On January 27, Bavarian authorities confirm the first case of COVID-19 in Germany in the district of Starnberg, which neighbors Munich.
On Wednesday, Feb. 19 Tobias Rathjen, a far-right gunman whose racist manifesto revealed that he was inspired by the Q Anon movement, attacks two hookah bars in Hanau, a city in Hessen not far from Frankfurt. He kills nine young people, all of them immigrants and German-born people of color: Gökhan Gültekin, Sedat Gürbüz, Said Nesar Hashemi, Mercedes Kierpacz, Hamza Kurtović, Vili-Viorel Păun, Fatih Saraçoğlu, Ferhat Unvar, Kaloyan Velkov. Subsequently, he shoots his mother Gabriele Rathjen and himself. This shooting occurs just hours after the German government approved a bill cracking down on hate speech online.
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s anticipated successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer steps down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union and announces that she will not be running in the election for chancellor after she failed to contain a political crisis in the state of Thuringia, where Christian Democrats broke the taboo against working with the far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany to vote out the state government lead by the Left Party, who the Christian Democrats have sworn never to work with. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s standing is badly hurt when little-known politician Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) is elected state premier with votes from both the CDU and the Alternative for Germany. This was the first time in Germany’s postwar history that a state premier had been elected with votes from the far right. Amid the fallout, Friedrich Merz, runner-up in the 2018 leadership vote, resigns from his private sector job to “be of even greater help in the renewal of the CDU.”
On February 27, 46-year-old far-right YouTuber Tim Kellner is acquitted in a defamation case involving local Berlin politician Sawsan Chebli after he called the Social Democrat, who is of Palestinian origin, an “Islamic mouthpiece” and “affirmative action immigrant” [“Quotenmigrantin der SPD”] on his popular YouTube channel. Chebli calls the verdict “a bitter message to everyone affected by hate and incitement, everyone insulted, threatened, and attacked by racists.”
Also in February, the Anglophone press takes notice of 19-year-old German vlogger Naomi Seibt. Dubbed the “Anti-Greta,” Seibt became a social media star after the Heartland Institute, a right-wing US think tank, gifted her a platform on YouTube, where she denies climate change and rails against feminism and immigration. She is invited to speak at a panel on climate at CPAC 2020. She is similarly embraced by the AfD: Although she denies being a member, she has spoken at party events and admitted to voting for the AfD in 2019.
In March, conservative media and politicians, including Chancellor Merkel’s anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein, mount a campaign to bar philosopher Achille Mbembe from the 2020 Ruhrtriennale Festival in Bochum, charging that Mbembe, who hails from the former German colony of Cameroon and ranks among the world’s leading theorists of colonialism and postcolonialism, has relativized the Holocaust and questions Israel’s right to exist by extending his critique to Israeli government policy. Lorenz Deutsch, an FDP state representative in Northrhine-Westphalia, accuses Mbembe of “postcolonial Israelfeindschaft” or hatred of Israel. In 2019, an overwhelming majority in the Bundestag had made it illegal to use public funding for events that promote the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Mbembe responds that he is in no way affiliated with BDS, that “proper critique of colonialism and racism has nothing to do with the relativisation of the crime of the Holocaust” but is in fact “a key element in the fight against antisemitism,” and characterizes the smear campaign targeting him as a racist attempt to criminalize his scholarship. Numerous international scholars express solidarity with Mbembe and concern about German politics of unilateral commemoration.
“Germany enters the home office”: According to a recent poll by the German Association for the Digital Economy (BVDW), 75.4% of over 1000 employees were generally prepared to work from home during the pandemic.
Germany closes its borders to Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Denmark, and France on March 16. Other EU countries had already imposed significant border controls, including Austria, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. A global travel warning is put into place effective March 17.
On March 17, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) jointly announce temporary suspension of resettlement travel for refugees.
Also on March 17, the cast of the 13th season of the reality TV show Big Brother Germany, who had been cut off from world news since February 6, receive information about the Covid-19 pandemic on live television.
The German government enters its first nationwide COVID-19 lockdown comparatively late, on March 22. Unlike the majority of its Western European neighbors like Italy and France, Germany does not issue a stay-at-home order, focusing instead on strict social distancing measures. The Federal Center for Health Education and other government agencies circulate flyers and infographics explaining the public health regulations in various languages.
