Introduction

Protests of Pandemic Skeptics in Germany and Austria

in German Politics and Society
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Antje Daniel Professor, University of Vienna, Austria

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Anna Schwenck Sociologist, University of Siegen, Germany

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Fabian Virchow Professor, University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, Germany

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Since early 2020, the covid-19 pandemic has unfolded as a global crisis that poses significant challenges to governments and societies.1 Governments have reacted quite variably, with policies ranging from strict lockdowns over a longer period of time to flexible approaches with restriction of freedoms at very low thresholds of intrusion into citizens’ rights.2 While the pandemic does not affect everyone equally, and some countries are more advanced in containing the virus than others, the sense of vulnerability and insecurity is widespread. In addition to the 6.5 million people who have died from covid-19 as of late August 2022, many more are affected by ongoing symptoms of long covid-19. Increased economic disparities and new forms of inequality only exacerbate the degree of uncertainty and the feeling that life is out of control.3 However, the popular yearning to regain control has not led to an unambiguous “desire for the state.”4 Rather, trust in governments has fluctuated in the wake of the pandemic. If there was a “rally around the flag” effect, it was certainly not found in every country.5 Even if support for government regulations and restrictions were prevalent within a state, it was not shared equally by different parts of the population. In several countries, the pandemic has also given rise to substantial protests against the restriction of civic, economic, and social liberties, often driven by fears of state surveillance, libertarian rebellion against state paternalism, and conspiratorial beliefs.6

Since early 2020, the covid-19 pandemic has unfolded as a global crisis that poses significant challenges to governments and societies.1 Governments have reacted quite variably, with policies ranging from strict lockdowns over a longer period of time to flexible approaches with restriction of freedoms at very low thresholds of intrusion into citizens’ rights.2 While the pandemic does not affect everyone equally, and some countries are more advanced in containing the virus than others, the sense of vulnerability and insecurity is widespread. In addition to the 6.5 million people who have died from covid-19 as of late August 2022, many more are affected by ongoing symptoms of long covid-19. Increased economic disparities and new forms of inequality only exacerbate the degree of uncertainty and the feeling that life is out of control.3 However, the popular yearning to regain control has not led to an unambiguous “desire for the state.”4 Rather, trust in governments has fluctuated in the wake of the pandemic. If there was a “rally around the flag” effect, it was certainly not found in every country.5 Even if support for government regulations and restrictions were prevalent within a state, it was not shared equally by different parts of the population. In several countries, the pandemic has also given rise to substantial protests against the restriction of civic, economic, and social liberties, often driven by fears of state surveillance, libertarian rebellion against state paternalism, and conspiratorial beliefs.6

Such protests arose in a context that was marked by a severe limitation on the freedom of assembly, on the one hand,7 and attempts by right-wing populists and extreme right-wingers to exploit the pandemic and state-enforced restrictions in order to garner support, albeit with mixed results, on the other.8 Germany and Austria have been the scene of tens of thousands of public demonstrations opposing the restrictions. What we call “pandemic-skeptical” protests are the political mobilization of a variety of actors who question the World Health Organization's proclamation that there is a pandemic. Such protests made it into world news when on 29 August 2020 several hundred people illegally climbed the steps to the German parliament, and dozens tried to enter the building. Pictures of a crowd of people shouting “Widerstand!” (Resistance!) and waving the black, white, and red flag of the pre-1918 German Empire—which was also used during the early rule of the nsdap—were a shock to large parts of the German public, even though three police officers were able to stop the crowd at the entrance. This event marked a peak in pandemic-skeptical protests.9 In Germany, these protests had started in March 2020 in the form of “hygienic rallies” in Berlin and spread to hundreds of cities and towns.10

The numerous pandemic-skeptical protest events were marked by a wide variety of forms, ranging from demonstrations, Spaziergänge (de facto illegal demonstrations that are passed off as walks), and car parades to public concerts and meditations. This variety of protest forms corresponds to the highly heterogeneous constellation of protesters typically encountered at pandemic-skeptical rallies. Indeed, the majority of protesters have been labeled “average citizens” by journalists, an observation that polls appear to confirm.11 Observers have noted how middle-class entrepreneurs, hippies, advocates of alternative medicine, evangelicals and representatives of free churches, activists from the pro-Russian movement Montagsmahnwachen für den Frieden (Vigils for Peace),12 and concerned citizens who are critical of the restrictions march alongside well-known figures from the non-parliamentary far right, Reichsbürger who deny the existence of the modern German state, or members of far-right parties, such as the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany and the fpö (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) in Austria. Certainly, these descriptive categories are not mutually exclusive, since QAnon believers might be entrepreneurs, and advocates of alternative medicine may be evangelicals. Nevertheless, what has puzzled journalists and social researchers so far is the question of how these protesters, many of whom apparently had no connections to the far right before, peacefully marched alongside neo-Nazis.13 At times, they not only tolerate each other, but even collaborate against the state and its democratic institutions, embodied during the rallies by police forces.

