is spotting authoritarian or totalitarian principles – since a strong government and a slight priority of ‘we’ over ‘I’ (framed as solidarity) has always been part of the German political tradition. For example: In our constitution (Grundgesetz) Article 2 states the right to live and the right to physical integrity, but not unconditionally: laws can restrict these rights. 

The same goes with Article 5 guaranteeing freedom of speech – again, not unconditionally: laws can restrict it. There is a built-in backdoor to restrict these rights under certain circumstances. The proposed law for mandatory vaccination follows this sentiment: It’s not only focused on Covid vaccination but shall also make it easier for politicians to mandate vaccination in other cases. 

Loss of civil liberties due to ‘democratic’ parties appears acceptable. To put it bluntly: If the right guy takes your liberties away, it’s fine – which became apparent during the pandemic. Unfortunately, many Germans don’t even recognise this democratic blind spot. As long as they are presented with a prima facie plausible explanation (solidarity, protecting others), they are okay with it. 

German sociologist Theodor W. Adorno, in US exile during WWII, gave a couple of radio lectures from 1959 until his death in 1969 in which he was trying to tackle the issue of individual responsibility (Mündigkeit), the ‘ability to object and resist,’ and its importance for democracy in general. He, too, observed that in Germany this was missing. 

Despite reeducation measures, the older generation tried to avoid dealing with their role in Nazi Germany; they were eager not to take individual responsibility for anything, but found it easier to remain in a subservient spirit of collectivism, which gave many people purpose and strength during WWII. Adorno was wondering whether the German economic miracle in the 1950s would be able to give a new sense of democratic accomplishment and as such would lay the foundation for democratic values. All in all, he was sceptical and worried that anti-democratic tendencies were very much alive.

Since then West Germany has seen civil protest movements for peace, against atomic energy, for environmental protection, for abortion rights and for the freedom of the press, while East German citizens stood up against socialism in peaceful demonstrations. Hence, today’s citizens are more aware of their ability to successfully unite against political projects. 

However, there has never been a crisis like the Covid pandemic with fundamental civil liberties at stake. Up until the pandemic, people were fighting for more liberties, not against their withdrawal. So, given a growing amount of dissent with the political course, especially when it comes to mandatory vaccination, where is the public mass movement? 

All of this brings me to the following conclusion: Only now, with a serious political and societal issue at hand, can we see how mature the German society is, to what extent democratic values are rooted in said society, and how ready and capable individual citizens are in navigating the muddy waters of politics, media, tolerance and civil liberties, and how willing they are to think for themselves. 

The open discrimination, shown from top to bottom as well as newly elected chancellor Olaf Scholz’ motto that ‘there are no red lines’ when it comes to restricting freedom in order to maintain freedom – all that casts a disturbing shadow on modern Germany. 

Each democratic system needs a functioning opposition and protest culture, but especially the German mainstream media is doing its best to discredit those. Moreover this is met with too much passivity on the part of the citizens. The widespread and uncritical faith in governmental authority as well as the silent dissent also send a fatal message to politicians: You can get away with quite a lot. It’s an invitation to misuse.

Author

  • Sven Grünewald got his Master’s degree in Political Science, Scandinavian studies and Egyptology from Göttingen University in 2004. Since then he has been working as a journalist for different newspapers, magazines, and as a university lecturer for media studies and media ethics.


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