Germany has a historically sensitive relationship to the freedom of the individual and the Grundgesetz, its constitution, granting the freedom of speech. The terror of the Third Reich, and the GDR (German Democratic Republic )has left scars on the people living in Germany today. Now, the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictive change of public life triggered the fear of a restriction of personal freedom and speech for some again.
Right from the start of the pandemic, disagreement with the measurements taken by the government pushed the people onto the streets. The protests, however, are heterogenic: they not only attract concerned citizens but anti-vaxxer and esoterics, and they are also a haven for conspiracy theorists and representatives of the far-right and far-left scenes.
The German public and authorities are especially worried about the presence of some well-known right-extremist. While this is a legitimate reason to worry about, the protests during the pandemic and their perception in the public are a devastating symptom of change of German culture of debate, which has worsened over the last years. In times of crisis, the ground for discussion and consensus among people seems to diminish even more. Even though the majority of the German population had supported the restrictions or had even argued for their tougher enforcement, the voices shouting that politicians robbed the citizens of their constitutional rights are loud and picked up by the media. The dissent about the Covid-19 restrictions has made someone of another opinion your enemy.
The extreme division of opinion, the shrinking of a common ground that would allow a debate, is not a new phenomenon – neither in Western democracies nor in Germany. In the federal republic, however, it can be connected to some key challenges Germany had to tackle in the last ten years. Above all is the refugee crisis in Europe: Around one million refugees sought asylum in Germany in 2015. Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to admit them, and her slogan “we can do this” became famous – for some as a motivational quote, while for others as a misjudgment of reality. In the German public, there was no wider range of opinion anymore; one either clearly supported Merkels’ politics or not. It was during this time that the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) established itself as right-wing force with populistic slogans and gained great support among the voters.
The party contributed to a new discourse that divides society deeply now: A debate about the question to what extend the usage of so-called politically correct terms was a limitation of the freedom of expression; especially with regard to foreigners coming to Germany but also regarding gendering nouns in the German language. The AfD and their supporters claim that there are some things you are ‘not allowed to say any more’ due to a growing left- and green ideological thinking in society.
However, one could identify the transformation of what is said and socially accepted as a sign of a progressive society – be it through gendering nouns in the German language or the exclusion of vocabulary that is discriminatory to foreigners. But the representatives of the right-wing see this development of language as proof of the decline of their democratic right to speak freely. By negating and criticizing this development, they pushed the norms of what can be said in public further to the right instead. Consequently, this is met with heavy criticism in and outside the Bundestag. Even though this is the only right reaction to a party undermining democracies (or put differently: You can not argue with right-wing extremists) the consequence of the political landscape changing the way of dialogue in the public sphere shouldn’t be underestimated in its effects on our culture of debate which slowly seems to diminish.
This development has reached another peak with regard to the protests during the pandemic. Because of the instrumentalisation of the protests by right-wing representatives who had opposed all restrictions with all means possible, the protests quickly lost their former purpose of criticizing the political measures taken against the pandemic. The people who wanted to make use of their democratic right of protesting and criticizing the government were quickly made allies to right-wing tendencies by the public. The ground on which some express their concerns regarding the restrictive measures by the government is shared with right-wing extremists. A moral dilemma exists here: every critique seems to be a taunt working at the front of healthcare, or potentially supports tendencies that want to ‘delegitimize the state’. On the other hand, the ones who are supporting the government are blamed to be ‘Schlafschafe’ (‘sleeping sheep’) who believed anything by the government critics.
This generalization has shrunken the room for critique within society has shrunk. Just recently this dilemma reached a new level of escalation. 53 German actors released videos in which they satirically criticized the Covid-19 restrictions, Angela Merkel, and the work of the press during the pandemic. Their contributions differed in their level of critique: while some addressed the media, others wanted to raise attention to the devastating economic situation of the art and entertainment scene. Nevertheless, the backlash was intense. The media raged – within hours the videos were retweeted by representatives of the far-right and eventually labeled as members of the ‘Querdenker’-movement which is under observation by the German Intelligence service due to its right-wing extremist tendencies. While some of the actors could be proven to be close to the movement, others could not. Some have tried to distance themselves from the statements made, part of their reputation seems lost. Should they have known better?
The heated discussion shows how differentiated and framed an opinion must be in order to not be torn apart. The interaction between the two camps has lost common ground in terms of opinion and behavior: Online hate speech and extreme polarization in social media are at the core of the discussion fueling its heating further.
What is granted by constitutional law – the freedom of speech – does not necessarily apply to the climate in society. This development entails a profound issue: when extremist views within society are canceled, it has the side-effect that similar, but less extreme views are silenced too. The scale of opinion is thus shrunken. People are more careful about what they say – even if it is just a more conservative or more liberal viewpoint – awaiting to be excluded from some debates. The relation between the freedom of speech, the rise of sensitivity within society for its protection, and the progressive change of norms within language is tense.
The debate about the correct political action taken in the Covid-19 crisis has followed a curve of escalation, making it more about the fundamental allocation to the right or left political camp than about the factual discussion of pandemic necessity. The corona crisis in Germany has damaged the culture of debate in Germany even more. With five more state elections happening this year and the retirement of longstanding chancellor Merkel in September, the federal election will be a game-changer. If the outcome of the elections or the way of life in post-pandemic times will change the culture of debate in Germany is not clear but full of hope.