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22 November 2020

Querdenken.  Thoughts on some implications of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two recent events have prompted me to write this blog. Today it was reported that a 22-year old girl, at a so-called ‘Querdenker’ demonstration in Germany, compared her resistance against the Corona measures with the resistance of Sophie Scholl, a young university student who, together with a few fellow students, had the courage and moral fibre to fight against Hitler with the pen: by distributing leaflets that called for an end to the bloody war.  Alas, the sword was mightier than the pen, and these brave young people were beheaded by Hitler’s executioners. If you don’t know about Sophie Scholl’s life and death, I have written about her here.

The ‘Querdenker’-movement (and the word ‘movement’ does too much honour to these people) consists of those who argue that Corona either does not exist at all, or that it is nothing but a glorified common cold and that therefore the anti-Corona measures are disproportionate and need to be resisted. Similar movements have sprung up in various countries around the world. Literally translated, ‘Querdenker’ means something like ‘lateral thinker’, but usually that expression denotes those who independently think outside the box, not those who deny scientific evidence and instead follow dangerous gurus. The Querdenkers’ childish tantrums have nothing to do with the intelligent questioning of real lateral thinkers. And they certainly have nothing, NOTHING in common with the resistance of those who risked their lives by fighting a totalitarian regime.

Embarrassingly for the organisers of this demonstration, it was not one of them who called the misguided woman to order. It was a young man who called this behaviour out for what it was: a shameful trivialisation of the Holocaust and its victims.  Thus briefly derailed, the young woman threw another tantrum, crumpled up her notes and left the stage in tears – only to return a few moments later to continue her speech and stubbornly repeat that indeed she was like Sophie Scholl in her resistance fight.

Something very similar had happened a few days previously at a similar event. This time it had been an 11-year old girl (eleven!) who entered the stage to tell her audience that she had to celebrate her 11th birthday bash secretly and quietly, always in fear of being ‘betrayed’ by spying neighbours and potentially challenged by the police because she had invited more people than current Corona rules allow. Like a heroine she declared that she now knew what Anne Frank must have felt like when hiding in an attic in Amsterdam. Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager hiding with her family and others in a tiny stuffy attic for more than two years, suffering incessant fear and hunger in claustrophobic circumstances, was eventually detected by the German police. Only her diary survived and is now famous around the world. She and most of her family died in concentration camps.

There is something deeply wrong with anybody who cannot see how distasteful these comparisons are. Whether you blame the girls themselves, or their parents or history teachers, surely their behaviour would need to be called out far more widely and far more loudly than, so far, it has been.

I was heartened that my pupils, when I told them about the 11-year old girl’s remarks, were morally as outraged as I was. In this particular class of 12-14 year-old boys and girls, we have just read Judith Kerr’s moving account of her childhood as a Jewish emigrant: Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl (When Hitler stole pink rabbit). We talked a lot about the time and the historical background, and the students gave presentations about various aspects of the Hitler regime, including Sophie Scholl and Anne Frank. They immediately saw everything that was wrong with the Anne-Frank-comparison and eloquently voiced their opinions.

When I was their age, I still had the opportunity to speak to eye witnesses of Nazi Germany and to hear first-hand accounts of those who were part of its machinery and those who resisted it or managed to escape from it, with all the trauma it brought. Few of these witnesses are alive these days, 75 years after the end of this horrific period in German history.  And yet, it is even more important to keep memories alive and to teach history, in the good old-fashioned sense of teaching facts and figures before inviting opinions and interpretations. My students told me they had never learned these in their history lessons and found it important that we devoted considerable time to this topic. They are now in a good position to judge the validity of remarks like the ones cited above.

I am not denying that the measures in place to combat Covid-19 are hard for many, and maybe in particular for our young people. They are missing important milestones that previous generations have taken for granted: important birthdays, end-of-school formals, the excitement of planning their gap year or the exhilarating events of university freshers’ weeks. Now the first-year students study in isolation online, before even having had the opportunity to make new friends and form support networks. They can’t find part-time work and many are suffering from mental health issues as a consequence of their anxiety and isolation. Many have not yet developed the stamina to accept that this challenge is a marathon, nor the perspective to know that eventually things will get better and that by then they will still have most of their lives ahead of them. Or, as the Norwegian Health Minister Bent Høie so beautifully said in his address to the young generation during the first lockdown: “We who are adults talk about next summer. But next summer is for middle-aged men who buy minced meat and toilet paper on sale. Next summer does not exist when you are young.”

Despite being decidedly NOT young any longer, I do not particularly enjoy this period myself. At the moment our schools are still open, but teaching is not the fun it used to be. Teachers don’t socialise in the staffroom any longer, they eat their lunch in the isolation of their teaching spaces. Staff meetings are conducted online. When you meet people in the corridors, you don’t know whether or not they are smiling at you behind their mask. Hugs are out of the question, as are after school get-togethers. Teaching while wearing a mask is strenuous, and having to throw the windows open every 20 minutes in cold temperatures is little fun, neither for teachers nor for students. Everything has become a little joyless, and with little to look forward to (not even Christmas markets) we have to become far more determined to make others smile and to look after ourselves where we can.

The Corona measures against which these Querdenkers protest may not always be perfect. The first lockdown affected everybody and led to a great sense of solidarity of Germans of all walks of life. The second, current lockdown has proved more divisive, with many shops still allowed to be open, but hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues closed. All of them had invested heavily in their hygiene concepts and they feel understandably let down and deflated. It must, however, be terribly difficult for the political decision makers to strike the right balance between protecting the people and not causing total economic ruin. They are as unexperienced with the virus as we are, so we need to cut them some slack as they are trying to get it right.

In the meantime, we should also try to focus on the things we are grateful for.  I am, for example, grateful for living in a democracy and for being able to trust our current administration to have the best interest of the people at heart. This may not always remain the case, however, and therefore I also welcome the critical questioning of any laws that are passed, which give the Executive far reaching powers in a pandemic. In the wrong hands, such laws can, of course, be abused. And yet, comparing the recently passed ‘Infektionsschutzgesetz’ with Hitlers ‘Ermächtigungsgesetz’, as the AfD have done in the German Bundestag, is an inappropriate comparison and leads directly to the misguided identification of opponents to these measures with Anne Frank, Sophie Scholl and others. Those who refuse to end their partying life-style, or who refuse to wear a mask, risk a fine, not their life. Their resistance is egocentric, not altruistic.

In economically difficult times extremists have a field day. The Querdenker movement has undoubtedly been infiltrated by right-wing extremism, by those who are hoping for political gain through fuelling the frustrations of the disenfranchised. They instrumentalise the poor, the young and the gullible and incite ‘resistance’ in order to fuel discontent with a democratically elected government. It happened in the Weimar Republic and enabled Hitler’s rise to power. We should not allow it to happen again.

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