Confronted with protesters who look more like folks from next door than “extremists,” holding copies of the German constitution in their hands and waving rainbow flags, police forces have been reluctant to enforce compliance with the covid-19 legislation among pandemic-skeptic protesters. Both the rank-and-file police and leading officers appear to be confused by the new coalitions uniting not only against them, but also against the radical left-wing counter-protesters. The latter, complying with the covid-19 government restrictions, seek to oppose the proliferation of antisemitic conspiracy myths and the denial of the existence of a deadly pandemic at those events. To many pandemic-skeptics, the radical left appears to have been bought by the forces they seek to fight. A more profound understanding of these protests, based on social scientific inquiry, is urgently needed—given that over the course of the past two years, pandemic-skeptics have both multiplied and radicalized. Besides regular confrontations with the police, protesters have increasingly used physical violence and hate speech against journalists and bystanders wearing face masks. As we will see below, crimes resulting from pandemic-skeptical mindsets have been increasing in number and severity since 2020.

The intensity of the pandemic-skeptical protests is astonishing for several reasons. Not only did Germany and Austria have much less restrictive measures than most other European countries, but they were also quick to provide substantial financial support to struggling small businesses and the self-employed. Certainly, as elsewhere, the restrictions, meant to confine and decelerate the spread of the pandemic, were introduced in the macro-context of capitalist production, the downsizing of public expenditure for healthcare and social security, a crisis of democratic representation, and a shift of public discourse to the right. All these macro-factors influenced which restrictions were imposed and who suffered most from them. In the wake of the first lockdown starting in March 2020, feminist groups were quick to raise awareness about the increase in domestic violence and the increased burden on women that a lockdown would cause.14 On the relationship between the particular burden that the pandemic placed on women and the often antifeminist rhetoric found in the pandemic-skeptical protest milieu, see the contributions by Rebekka Blum and Antje Daniel et al. in this issue.

While the pandemic-skeptical protests have often been perceived as a temporary phenomenon, in 2022 we can look back on two years of mobilizations. Protests have addressed lockdown-related discontent regarding curfews, home office regulations, distance education, and the general management of the pandemic by the government, as well as a perceived creeping authoritarianism of the state, allegedly visible in the (albeit temporary) restrictions of civil liberties adopted by the German and Austrian governments to minimize the spread of covid-19. The pandemic-skeptical mobilizations have provided protesters with the opportunity to express a variety of discontents that are at times closely, at other times loosely, related to these governmental restrictions, which many protesters and observers simply call “die Maßnahmen” (the measures or restrictions) in German-speaking contexts. More radical strands of opinion among protesters claim that dictatorial rule has been established by incumbent governments.

For a long time, the waves of pandemic-skeptical protests in both Germany and Austria developed in a similar fashion. In the fall of 2021, however, when the Austrian government announced compulsory vaccinations, discontent over a pending change of legislation spilled into discontent in the streets. Unlike in France or Indonesia, where several vaccinations are mandatory for all inhabitants, Austria had eschewed such regulations prior to November 2021. When it came to vaccines, but not other medical decisions such as the right to abortion, Austrian legislators had so far not encroached on the individual's right to have control over her own body—even if this would mean more protection for society as a whole. Although the vaccination mandate was ultimately not introduced in Austria, the announcement of compulsory vaccinations led to a new wave of pandemic-skeptical protests and new alliances between different groups, reaching far beyond the hitherto prevalent pandemic-skeptical protest milieus.15

Since early 2022, pandemic-skeptical protests have no longer been a part of everyday news coverage. Nevertheless, the pandemic-skeptical milieu has altered societal life in Germany and Austria. The most immediate effects of this change have been attempted and actual criminal offenses, apparently motivated by pandemic-skeptical mindsets and narratives. Ranging from arson and physical attacks to intense harassment, murder, and even attempts to overthrow the government, several cases in particular shocked the German-speaking public. These included an arson attack in autumn 2020 on the Robert Koch Institute, the German government's agency for disease control and the leading institution in the fight against the spread of covid-19.16 A second case, which reached the headlines in August 2021, involved a nurse who injected at least 15 but possibly several hundred people seeking a vaccination with saline solution instead of the BioNTech vaccine in Northern Germany.17 A month or so later, a 20-year-old gas station attendant was murdered after refusing to sell beer to an unmasked customer, who stated that he killed the attendant in order to “set an example” and express his outrage at the government's restrictions.18 More recently, German authorities uncovered a plot to kidnap Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach.19 Importantly, this attempted kidnapping was no prank, but one element of a planned militant overthrow of the government by the far-right group Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots). Prior to the eventual military coup, the group aimed to destabilize Germany's representative democracy through attacks on the country's electrical power network. Their members, among them a former soldier who served in the gdr's army, are linked to the pandemic-skeptical protest milieu.20 In July 2022, Lena-Marie Kellermayr, a doctor from Upper Austria, committed suicide after being harassed by the anti-vaxxers’ radical wing and even receiving death threats.21

