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In a tidy German village on the edge of the Thuringian forest, several dozen locals gather over cake and canapes to listen to coronavirus skeptics decry the state of Europe’s largest economy.

Sonneberg, population 23,000, was home to a flourishing toy industry a century ago and still boasts one of the world’s largest teddy bears, but as Germany prepares to go to polls on Sept. 26, the mood here is darkening, for all the superficial decorum.

Like much of the former communist East, the place has struggled economically since reunification a generation ago and that made it fertile ground for the nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, when its support surged in the last election. And it helps explain why families and retirees are turning out to hear fringe groups rail against the “immunization apartheid” dividing Germany and attacking officials who want to ostracize the non-vaccinated as “complicit.”

As Angela Merkel prepares to step down after 16 years as chancellor, the scene is a sign of how the pandemic has sustained the anti-establishment resentment that became widespread following the refugee crisis of 2015. Polls suggest that the AfD will consolidate its position in the Bundestag after its breakthrough in 2017 and with Merkel’s conservative bloc facing a reckoning as its support plummets, the nationalists could play a role in reshaping the German right.

While concerns about immigration have faded — despite the collapse of the western-backed government in Afghanistan — the AfD has tapped into new support by embracing the pandemic dissenters, ridiculing face masks, pushing back against pressure to get vaccinated and railing against restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19.

“We see that corona has been a strong accelerator of radicalization,” said Romy Arnold, project manager at a group that seeks to counter anti-democratic movements in Thuringia, the region around Sonneberg. “Because of the pandemic, new target groups are being mobilized.”

Few campaign posters create the impression that Sonneberg’s residents have been forgotten in the battle for the German chancellery. | BLOOMBERG
Few campaign posters create the impression that Sonneberg’s residents have been forgotten in the battle for the German chancellery. | BLOOMBERG

In Germany like elsewhere in the West, anger over coronavirus curbs has stoked unrest with refuseniks claiming that their stance is a defense of freedom. During one weekend in late August, police arrested nearly 600 people at a protest in Berlin. A year earlier, a group tried to storm the Reichstag parliament building.

Sonneberg Shows Its True Face — a pun suggesting opposition to face masks — is one of numerous pandemic-protest groups. It meets every Monday, drawing a link to the popular uprisings that helped topple communist East Germany. To drum up interest to its public gatherings, it invites figures like Bjoern Banane, an entertainer who has published songs likening pandemic rules to totalitarianism.

Ingo Schreurs, a 56-year-old translator and one of its organizers, accuses authorities in Germany and around the world of overplaying the risk of the virus and argues that lockdowns and other harsh measures to control the disease weren’t justified.

“The elite has been thinking about how to control the people for a long time,” he said in an interview. “If we don’t watch out, much worse can happen.”

Officials in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) have already seen first hand how the AfD’s strength in Thuringia can shake national politics.

Last year, the party’s local branch joined with the AfD in a vote for state’s premier, defying its orders from HQ and breaking a taboo in German politics. The episode fatally undermined the authority of then-party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel protegee, who had been lined up to succeed her as chancellor.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc facing a reckoning as its support plummets, nationalists could play a role in reshaping the German right. | AFP-JIJI
With German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc facing a reckoning as its support plummets, nationalists could play a role in reshaping the German right. | AFP-JIJI

Armin Laschet was eventually picked to replace Kramp-Karrenbauer as the party leader, but with little time to establish himself ahead of the election, he could see the CDU pushed into opposition.

The CDU and its Bavarian sister party are almost certainly heading for their worst election result ever and some officials are already speculating about the prospect of defections or even splits if the conservative alliance fails to hold on to the chancellery.

Hardliners within the CDU are frustrated with the moderate Merkel line that gave the AfD space to flourish. Some might consider joining the nationalists after an election debacle and the AfD could also take advantage of the disarray after the chancellor departs.

For Heiko Voigt, Sonneberg’s mayor, the pandemic protest group are a thorn in his side, as he tries to secure the local economy from risks posed by globalization, climate change and the transition to digital technologies.

Voigt promotes the town’s historical links with the U.S. and has managed to secure a 6.4 million-euro ($7.5 million) research institute for hydrogen technology. Yet he acknowledges that the pandemic has deepened anxieties and says mainstream parties appear out of touch with people in the rural, working-class community.

“Berlin is far away,” said Voigt, an independent who’s an urban planner by training. “The problems here are different. People worry about their jobs and their futures, and corona has acted as a catalyst for changes that were already under way.”

A sign reading
A sign reading “Racism is not normal,” referring to the Alternative for Germany party slogan “Germany, but normal” during a demonstration on Sept. 4 in Berlin | AFP-JIJI

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