In early April, the number of COVID cases reaches the grim milestone of one million globally as Germany’s death toll exceeds 1000 victims, which nevertheless makes for one of the lowest mortality rates in the world. In this period, a number of distinct media discourses become visible. The press in the United States and the German-speaking world alike marvel at and debate Germany’s “Corona miracle”. At the same time, the lockdown measures responsible are subject to a sizeable backlash on putatively civil-libertarian grounds: in the conservative press, where commentators wring their hands about the looming threat of “Gesundheitsdiktatur” (“dictatorship of health”), and even more notably in the streets, at the so-called “hygiene protests” of the German anti-lockdown movement, which is comprised of different far-right and conspiracy-oriented groups under the banner of “Querdenker” (translated in the English press as “lateral thinkers”) and quickly gains momentum in numerous cities as the month goes on. Other commentaries focus on the media fetishization of so-called essential workers. “Don’t call them heroes,” reads the headline from a column in Die Zeit by Alice Bota. Hero worship is of no use to anyone, she argues, especially not those who are at the greatest risk due to their social position and still underpaid for it.
On April 15, on the basis of Germany’s low numbers, Merkel announces a plan to ease the lockdown, which does not in any case prevent the infection rate climbing again, and mask mandates are imposed in a number of federal states and then nationwide on 4/22.
German sports fans vocally oppose the proposed May return of the Bundesliga, the top flight of men’s professional soccer in Germany, in the form of “ghost games”, matches played without supporters in the stadium. Fanszene Deutschland, the national association of organized soccer fans (known in Europe as Ultras), slam the decision to resume playing in a statement, calling it “simply absurd”: “Soccer is of great importance in Germany, but it is certainly not essential.”
Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who lost ground in the Bundestag to the debutant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2017 and received a record-low 29% of the vote in the 2019 European Parliament elections, see a surge in popularity. Bavarian premier Markus Söder—who also heads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU)—is lauded in the press for his crisis management. He rapidly overtakes Merkel as the most popular politician in Germany, and consistently tops polls as the clear favorite to succeed her as the CDU’s Spitzenkandidat or top-line candidate in the 2021 federal elections, while continuing to maintain publicly that he has ruled out a run for national office this cycle.
On April 29, federal prosecutors charge neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst in the murder of Walter Lübcke, a local politician with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who was turned into a scapegoat in Hessen’s far-right spaces for promoting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy and killed in Germany’s first political assassination in the postwar era. Lübcke’s family, who joined the prosecution as co-plaintiffs, are not convinced that Ernst acted alone and demand that the codefendant Markus Hartmann be convicted as an accessory. Der Spiegel questions how the authorities classified the two men as “cooled-down” extremists and ceased monitoring them.
On May 16, the Bundesliga is the first major sports league in the world to resume playing. In a particularly striking adaptation, the popular club Borussia Mönchengladbach places 13,000 life-sized cardboard cutouts bearing the likenesses of actual season ticket holders in their home stadium at Borussia-Park.
The summer sees the Black Lives Matter movement throw racism, police violence and Germany’s colonial legacy into sharper relief than ever before. In June, Social Democrat Karamba Diaby, who emigrated from Senegal to the GDR in the 1980’s and in 2013 became the first black member of the Bundestag, receives a slew of death threats and his district office in Halle is riddled with bullet holes after criticizing the German tendency to downplay racism as mere hatred of foreigners.
In an interview, SPD co-leader Saskia Esken says that German police have a problem with “latent racism,” to which the federal Minister of the Interior and former CSU party head Horst Seehofer responds that he finds “the accusation of latent racism in the German police force utterly incomprehensible.” Seehofer and other conservative leaders also defend German law enforcement against progressive currents within the media. When the Iranian-German writer Hengameh Yaghoobifarah writes a provocative column critical of policing in the Tageszeitung, Seehofer threatens them with criminal charges.
The closing of museums, theaters and concert venues due to the pandemic threatens the livelihoods of artists and other cultural luminaries. On June 17, the upper house of German parliament, the Bundesrat, approves the €1 billion stimulus package Neustart Kultur (Restart Culture). While culture and media minister Monika Grütters calls for reopening museums, there is also a multitude of creative attempts to make cultural content accessible online by broadcasting house shows, livestreamed and on-demand presentations of exhibitions, performances, lectures and festivals. The online magazine Monopol publishes a running series of commentaries on “Coronavirus and Art.”
Germany’s largest meat processing facility, one of sausage baron Clemens Tönnies’s eponymous Tönnies factories in the Nordrhein-Westphalian town of Gütersloh, is the site of a massive coronavirus outbreak in mid-June. More than 1500 employees are infected with the virus. All 7,000 workers and their families are placed under quarantine until July 2, and the factory is forced to close temporarily. The outbreak, hardly an isolated case in meatpacking facilities, sheds light on industry-standard working conditions. Around half of workers operate as subcontractors, and the majority come from Poland, Romania and other Eastern European countries. The outbreak is attributed to overcrowded, dilapidated accommodations for foreign workers and poor hygiene standards at the facility. The “essential” function of migrant workers, often on temporary contracts in low-wage sectors of the economy like the meat industry, construction, agriculture, healthcare and sanitation where the “home office” is not an option, remains a hot topic in political discourse. A ban on subcontracting in the meat industry is proposed in the Bundestag.