On 7 December 2022, the federal public prosecutor carried out a large-scale raid against more than 52 suspects linked to a group called Patriotische Union (Patriotic Union), launching the largest counter-terrorism operation in the history of the Federal Republic to date, with some 5,000 police officers involved. According to information provided by the attorney general, the group planned to eliminate the frg's state order by force and replace it with its own form of state. Its members were prepared to use military means to achieve this, and to use violence against state representatives, even to the point of committing homicide. A detachment of former soldiers from the Bundeswehr intended to storm the German Bundestag at gunpoint on “Day X” to remove members of parliament, and to trigger “blackouts” via a code word on the radio in order to overthrow the federal government. In addition, the group planned “purges” in many municipalities, probably to eliminate their mayors.22

Such examples show that the social dynamics emerging from the pandemic situation and its management by the government still have profound implications for societal developments in Germany and Austria, even though the protests have died down. These social dynamics also effect political cleavages. A poll by the cosmo Study Group indicates that potential support for Russia's attack on Ukraine appears to be especially high among those who have criticized government restrictions and those who opted not to be vaccinated against covid-19.23 Such potential support was measured by pollsters based on participants’ agreement with statements such as “The war against Ukraine is being artificially dramatized in just the same way as the corona pandemic,” and “The war in Ukraine is only a distraction from the corona pandemic.” Again, however, these correlations in attitudes toward the existence of a pandemic situation and support for Russia's aggressive war on Ukraine (including positions that blame Ukrainians for the attack and that downplay the war's severity) have not so far led to a remobilization of pandemic skeptics in the streets. A novel wave of protest—such as the merger of pandemic-skeptical with pro-Russian “peace” protests (meaning rallies that justify the war or discount the fact that Putin has refused to acknowledge the existence of Ukraine as a state and a culture)—has so far not occurred.24

At the time of writing, the far-right party Freie Sachsen (Free Saxons), which has gained tens of thousands of online followers through its involvement in pandemic-skeptical protests in Saxony since mid-2021, was trying to create the impression that the first of a number of Montagsdemonstrationen (Monday demonstrations) criticizing the privatization of price increases, organized by Germany's Left Party (Die Linke), had been planned jointly with their organization.25 Public fears over the emergence of a so-called Querfront (Third Position)—an influential coalition between the left and the far right fueled by pandemic-skeptical protests—have been re-emerging since Russia's attack on Ukraine.26 The Freie Sachsen sought to create the impression of such a Querfront by mentioning the names of influential politicians from Die Linke alongside theirs on a faked call to join the Montagsdemonstration. They also mentioned Anselm Lenz as being a co-organizer. A self-proclaimed left-wing citizen who was involved in organizing the first pandemic-skeptical protests in Berlin in March 2020, Lenz has since publicly endorsed conspiracy theories and several far-right ideological entrepreneurs.27 Given that he attended a “summer party” in August 2022—organized by the publication Compact (its editor being Jürgen Elsässer, one of the most ardent apologetics of Putin's anti-Ukrainian policies since 2014)—where the Freie Sachsen were also present, Lenz arguably endorses being a symbol for new opportunities to create Querfront alliances.28

The pandemic-skeptical protest milieu also persists in popularizing the notion that German and Austrian societies are deeply divided and therefore no longer capable of reaching decisions through democratic procedures and public communication. This talking point is also common in public and academic debates over an allegedly divided society.29 Both supporters and opponents of the restrictions have warned that deep societal cleavages may follow from the governments’ management of the pandemic. However, the claim about a divided society is misleading insofar as polls indicate that the pandemic-skeptical milieu makes up only a small part of the overall population (see also the contribution by Kern et al. in this issue). Moreover, the lines of conflict between the pandemic-skeptical protest milieu and other societal milieus are more complex than the concept of a divided society suggests.

It is beyond doubt, however, that the pandemic-skeptical protests have changed the landscapes of political representation and media. The institutionalization of the pandemic-skeptical protest milieu has been accelerated by the founding of political parties such as Die Basis in Germany and mfg (Menschenr, Freiheit, Grundrechte) in Austria. The emergence of these parties, which also played a significant role as social movement organizations for the mobilizations, illustrates the loss of trust in established political institutions and the procedures of representative democracy that is characteristic for this protest milieu. In particular, the electoral success of mfg in Upper Austria's regional elections and the party's designation of a presidential candidate for the national elections demonstrate that the pandemic-skeptical milieu has entered conventional politics and extended the hitherto existing landscape of political parties.

