The leader of Germany’s Jewish community has expressed alarm at the spread of antisemitic conspiracy theories relating to coronavirus in the country, including attempts to downplay the Holocaust.
Dr. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews, the country’s EJC affiliate, said Jews were increasingly being held collectively responsible for the spread of the virus and compared the situation to narratives around the plague in the Middle Ages.
At high-profile demonstrations against coronavirus measures, figures such as the Hungarian-born financier George Soros have been blamed for starting the pandemic with the help of the German government in order to gain power and influence.
One prominent participant in the demonstrations, the celebrity TV chef Attila Hildmann, has espoused increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories over the course of the coronavirus crisis that have praised Adolf Hitler and described the chancellor, Angela Merkel, as a communist dictator. State prosecutors say they are investigating whether they can press charges against him.
Schuster said of particular concern to him were the frequent comparisons being made between the measures taken to dampen the spread of the pandemic and the treatment of Jewish people under the Nazis. Anti-vaxxer demonstrators at so-called “hygiene demonstrations” have often worn yellow stars similar to those Jews were forced to wear during the Third Reich, but bearing the word ungeimpft (unvaccinated) instead of Jude (Jew). Their wearers have said when a vaccination against coronavirus becomes available they will refuse to be inoculated, seeing themselves as victims of a dictatorship.
Others have worn striped clothing, mimicking the uniforms of death camp inmates, or have carried placards with the slogan “masks set you free”, a play on the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free), which was placed on the entrance gate of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where more than 1 million Jews were murdered.
“I believe that Germany’s law enforcement agencies should be taking a very close look and rigorously examining just what is hate-speech and what is freedom of speech,” Schuster told the news agency DPA. He said there were plenty of examples in history where Jews were seen as easy targets during times of crises.
“When drastic changes are taking place, for which there are no easy explanations, it’s often the case that culprits are sought and often these are minority groups, such as Jews,” he said. “In the middle ages when the plague hit, it was similar. Jews were labelled as scapegoats, blamed for poisoning wells. There were lynch mobs and synagogues burned.”
Separately, the Robert Koch Institute, the main public health advisory body to the German government, has reported receiving hundreds of emails threatening its scientists and slandering individuals. Several of the emails have stated “What a shame for those of you who are accessories of this phoney government that there are no more gas chambers” – a reference to the method of killing used at Auschwitz.
Schuster was interviewed before the trial of a man for a deadly shooting that targeted Jewish people in the eastern city of Halle last year in the worst antisemitic attack in Germany for decades. The Halle shooting and other incidents had led to “growing worries amongst the Jewish communities that Jewish life in Germany is no longer safe”, Schuster said.
“The biggest threat to Jewish life in Germany is rightwing extremism. We have known for years that around 20% of people in Germany hold anti-Jewish prejudices. But for a long time, these people did not dare to say what they think. That has subsequently changed,” he said. The coronavirus demonstrations were an example of that, he said.
The government has previously said it believes the conspiracy theories are being spread by the Reichsbürger movement – groups and individuals of a far-right and antisemitic persuasion who reject the legitimacy of the modern German state – as well as individual personalities, including high-profile doctors, Hildmann, and former journalists.
Prominent virologists and epidemiologists advising the government have already reported receiving death threats.