German far-right exploits Covid-19 to rally anti-Muslim fervour

Violence on the rise against migrants in Germany as coronavirus becomes rallying point for extremists

Supporters of anti-immigration movement Pegida at a demonstration in Dresden before the lockdown. Reuters
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Before the Covid-19 lockdown, far-right leader Lutz Bachmann shuttled between his Spanish home and Germany to rally a dwindling number of followers for his poisonous campaign against Muslim migrants.

During its heyday, the Friday night ritual of marches through the historic eastern city of Dresden, organised by Mr Bachmann’s grass-roots anti-migrant group, attracted more than 20,000 marchers.

By the time that large gatherings were banned because of Covid-19, the numbers were down to about 1,500 at bi-weekly events as Pegida - Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the Occident – struggled to maintain relevance in a crowded far-right scene.

For Pegida, coronavirus could prove a welcome lifeline.

The portly former thief now fronts “virtual marches” from his Tenerife bolthole during weekly YouTube broadcast when he rails against government restrictions and accuses migrants of lockdown infractions that put loyal white Germans at risk.

His diatribes are mingled with footage of police arrests at anti-lockdown protests, archive of the Dresden marches and supportive interventions from fellow European far-right leaders. His last two videos have been viewed more than 12,000 times.

Despite the cancellation of the marches, the lockdown imposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel are proving to be a valuable rallying point for Mr Bachmann.

He now positions himself as the “chief protector of the German constitution and its freedoms of speech and association,” said Sabine Volk, a research fellow at Jagiellonian University, Poland, who is working on an EU-funded project on populism in central and eastern Europe.

He has sought to latch on to the popularity of protests that have brought out thousands of people – a mixture of anti-vaccination activists, conspiracy theorists and the far-right –across Germany to demand an end to restrictions to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Counter-radicalisation experts say the extremists in Germany are in a prime position to exploit fear and uncertainty for the benefit of their cause.

History suggests that pandemics are good for the far-right. The Black Death of the 1340s resulted in a rise in anti-Semitism while immigrants were attacked in the 1890s when they were blamed for bringing cholera to New York.

Most controversially, a report by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggested that Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 was boosted by voters from poor areas that had been worst affected by the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Researchers say that the uncertainty and instability caused by coronavirus is closely linked with a rise in extremism.

“There’s lots of evidence that professionalised haters have used Covid-19 as an opportunity to spread their creed,” said Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Center for Countering Digitial Hate, which tracks online extremist activity.

“The far right have a prime recruitment opportunity. They will use every opportunity to sell their narrative that in some way foreigners are to blame. Mrs Merkel has been particularly strict in seeking not to place blame on foreigners.”

Mr Ahmed said that his organisation had seen people radicalised at unprecedented speed because of Covid-19.

He said he had alerted the authorities to one woman who went from writing about Harry Potter online to hosting a chatroom where bomb making and the disposal of bodies was being discussed within three months.

Researchers have identified up to 50,000 German speakers with far-right beliefs using nearly 400 online platforms including Telegram and Russian social network VK, said the UK-based thinktank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue which tracks hate speech online.

Analysis of those online groups has suggested that extremists have discussed spreading the virus by encouraging those with symptoms to cough on Muslims and Jews, said Professor Arie Kruglanski, of the University of Maryland and an expert on radicalisation.

One post on a Telegram channel called ‘Only White People Go to Heaven’ recommended that anyone infected with the virus “travel to more ethnic parts of town, including mosques and synagogues, etc”.

“What they have to offer corresponds to the needs of what people seek, of some kind of empowerment at a time when there’s a sense of fragility and weakness,” said Prof Kruglanski.

“It’s all very fertile ground. It’s a petri dish in which they can operate with greater fervour. In addition, there are these new opportunities with society weakened and they can carry out attacks with relative impunity, or so they think.”

The pandemic followed a surge in far-right activity in Germany. Dr Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, told a webinar that there were 25,000 organised neo-Nazis in Germany, with half of them violent.

Figures obtained this week by Irene Mihalic, an MP and spokesman for Germany’s Green Party, showed an increase in politically-motivated crimes with more than 22,000 attributed to right-wing extremists.

A pro-migrant regional politician, Walter Lubcke, was murdered in June last year with a far-right extremist in custody accused of the killing.

In February, Tobias Rathjen, 43, killed nine immigrants and ethnic minority Germans in a rampage at Hanau near Frankfurt before killing himself. The attack happened shortly after a group of men were arrested for planning attacks on mosques in the hope of sparking civil war.

The figures obtained by Ms Mihalic also showed that weapons permits held by far-right extremists had doubled since 2018 to reach 892.

“Several far-right groups …. are preparing for a day X with a breakdown of the democratic system and the social order,” said Ms Mihalic. “Therefore, more and more people of the far-right are acquiring gun licences and guns.”

She said that rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has taken support away from groups like Pegida and holds nearly 100 seats in the national parliament, has made radical right-wing ideas more socially acceptable. “The AfD has become a melting pot and catalyst for right-wing ideas,” she said.

But Mrs Merkel’s widely praised handling of the Covid-19 crisis has seen support for the AfD drop – and left some of its supporters seeking a radical alternative to the political party.

The circumstances have created a potent mix for the extremists seeking to tag on to the anti-lockdown protests to earn support.

German media has reported prominent right-wing figures have taken leading roles in trying to run the demonstrations amid concerns that they are being hijacked by the extremists.

Photographs showed one speaker wearing a t-shirt with a Jewish star saying “not vaccinated” in an echo of the labelling of Jews in Nazi Germany.

The embrace of the anti-lockdown protests came after far-right groups were initially undecided how to respond to the pandemic.

Some embraced the lockdown and others dismissed the pandemic as a “conspiracy” against white Europeans with philanthropists Bill Gates and George Soros acting as the puppet masters, said Kira Ayyadi, of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation which monitors extremist activity.

The lockdown had forced the cancellation of several far-right rock concerts that have proved valuable money-raising operations for right-wing groups.

It included a ‘Skinheads Back to the Roots’ festival cancelled in April featuring veteran extremist band Radikahl. Its members have previously claimed to be fighting for the “White Race in Europe”.

“It seems likely that the pandemic will have dire consequences on the funding of extremist groups,” said Ms Mihalic, the MP. “Nevertheless, I assume that the tight-knit network of far right groups with contacts to several foreign groups will make up the missing sum”.

Ms Ayyadi said that right-wing groups had discussed making facemasks to raise money to support their cause. One Pegida broadcast showed a supporter wearing a mask with the logo “Stasi 2.0” - an unflattering reference linking Ms Merkel’s policies with the feared East German secret police of the Communist years.

“They’re getting back on to the streets now that restrictions of loosened and they’re attending lots of demonstrations to influence a new audience,” she said. “The pandemic and the demonstrations are good for the far-right movement. They have new people on the streets they can talk to.”

From his home in Tenerife, Mr Bachmann has sought to channel the disaffection of the anti-lockdown protests for his weekly broadcasts.

The fifth edition of his broadcast had sought to stream footage live from one of the protests but technical problems forced it to be scrapped.

Instead, he appeared two days later for a new broadcast from his home in Tenerife wearing a t-shirt that referenced a glib brush-off he made to a journalist when he was asked to condemn the killing of Mr Lubcke.

“There’s a lot of praising of Pegida and a lot of hate speech against the German political establishment,” said Ms Volk. “He tries to connect Covid-19 with an anti-immigration stance – but he’s careful not to be too inflammatory.”