The pandemic-skeptical milieu has relied very heavily on social media platforms such as Telegram or YouTube. Channels run by ideological entrepreneurs—several of whom became famous only during the pandemic, including Heiko Schrang, Oliver Janich, Bodo Schiffmann, Ken Jebsen, and Jürgen Elsässer—multiplied their followers.30 This development builds on earlier institutionalizations of so-called alternative media outlets, which have been spreading in Germany since the pro-Russian Vigils for Peace emerged in 2014. It has also been fueled by news coverage of the Russian broadcaster rt, which seeks to destabilize European liberal democracy.31 While there has been some deplatforming of the most aggressive and often antisemitic social media channels, and rt was banned a few weeks after Russia's attack on Ukraine, basic communication structures on social media have remained intact, and access to rt is easily possible using vpn (virtual private network) connections.32 Taken together, the institutionalization of political parties and “alternative media” is relevant insofar as it provides resources central to possible future protest waves via established social movement organizations with access to public funding and crowdfunding, such as political parties and novel communication channels, which have a relatively large number of followers.

The aim of this special issue is to analyze the ongoing pandemic-skeptical protests that seek not only to challenge covid-19 restrictions, but also to further erode democracy's legitimacy as an inclusive political project by popularizing conspiratorial myths and juxtaposing a “pure” people, framed in national terms, with a corrupt elite. In order to explore the protests’ multifaceted nature, the articles in this issue approach the phenomenon from a range of analytical perspectives. Bringing together expertise from different disciplines and fields—social movement and media studies, sociology, political science, anthropology, the sociological study of religion—they make a significant contribution to grasping the diverse nature of these protests. This issue makes understanding the complexity of the protests into a central task of social scientific analysis. It is therefore unique in offering a much-needed, in-depth understanding of the pandemic-skeptical protests in Germany and Austria.

Despite this special issue's important function of uniting different perspectives on a phenomenon that crisscrosses established categorizations of political fault lines in Germany and Austria, there are several limitations to its explanatory scope. Given the usual production process of peer-reviewed articles, it does not map the most recent trends, including the connection mentioned above between pandemic-skepticism and popular support for Russia's attempted military and cultural destruction of Ukraine. This limitation also concerns a possible differentiation between, presumably, different waves of pandemic-skeptical protests. Rallying around grievances relating primarily to the government's covid-19 restrictions increasingly gave way to an anti-vax wave of protests fueled by parliamentary debates about vaccination mandates for workers in a number of occupations.

Furthermore, given the diversity of the protest factions and the differences in scholarly access to different factions, this special issue is—as its title suggests—rather a compilation of perspectives on a protest milieu that commentators and academics alike have had difficulty naming consistently, as illustrated by the plethora of existing designations (Hygiene Demonstrationen, Corona Proteste, Querdenken, Corona-Leugner, Pandemie-Leugner, Covidioten). The authors contributing to this issue have themselves opted for different designations of the movement. While the issue's title speaks of pandemic-skeptical protests, some contributors have chosen different ways to refer to the movement. As editors, we find such variety productive insofar as it may engender debate about the question of what type of movement we are actually dealing with. Nevertheless, while the synergy of perspectives provided in this issue contributes to a more apt description of a highly contested phenomenon, it does not amount to an explanation for why (seemingly) heterogeneous protest milieus have merged, at least temporarily, during pandemic-skeptical events.33

Another limitation of this special issue, which is at the same time a challenge of research on pandemic-skepticism more generally, concerns the difficulties of conducting research among people who tend to be skeptical of social research. They often reject established institutions of research as well as third party funding obtained through powerful research foundations, because the latter are often linked to the state, corporations, or very rich individuals. The refusal by many pandemic skeptics to participate in academic research means that the results of polls and interviews must be treated with caution. There is good reason to assume that more moderate protest factions were more inclined to participate in scientific studies, so that their perspectives might be overrepresented in comparison to more radical factions that reject state institutions and foundations funding scientific research. This limitation notwithstanding, social research remains the pivotal means to map the societal implications of pandemic skepticism, whether it manifests itself in street protests and attempted attacks on parliamentary buildings or in the institutionalization of pandemic-, state-, and media-skeptical worldviews. As several contributors highlight, those worldviews are often accompanied by conspiracy narratives that not only undermine trust in representative democracy, but also ennoble antisemitic, social Darwinist, and racist topoi.34

Following from this special issue's “prismatic approach,” its articles shed light on the pandemic-skepticism phenomenon from different perspectives, covering the diverse spectrum of methods used by scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds. While some authors draw on material generated during extended periods of fieldwork, including participant observation and in-depth interviewing, others analyze survey data or news coverage. By approaching the wave of pandemic-skeptical protests from varying perspectives, we intend with this issue to join numerous strands of social research to encourage a cross-disciplinary dialogue about a social movement whose protagonists and repertoire puzzle social researchers and politicians as well as the general public.

