And this tendency was reflected in the response to the coronavirus: The difference between the share of Germans on the ideological right and left who thought there should have been fewer restrictions on public activity was 20 percentage points, a Pew survey found early this summer. In the United States, the difference between right and left on that question was a whopping 45 points, by far the largest gap of any country surveyed by Pew.
This is not to say that Germany’s 83 million people are utterly free of disagreement on Covid. The rate of people with at least one vaccination shot — about 68 percent — is lower than that of many other European countries, barely ahead of the United States, and lower than that of many American cities with strict Covid requirements still in place. This is, in part, because Germany particularly lags on vaccinating teenagers, compared to other European Union members, but it is also a sign that the country has its share of dissenters. And there have been large protests against mask mandates, travel restrictions and the proliferating vaccine requirements for restaurants, sports events and other gatherings, a movement called Querdenker (essentially “against-the-grain thinkers”).
Notably, this movement has been more ideologically heterogeneous than equivalent protest groups in the United States, with some left-leaning vaccine skeptics and people upset about nightclub closings in the mix. (This diversity may partly reflect the role of the police in enforcing masking and other Covid rules — on several occasions, I’ve seen armed officers reminding transit riders on the platform to mask up — which can scramble the lines of resistance.)
To be sure, some of the anti-restriction rhetoric sounds similar to that in the United States — in Chemnitz, a supporter of the AfD who had come out to heckle the Green candidate for chancellor told me that “masks are humbug — they don’t help at all” and that mask mandates served no purpose other than keeping people scared. The very next day, the police in southwestern Germany arrested a 49-year-old man accused of fatally shooting a 20-year-old gas-station clerk who had told him to wear a mask in the shop. It was reportedly the country’s first instance of deadly violence apparently fueled by disputes over pandemic restrictions, a category of killing of which the United States has more than a half dozen examples.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are still some head-scratching restrictions here that challenge scientific guidance, such as the museums that have still disabled audio features on exhibits for fear of visitors touching the same headsets.
But German public health authorities seem to be making decisions with less concern than their American counterparts are about whether they will somehow abet right-wing narratives. For instance, requirements for proof of vaccination here in Germany can also be satisfied by showing that you’ve already had Covid, following the studies that have shown prior infection to provide strong protection. In the United States, public health officials seem to worry that anything validating anti-vaxxer claims about natural immunity will reduce vaccination rates. And education officials here speak much more freely about the downsides of masks in classrooms as they now start lifting school masking requirements.
The role of the media undoubtedly plays a role, as well — there are far, far fewer fear-stirring articles or segments in the national press or broadcast news here about, say, the potential risk that the coronavirus poses to children.