On a recent Sunday, anti-lockdown protesters passed under my window, which looks out onto one of the main Berlin thoroughfares. They call themselves Querdenker, “lateral thinkers”.
To my untrained eye, not many of the demonstrators resembled fascists, although perhaps at least some of the shaved heads were concealed by beanies. There were teenagers, old women doddering along with walkers, and middle-aged men wearing face coverings declaring “fuck masks,” accompanied by bored riot police. They were met by locals and black-clad anti-fascists banging pans and shouting “Nazis out!”.
The weekly protests attract a range of ideological tendencies, from sandal-clad hippies to “Reich citizens,” an eccentric right-wing group which denies the legitimacy of the postwar Federal Republic. Others have no truck with such fringe groups but are worried about whether their livelihoods can survive the economic crisis, even though support for businesses and individuals is by European standards relatively generous in Germany.
The peculiarity of the Querdenker – which remains a minority movement, with polls showing up to 85 per cent of Germans opposed – is that they present themselves not as infringers of the liberal constitutional order but as its defenders. As sceptics of the government’s decision to limit personal freedoms in response to the pandemic, they argue that “the elites in Berlin are perverting the language of the 1949 Basic Law – the German constitution – and distorting its spirit and meaning by infringing on their right to free speech and free assembly,” says Paul Betts, a historian of Europe at Oxford University.
Much of the language about civil rights is doubtless insincere. Yet that the lexicon of constitutionalism is a key means of expressing opposition to Covid-19 measures illustrates how anchored Germany’s political culture is in “constitutional patriotism”, the concept popularised by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas in the 1980s. According to Habermas, West German nationhood could no longer be grounded in ethnicity and territory but should instead revolve around the universal values expressed in the postwar constitution, first and foremost the liberal democratic order.
In the absence of a single nation or consensual history – none of which were available to a divided Germany – constitutional patriotism would allow West Germans to profess belonging without the grim legacy of blood and soil nationalism. As one former constitutional judge put it, the Basic Law not only provided an antidote to the Nazi conception of society, its principles also allowed the Federal Republic to once again join the ranks of “civilised nations”.
The Querdenker and the anti-lockdown Alternative for Germany (AfD) are unafraid of using hyperbolic rhetoric to make their case. The comparisons they draw with the Nazi era are, to most Germans, dangerously overwrought. In a park in central Berlin, graffiti reading: “Wo sind die Toten? (Where are the dead?) 23/03/1933 = 18/11/2020” overlooked teenagers on rickety skateboards and an overpriced craft brewery. Evoking the legacy of the 1933 Enabling Act, which gave Adolf Hitler untrammelled powers, to delegitimise the Protection from Infection Act, a recent anti-Covid-19 law, the clandestine scribble echoes some of the most radical rhetoric heard in German politics since anti-Islam marches sparked by the 2015 refugee crisis.
The graffiti echoes comparisons between the Protection from Infection Act and the Enabling Act drawn by AfD MPs in German parliamentary debates. Days later, a 22-year-old in the city of Kassel compared herself to the anti-Nazi resistance heroine Sophie Scholl, causing an onlooker (possibly a security guard hired to watch over the event) to declare that the woman was “trivialising the Holocaust,” in footage that went viral across Germany. The intent of such parallels is clear: presenting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government as a threat to the constitution and civil liberties akin to National Socialism.
Nazi analogies used by self-important politicians are not only obviously wrong, but also faintly ridiculous, a desperate cry for relevance as Merkel approaches the end of her term next year with the highest poll ratings of any German politician (after 15 years in office). Her Christian Democratic Union party is on track to be re-elected for a fifth consecutive term at next year’s general election, although with a new candidate for chancellor.
Yet that the language of constitutional rights is the primary expression of opposition to coronavirus measures illustrates the strength of constitutional patriotism in Germany. Even those who think the government’s restrictions necessary and proportionate are wary of seeing their civil liberties suspended. For East Germans, the memory of communist-era Stasi surveillance looms large. One former dissident, Angelika Barbe, who was later briefly an MP, compared the current government to the old Socialist Unity Party she once opposed.
Large majorities of Germans trust the government and are willing to give up their freedoms for the greater good – temporarily. As Andreas Vosskuhle, a former president of the Federal Constitutional Court argued early in the pandemic, vigorous debates over the legitimacy of lockdown measures demonstrate that Germans have become constitutional patriots.