In this special issue's first article, Thomas Kern, Dahla Opitz, Julian Polenz, Insa Pruisken, and Sarah Tell ask why the Querdenken movement—albeit successfully mobilizing tens of thousands of people to take to the streets to protest against the restrictions adopted by the German government to minimize the spread of covid-19— did not manage to gain support from major civil society or political organizations in Germany. To answer this question, they analyze the collective identity of the Querdenken social movement organization (a major actor in Germany's pandemic-skeptical protests) through a reconstruction of the critical public discourse on the government's covid-19 health policy. As Kern et al. argue, not only was the Querdenken movement, led by the Southern German entrepreneur Michael Ballweg, presented as irrational in media coverage by newspapers of record, such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's most widely circulated daily, but the movement itself contributed to its own low credibility among the general public by accusing the government of lying and corruption. The contributors’ analysis of the interplay between external public images and the internal self-image of the Querdenken movement serves as an excellent introduction to the larger public debates over the pandemic-skeptical protests and as an apt overview of the communicative dynamics between the movement and the larger public.

Anna Schwenck introduces readers to the protests through an analysis of pandemic-skeptical symbolism. As she observes, many protesters engaged in a kind of allegorical reasoning, drawing analogies between radically dissimilar things. Making use of empirical material derived from participant observation, data mining on social media, and in-depth interviews, Schwenck argues that pandemic skeptics used a plethora of visual and auditive symbols of resistance against Germany's past dictatorships to stage “the people” as united against a corrupt, undemocratic elite. She highlights that these symbols had been popular in Germany's dominant national narrative prior to the protests and are now used to legitimate the protests. In a different register, such legitimation is also sought by protesters through what she calls “performances of closeness,” that is, instances of not wearing masks, touching others physically, and collectively singing and dancing. She shows how such public performances correspond to protesters’ symbolic and rhetorical invocation of an alleged new totalitarianism. As she argues, their accusation of a “creeping totalitarianism” is driven by a diffuse fear that the social is being replaced by “anonymity and isolation,” a fear that relates to existing social processes, such as the erosion of representative democracy in neoliberal times.

The article by Antje Daniel, Markus Brunner and Florian Knasmüller scrutinizes possible links between structural inequalities, deepened by the pandemic and its management, and pandemic-skeptical protests in Austria. They critically examine whether gender-specific grievances—such as homeschooling and the “double burden of care work and wage labor” placed on women—correspond to, inhibit, or increase the incentives for women to protest. Women make up more than 50 percent of pandemic-skeptical protesters. Against the backdrop of the observation that women are challenged by a double burden and experience more inequality and injustice, the article investigates whether and to what extent women's incentives to protest (their perspective on grievances, existing problem-solving competences, and political expectations) differ from those of protesters identifying as male. Informed by a gendered lens of framing theory in social movement studies, and based on an analysis of data collected through a mixed-methods approach, the article unpacks several gendered dimensions of pandemic-skeptical protest.

Rebekka Blum discusses another gendered dimension of the protests, antifeminism, to assess the protests’ political overlap with antifeminist far-right discourses. She investigates the embeddedness of antifeminism in the pandemic-skeptical social movement organization Parents Rising (Eltern stehen auf) through a systematic analysis of its blog posts, flyers, and press releases. She assesses the degree to which antifeminist topoi are embedded in these sources by comparing the results to those of an analysis of tweets and blog posts by established antifeminist figures during the pandemic. As she shows, by discursively linking children's well-being to the necessity that they grow up in heteronormative, nuclear families, pandemic-skeptical concerned parents echo and amplify antifeminist perspectives that are raised by far-right politicians such as Beatrix von Storch (AfD).

Michael Neuber contributes in-depth research on demonstrations against the German government's covid-19 restrictions since the spring of 2020. His article shows that, in view of the heterogeneous composition of the participants, the bridging of “left- and right-wing movement frames” contributed significantly to the fact that this protest movement was able to address different social and political milieus and bring them together over a relevant period of time. Using photographs of demonstrators and materials from a mass protest in Berlin in late September 2020 as an example, he demonstrates how the use of terms like “freedom” and “peace” allows different political strands to combine their particular interpretations into joint political action.

Carolin Hillenbrand and Detlef Pollack investigate the relationship between religiosity and the embracing of conspiracy theories. Since pandemic-skeptical protest symbolism often draws on a kind of reasoning that is closer to religious belief than scientific argument (see also Schwenck's article in this issue), their research is highly relevant for a better understanding of pandemic-skeptical protest milieus. On the basis of an empirical analysis of primary data that they collected through a (non-representative) online survey, they argue that it is not religiosity as such that is positively correlated with belief in covid-19 conspiracy theories. Instead, those individuals who imagine God as being punitive, who regard their own beliefs as the only righteous faith, and who tend to engage in private prayer are more prone to embrace conspiracy theories. Significantly, Hillenbrand and Pollack find that attendance at church services is negatively correlated with belief in conspiracy theories about covid-19. In accordance with these correlations, they can show that evangelicals tend to have a higher affinity for conspiracy theories, while the opposite is true for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews.

