With tens of thousands of ‘Coronavirus’ protestors flocking to the streets of Berlin this weekend, Musa Okwonga considers what it will take for the extremist threat facing Germany to be taken seriously

When it comes to the rise of the far-right, one wonders what form of warning will be effective.

If the warning is to work, then it clearly cannot come from a Jewish voice. If a Jewish voice was good enough, then a sufficient number of people in the city of Berlin would be listening. But they are not listening, which is why a crowd of almost 40,000 people, among whom were numerous neo-Nazis and other assorted anti-Semites, descended upon the capital at the weekend for a protest.

That protest, proudly supported and attended by Holocaust deniers, passed within screaming distance of the Holocaust memorial itself. This is why Bini Guttmann, the president of the European Union of Jewish Students, recently took to Twitter in a state of despair. “This is a disgrace”, he remarked. “This finally needs to be taken seriously by politics!”

In fairness to some politicians – but still too few – this danger was envisaged by several members of the Berlin Senate, who tried to prevent the protest from going ahead, only to have their decision overturned on appeal by an independent court.

Racism always mutates, and they have found powerful common cause with conspiracy theorists, who believe among other things that the pandemic has been faked.

Some might argue that the protest was simply a necessary step in protecting freedom of expression. Yet it is hard to see what purpose is served by events which, not only present a significant risk to public health, but also end in widely-predicted acts of violence.

When it comes to warning about the dangers of allowing violence-primed far-right activists to roam the streets in such numbers, black voices do not matter. Instead, Tupoka Ogette, a leading German writer, was left to warn her two young sons not to go out that day unless necessary, in case they should encounter some of these characters. As it happens, some other young black people did

A Dangerous New Coalition

Again, it might be argued – as several commentators have – that these protestors are not representative of German society, that they instead represent a noisy yet ultimately very small minority. But to do so would be to miss a crucial point, which is that they are mainstreaming the appearance of large-scale far-right activism on German streets at an alarming rate.

Previous demonstrations of this nature have been rumbling along at several hundred to a few thousand attendees all summer. Now, in the space of just two weeks, we have seen crowds of around 20,000 and 40,000 people in the middle of Berlin. These turnouts are not to be sniffed at.

It was not long ago that Berlin’s far-right contingent temporarily took some time away from marching, since its work had been made so unrewarding by the efforts of anti-fascists. However, racism always mutates, and they have found powerful common cause with conspiracy theorists, who believe among other things that the pandemic has been faked and that US President Donald Trump has been sent as a saviour to undermine the ‘Deep State’.

Now they have emerged, standing alongside the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. Now they have the strength in numbers they were looking for. 

It is tempting for many to mock the followers of QAnon as posing an empty threat, but the more frightening reality is that people with such passionate convictions are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Robert Claus, one of Germany’s leading authorities on the far-right, has recently observed as much. “Nobody should make the mistake of dismissing the attempted storming of the Reichstag by neo-Nazis as a silly action,” he wrote on Twitter. “Such images and situations motivate, inspire and euphorize the scene. They create new right-wing terrorist cells.”

The grim truth is that the far-right has been scrambling around for an anti-establishment narrative that it could exploit during the COVID-19 pandemic – and thanks to the anti-mask movement they have found it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis has been met with overwhelming approval by the German public, a period which has seen her most extreme opponents sitting bitterly in the margins. Yet, now they have emerged, standing alongside the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. Now they have the strength in numbers they were looking for. 

Violence and Infiltration

Where will this lead next? That much is unclear. What is clear is that the current direction of travel is not an encouraging one.

The far-right has failed to make large gains in the polls and so has seemingly intensified its attempts at disruption on the ground.

There has been a sharply increasing number of suspected arson attacks in Neukolln, a racially diverse neighbourhood of Berlin, and renewed reports – news first broken by the investigative team at Taz – of its substantial infiltration of the German armed forces and security services. Sawsan Chebli, a prominent politician in the capital, has recently had to defy a death threat from one of the far-right’s most notorious members.

The most perceptive analysis came from the author Sascha Lobo, who was alarmed that the demonstration might mean that marching alongside neo-Nazis could, for many people, now become the new normal.

For one afternoon in Berlin, that was certainly the case, and that will have ramifications for far less progressive parts of the world – because if that can happen in the heart of Berlin, it can happen anywhere. That was the message that the extremists successfully sent, and we should await its results with significant unease.

Meanwhile, the question remains: for decisive action to be taken, which voices will they listen to? 


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