In July, accusations of racism are evidently vindicated in a stream of revelations regarding the police and military. The police in the state of Hessen are linked to a spate of letters and emails containing racist and misogynistic threats from the anonymous sender “NSU 2.0” sent to left-leaning politicians and journalists as well as a lawyer in the NSU trial. Numerous reports also reveal the far-right activities of Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bohnert, the German military’s social media spokesman, as well as incitement and even plans to overthrow the government discussed in a Telegram channel used by active and former military service members.
Der Spiegel reports that a network of far-right intellectuals in Canada, including former ARD news anchor Eva Herman and her life partner, the conspiracy theorist Andreas Popp, are attempting to entice like-minded Germans to leave the “war zone” of their home country to establish a “colony” in Cape Breton in the province of Nova Scotia.
The German government attempts to remedy a shortage of healthcare workers by recruiting abroad – primarily in Kosovo, Mexico, and the Philippines – but these measures are themselves curtailed upon the imposition of pandemic travel restrictions.
On August 27, the German federal government and all but one state, Saxony-Anhalt, agree to implement a nationwide mask mandate with a minimum 50 euro fine for Maskenverweigerer, those who refuse to wear a mask in public. Conservative media like the Axel Springer-owned Die Welt slam the mandate on civil liberties grounds. Some 18,000 protesters, dubbed “Corona-Rebellen” in the press, flood Berlin’s Alexanderplatz on the 29th, maskless but bearing QAnon and Trump propaganda. The far-right, conspiracy-minded coalition that makes up German Q includes the Reichsbürger movement—adherents of the theory that Germany has been under secret military occupation by the United States continuously since the end of World War I—who were generally hostile to America until Trump, but now believe the US president intends to restore the country to its 1871 borders. Among the hundreds arrested on the day is vegan cookbook author and self-described “ultra-right-winger” Attila Hildmann, who had already seen his own planned anti-lockdown rally canceled by the city of Berlin in July.
The English-speaking world continues to look to Germany as a model of pandemic response: One article in the UK Financial Times attributes the German “corona miracle” not only to the leadership of Merkel in particular, but also to the nation’s politics of consensus and high level of social trust: “Langsam aber sicher, slow but sure, is the abiding principle that dominates public life. Create consensus where you can; value thoroughness in a politician over rhetorical flourishes.”
Tensions heat up in the domestic debate about the racism that, beneath the surface of consensus politics, nevertheless pervades government institutions. As numerous fires ravage the Moria migrant detention camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, interior minister Seehofer bars individual German states from taking in any of the more than 12,000 asylum seekers now without shelter, since the EU-states cannot agree on a joint policy on asylum. CDU/CSU politicians eventually agree on accepting 1.500 refugees, mostly unaccompanied minors and families with children. The EU is still far from instituting a coherent policy on asylum despite the new Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed by the European Commission on 23 September, which “sets out improved and faster procedures throughout the asylum and migration system” and calls for “fair sharing of responsibility and trust.”
After numerous scandals involving the far right in recent months, in which racist chat groups pointed to the existence of broad fascist police networks, Seehofer declines to open an investigation of police racism, citing the need for “a substantially broader approach to all of society”: “There will be no investigation that concerns itself exclusively with the police and the accusation of structural racism within the police from me,” the former CSU party leader said.
On September 26, German Football Federation (DFB) general secretary Friedrich Curtius admits to mistakes in the treatment of Mesut Özil, the former national team player who drew fire in the German media for a photo op with Turkish president Reccep Tayyip Erdogan in the runup to the 2018 men’s soccer World Cup. Özil was accused of dual loyalty and subsequently blamed for the bad tournament result by the media and DFB officials, and on July 22, 2018, the Arsenal player announced his retirement from the national team, complaining of racism in the federation and among his fellow players.
A September 29 panel discussion livestreamed by the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (ADS) debates the invocation of “race” in the German constitution and federal anti-discrimination legislation. The ADS argues for replacing the word with “racist discrimination” or “racist ascriptions” because “race” harkens back to Nazi terminology and codifies race as an existential category. Opponents emphasize that “race” in jurisprudence is not used as a biological identifier, but rather as a legal instrument for the identification of discrimination and structural inequality. “Race,” they argue, is a social construct and, and dispensing with the term would only serve to erase the societal reality of people who experience racism.
Words and the German lexicon come into focus in October as the German Language Association gears up for its annual selection of the German “Word of the Year”. The Youth Word of the Year, selected through a vote put on by the Langenscheidt publishing house in Munich and this year chosen directly by young people online through an online voting system, is “Lost,” which designates someone who comes across as clueless.