Thus, while a tendency toward allegorical reasoning, characterized by drawing analogies between radically dissimilar things, is something that religious people and pandemic skeptics have in common, it is not sufficient to explain a propensity toward believing in conspiracy theories. Instead, closer analysis reveals that a solipsistic and supremacist approach toward one's own (spiritual) beliefs is more significant than non-scientific worldviews when it comes to the adoption of conspiracy theories.

Acknowledgments

The editors would like to thank the reviewers for their constructive criticism of the contributions and Eric Langenbacher and his team for their flexible and patient supervision of this special issue.

Notes

1

Klaus H. Goetz and Dorte Sindbjerg Martinsen, “COVID-19: A Dual Challenge to European Liberal Democracy,” West European Politics 44, no. 5–6 (2021): 1003–1024.

2

Nicole Bolleyer and Orsolya Salát, “Parliaments in Times of Crisis: COVID-19, Populism and Executive Dominance,” West European Politics 44, no. 5–6 (2021): 1103–1128; Lars Erik Løvaas Gjerde, “From Liberalism to Biopolitics: Investigating the Norwegian Government's Two Responses to Covid-19,” European Societies 23 (Sup. 1) (2021): S262–S274; Sarah Engler, Palmo Brunner, Romane Loviat, Tarik Abou-Chadi, Lucas Leemann, Andreas Glaser, and Daniel Kübler, “Democracy in Times of the Pandemic: Explaining the Variation of COVID-19 Policies across European Democracies,” West European Politics 44, no. 5–6 (2021): 1077–1102; Katarina Giritli Nygren and Anna Olofsson, “Swedish Exceptionalism, Herd Immunity and the Welfare State: A Media Analysis of Struggles over the Nature and Legitimacy of the COVID-19 Pandemic Strategy in Sweden,” Current Sociology 69, no. 4 (2021): 529–546; Joan Barceló, Robert Kubinec, Cindy Cheng, Tiril Høye Rahn, and Luca Messerschmidt, “Windows of Repression: Using COVID-19 Policies against Political Dissidents?,” Journal of Peace Research 59, no. 1 (2022): 73–89.

3

Stephan Lessenich, “Soziologie—Corona—Kritik,” Berliner Journal für Soziologie 30 (2020): 215–230; Klaus Dörre, “Die Corona-Pandemie—eine Katastrophe mit Sprengkraft,” Berliner Journal für Soziologie 30 (2020): 165–190.

4

Alberto Toscano, “The State of the Pandemic,” Historical Materialism 28, no. 4 (2020): 3–23.

5

Sylvia Kritzinger, Martial Foucault, Romain Lachat, Julia Partheymüller, Carolina Plescia, and Sylvain Brouard, “‘Rally round the flag’: The COVID-19 Crisis and Trust in the National Government,” West European Politics 44, no. 5–6 (2021): 1205–1231; Shingo Hamanaka, “‘Rallying round the Flag Effect’ in Israel's First COVID-19 Wave,” Israel Affairs 27, no. 4 (2021): 675–690; Sven Reichardt, ed., Die Misstrauensgemeinschaft der “Querdenker”: Die Corona-Proteste aus kultur- und sozialwissenschaftlicher Perspektive (Frankfurt, 2021).

6

Binoy Kampmark, “Protesting in Pandemic Times: COVID-19, Public Health, and Black Lives Matter,” Contention 8, no. 2 (2020): 1–20; Eric Neumayer, Katharina Gabriela Pfaff, and Thomas Plümper, “Protest against COVID-19 Containment Policies in European Countries,” Journal of Peace Research (forthcoming), available at Social Science Research (2021), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3844989; Breno Bringel and Geoffrey Pleyers, eds., Social Movements and Politics in a Global Pandemic (Bristol, 2022).

7

Donatella della Porta, Contentious Politics in Emergency Critical Junctures: Progressive Social Movements during the Pandemic (Cambridge, 2022); Daniel Mullis, “Protest in Zeiten von Covid-19: Zwischen Versammlungsverbot und neuen Handlungsoptionen,” Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 33, no. 2 (2020): 528–543.

8

Silas Marker, “Populist Mediation of the Pandemic: The Corona-Crisis Seen through Right-Wing Populist Alternative Media,” Populism 3, no. 2 (2020): 288–318; Ewen Speed and Russell Mannion, “Populism and Health Policy: Three International Case Studies of Right-Wing Populist Policy Frames,” Sociology of Health & Illness 42, no. 8 (2020): 1967–1981; Michelle Falkenbach and Scott L. Greer, eds., The Populist Radical Right and Health: National Policies and Global Trends (Cham, 2021); José Javier Olivas Osuna and José Rama, “COVID-19: A Political Virus? VOX's Populist Discourse in Times of Crisis,” Frontiers in Political Science 3 (2021), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpos.2021.678526; Giovanni Savino, “The Great Convergence: How the Italian Far Right and COVID Deniers Tried to Seize the Momentum,” Journal of Illiberalism Studies 1, no. 1 (2021): 25–38; Caterina Froio, “The Rassemblement National and COVID-19: How Nativism, Authoritarianism and Expert Populism Did Not Pay Off during the Pandemic,” Government and Opposition (30 March 2022), https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2022.12; Jakub Wondreys and Cas Mudde, “Victims of the Pandemic? European Far-Right Parties and COVID-19,” Nationalities Papers 50, no. 1 (2022): 86–103; Kathleen D. Magnus, “Right-Wing Populism, Social Identity Theory, and Resistance to Public Health Measures during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” International Journal of Public Health 67 (2022), https://doi.org/10.3389/ijph.2022.1604812.

9

Pandemic-skeptical protests in Austria reached their peak in January 2021. See Markus Brunner, Antje Daniel, Florian Knasmüller, Felix Maile, Andreas Schadauer, and Verena Stern, “Corona-Protest-Report: Narrative—Motive—Einstellungen,” SocArXiv Papers (29 July 2021), https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/25qb3.

10

See Fabian Virchow and Alexander Häusler, Pandemie-Leugnung und extreme Rechte in Nordrhein-Westfalen, report for CoRE-NRW-Kurzgutachten 3 (Bonn, 2020); Edgar Grande, Swen Hutter, Sophia Hunger, and Eylem Kanol, “Alles Covidioten? Politische Potenziale des Corona-Protests in Deutschland,” wzb Discussion Paper ZZ 2021-601, https://bibliothek.wzb.eu/pdf/2021/zz21-601.pdf; Christoph Schulze, “‘Corona-Proteste’ und die extreme Rechte: Aspekte des Demonstrationsgeschehens im Land Brandenburg 2020 und 2021,” Mitteilungen der Emil Julius Gumbel Forschungsstelle 10 (May 2022); Thomas Plümper, Eric Neumayer, and Katharina Gabriela Pfaff, “The Strategy of Protest against COVID-19 Containment Policies in Germany,” Social Science Quarterly 102, no. 5 (2021): 2236–2250; Oliver Nachtwey, Robert Schäfer, and Nadine Frei, “Politische Soziologie der Corona-Proteste,” SocArXiv (15 December 2020), https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/zyp3f/.

11

Brunner et al., “Corona-Protest-Report.”

12

Activists from the pro-Russian movement emerged in response to the Russia sanctions in 2014 (after Russia had annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea). See Priska Daphi, Dieter Rucht, Wolfgang Stuppert, Simon Teune, and Peter Ullrich, “Montagsmahnwachen für den Frieden: Antisemitisch? Pazifistisch? Orientierungslos?,” Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 27, no. 3 (2014): 24–31.

13

Gerhard Hanloser, “‘Nicht rechts, nicht links’? Ideologien und Aktionsformen der ‘Corona-Rebellen,’” Soziale Geschichte Online 29 (2021): 1–43, https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:hbz:464-20210504-160228-7.

14

Paula-Irene Villa, “Corona-Krise Meets Care-Krise—Ist das systemrelevant?,” Leviathan 48, no. 3 (2020): 433–450.

15

For more on this issue, see “Tausende bei Corona-Demo am Samstag in Wiener Innenstadt erwartet,” Die Presse (19 November 2021), https://www.diepresse.com/6063278/tausende-bei-corona-demo-am-samstag-in-wiener-innenstadt-erwartet.

16

More details on the fire can be found at Reuters, “Fire Damages German Infectious Disease Institute,” Deutsche Welle (25 October 2020), https://www.dw.com/en/fire-damages-german-infectious-disease-institute/a-55390582.

17

Reuters, “Nurse in Germany Suspected of Replacing Covid Vaccines with Saline Solution,” Guardian (11 August 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/11/nurse-in-germany-suspected-of-replacing-covid-vaccines-with-saline-solution.

18

Michael Bauer, “Angeklagter gesteht Tankstellenmord,” zdf (25 March 2022), https://www.zdf.de/uri/fa8d4f9c-7f87-4889-a1a5-600f3c3b296c.

19

Iain Rogers, “Germany Foils Plot to Sabotage Democracy, Kidnap Minister,” Bloomberg (14 April 2022), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-04-14/germany-foils-plot-to-sabotage-democracy-kidnap-health-minister.

20

More information can be found at Matthias Bartsch, Sven Röbel, and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt, “Verhinderter Lauterbach-Entführer plante Staatsstreich mit Kalaschnikows,” Der Spiegel (22 July 2022), https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/verhinderter-karl-lauterbach-entfuehrer-plante-staatsstreich-mit-kalaschnikows-a-1ce1eda0-e2f9-486d-b4f9-b0971df62075.