The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), a leading CDU-aligned thinktank, argues against the use of the words “Palestine” and “Palestinian” due to their allegedly “anti-Semitic associations.” Prominent new media personality Tilo Jung, host of the popular YouTube interview show Jung & Naiv, tweeted “The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung is working to ban ‘Palestine’ und ‘Palestinian’ from the lexicon,” followed by a clown face emoji and screenshots of an invitation to a KAS event titled “‘Palestine’ – History and Problems of the Concept.”
This while human rights advocates sue the Bundestag over the violation of their rights to freedom of speech and assembly via the German government’s conflation of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel in a 2019 resolution condemning the international BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) for Palestinian liberation and rights as anti-Semitic and banning, for the first time at the federal level, the funding of projects or institutions that call for boycotting Israel, which in turn earned a rebuke from the UN.
On October 19, around 40 immigrant organizations meet with Chancellor Merkel, integration minister Annette Widman-Mauz, and health minister Jens Spahn to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on immigrant communities. According to a study by the OECD, immigrants have been hit particularly hard by high infection and mortality rates in Germany due to poor labor conditions in high-risk jobs and cramped living quarters.
Following the October 29 knife attack in the Basilica of Notre Dame in Nice, in which 3 worshippers were killed by a Tunisian immigrant, France’s center-right president Emmanuel Macron defends cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and his Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer warns of the existential threat of “Islamo-leftism” in French academia. Tensions regarding immigration and Islam are raised continent-wide, including in the German-speaking world: Austria’s conservastive chancellor Sebastian Kurz responded in similar fashion that same day, as a crowd of young men of Turkish descent stormed a church in Vienna. He vows to “do everything in my power to defend” Christians and the “European way of life from Islamists and political Islam,” a pledge he repeats once more after 4 people are killed and dozens injured in Vienna in a Nov. 2 attack for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
In a move interpreted as a preemptive concession to the CDU/CSU in advance of the 2021 federal election, the German Green Party leadership fights off calls for climate action from the party’s left at their annual party congress on Nov. 22. Annalena Baerbock, one of the Greens’ signature pair of party leaders, ruled out proposing emissions targets in excess of Paris commitments and successfully blocked their inclusion in the party’s 2021 campaign platform.
The German Language Association (GfDS) announces that the German “Word of the Year” is Corona-Pandemie (“coronavirus pandemic”). Other phrases included in the shortlist are Verschwörungserzählung (“conspiracy narrative”), Gendersternchen (“gender asterisk”) and “Black Lives Matter.”
Late on November 30, the Federal Ministry of the Interior announces that Interior Minister and former head of the CSU Horst Seehofer has banned the far-right organization “Sturmbrigade 44” (a.k.a. “Wolfbrigade 44”) as unconstitutional after several raids in three German states. Similar actions were blocked by courts in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.
In December, the German media report that the Leibniz Institute for the German Language (IDS) is compiling a dictionary of COVID-related neologisms. Already included are over 1000 “new words as well as familiar words with new meanings that have arisen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which we are still monitoring to observe the extent to which they enter the mainstream vocabulary.” This means one will encounter technical and everyday terms like “Mindestabstandsregelung” as well as ”Impfstoffmafia” and other curious formulations whose widespread usage remains in doubt.
The Humboldt Forum opens in Berlin on December 17, triggering a debate about Germany’s approach to its colonial legacy not for the first time but all the more broadly and critically in the wake of that summer’s media discourse on racial issues. Particular controversy surrounds the planned centerpiece of the new museum’s ethnological collection, the so-called Benin bronzes, statues looted during the European colonization of Africa whose restitution the Nigerian government has demanded for years.
In a videoconference also on the 17th, Merkel and Health Minister Jens Spahn praise Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, the Turkish-German couple now famous as the founders of the company BioNTech which developed the West’s first COVID-19 vaccine in collaboration with Pfizer: “We are incredibly proud, also as the German government, to have such researchers in our country,” Merkel tells the pair. Both the German and English-language press jump at the chance to celebrate the two scientists for their breakthrough, but some commentators caution against narratives that present an individual success story as a model of integration or instrumentalizing the background of its heroes as a rhetorical bludgeon against the anti-immigrant right.
Merkel and her cabinet ministers continue to enjoy high favorability as crisis managers: According to one poll, Health Minister Spahn is the most popular politician in the country. This is attributed in the media to the general tendency of periods of crisis to boost public support for the authorities.
According to statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the number of asylum applications submitted in 2020 fell 26.4% from the previous year to 102,581 first-time applications. This is primarily attributed to travel restrictions and the closing of the German border due to the pandemic. Syrians continue to make up a plurality (35.5%) of applicants. Deportations to conflict zones also continue apace during the pandemic.