21

Read more details about Kellermayr's suicide at Simone Rafael, “Der Hass gegen Lisa-Maria Kellermayr,” Amadeu Antonio Stiftung (2 August 2022), https://www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de/der-hass-gegen-lisa-maria-kellermayr-87071/.

22

Katrin Bennhold and Erika Solomon, “Germany Arrests 25 Suspected of Planning to Overthrow Government,” New York Times (7 December 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/07/world/europe/germany-coup-arrests.html.

23

See cosmo, “Verschwörungen zum Ukraine Konflikt im Zusammenhang mit Corona,” COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring (9 November 2022), https://projekte.uni-erfurt.de/cosmo2020/; Laura Loguercio and Tommaso Canetta, “How COVID-19 Conspiracy Theorists Pivoted to Pro-Russian Hoaxes,” EDMO: European Digital Media Observatory (30 March 2022), https://edmo.eu/2022/03/30/how-covid-19-conspiracy-theorists-pivoted-to-pro-russian-hoaxes/.

24

Sarah Marsh and Andreas Rinke, “Worries Over Winter Test Support in Germany for Russia Sanctions,” Reuters (28 July 2022), https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/worries-over-winter-test-support-germany-russia-sanctions-2022-07-28/; Thomas Datt, Jana Merkel, and Matthias Pöls, “Droht Ostdeutschland ein ‘heißer Herbst’?,” tagesschau (23 August 2022), https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/innenpolitik/herbst-proteste-103.html.

25

Rieke Wiemann, “Fake-Aufruf zu Demo mit Gysi,” taz (1 September 2022), https://taz.de/!5875254/.

26

David Ehl, “Corona-Protesteein deutscher Sonderfall?,” Deutsche Welle (14 May 2020), https://dw.com/de/corona-proteste-ein-deutscher-sonderfall/a-53428039.

27

Wiemann, “Fake-Aufruf zu Demo mit Gysi.”

28

Andreas Bergholz, “Wie sich Nazis und Querdenker für den Winter verschwören—über Anselm Lenz,” Der Volksverpetzer blog (10 August 2022), https://www.volksverpetzer.de/querdenker/anselm-lenz/.

29

Fabian Beckmann and Anna-Lena Schönauer, “Spaltet Corona die Gesellschaft? Eine empirische Milieuanalyse pandemiebezogener Einstellungen,” Gesellschaft unter Spannung 40 (2021), https://publikationen.soziologie.de/index.php/kongressband_2020/article/view/1302.

30

Quinn Slobodian and William Callison, “Coronapolitics from the Reichstag to the Capitol,” Boston Review (12 January 2021), https://bostonreview.net/politics/william-callison-quinn-slobodian-coronapolitics-reichstag-capitol.

31

Daphi et al., “Montagsmahnwachen für den Frieden.” For a discussion about the problematic concept of “alternative media,” see Dolores Palau-Sampio, “Pseudo-Media Sites, Polarization, and Pandemic Skepticism in Spain,” Frontiers in Political Science 3 (2021), https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpos.2021.685295.

32

Matt Motta, Dominik Stecula, and Christina Farhart, “How Right-Leaning Media Coverage of COVID-19 Facilitated the Spread of Misinformation in the Early Stages of the Pandemic in the U.S.,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 53, no. 2 (2020): 335–342; Jing Zeng and Mike S. Schäfer, “Conceptualizing ‘Dark Platforms’: COVID-19-Related Conspiracy Theories on 8kun and Gab,” Digital Journalism 9, no. 9 (2021): 1321–1343; Martin Rooke, “Alternative Media Framing of COVID-19 Risks,” Current Sociology 69, no. 4 (2021): 584–602.

33

See also Simon Teune, “Querdenken und die BewegungsforschungNeue Herausforderung oder déjà-vu?,” Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 34, no. 2 (2021): 326–334.

34

On racist topoi, see Christine Hentschel, “Sklaverei als Metapher: Die Zumutungen der Corona-Proteste,” Journal der Künste 15 (2021): 18–21.

Contributor Notes

Antje Daniel is a Substitute Professor in the Department of Development Studies at the University of Vienna (Austria) and is also an Associated Scholar at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa) and the Friedrich-Alexander University (Germany). Her research interests are political sociology, democracy, social movements, gender, environmental activism, and utopia, with a research focus on Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

Anna Schwenck is a cultural sociologist, currently studying how popular music negotiates political violence in Southern Africa. The project forms part of the “Transformations of the Popular” Collaborative Research Center at the University of Siegen. Her previous research focused on the merger of neoliberal and authoritarian state policies and how they tie into popular cultural understandings in Russia and beyond (flexible authoritarianism) and on processes of retraditionalization in German-language popular music cultures.

Fabian Virchow is a Professor of Social Theory and of Theories of Political Action at Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences, where he also acts as the Director of the Research Unit on Right-Wing Extremism. His research and publications focus on social movements, protest, and contentious politics, as well as on history, worldviews, and the political action of populist/extreme-right protagonists.

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