The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too. In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did.
By Heidi Hart
On a gusty afternoon in Berlin, police vans lined up near the Neptune Fountain. A small crowd gathered, enthusiastically hugging without masks. Some came in costume, as a prince in a fuzzy cape covered with hearts or as an inflatable Super Mario. Others carried Berlin Haupstadt flags, a green-and-white flag proclaiming parental care, or flags emblazoned with the Coronavirus emblem, a heart at its center, and the words “FREEDOM PARADE.” Everyone in the group seemed to know each other, except for a man in a facemask wearing a placard saying “#vollständig immunisiert” (“completely immunized”) who moved silently through the group of performative huggers.
Demonstrations against Covid-19 measures have continued throughout Germany since 2020, with several hundred protesters and counter-protesters in cities from Düsseldorf to Freiburg the first weekend in February (Die Zeit, 2022). In Berlin, the gathering of hearts and hugs began with a group on the fountain steps singing “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that originated in William Wilberforce’s moment of conscience against the slave trade in the late 18th century (Apted and Metaxas, 2007). The hymn has been taken up by congregations and musicians all over the political spectrum, but it sounded especially at odds with what became, more and more clearly, a forum for populist rage.
The protest’s first speaker thanked the police and warned that violence is never a solution, as some Berlin Covid-measures protests have indeed turned violent this past year (Associated Press, 2021). Still using a polite voice, the speaker made a point of stating that social distance requirements were “only because of the police” and that facemasks “do not actually work.” The second speaker took a completely different tone, her voice growing hoarse as she shouted into the microphone that “this is a war like any other war,” that “these dangerous Corona-measures are harming society,” and that “they are no different from Stalinism or fascism” (translations mine).
On the fringes of the main crowd with their peace-and-love imagery belying their angry agenda, black-clad nationalists with German flags carried their own implicit message. The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too (Källgren, 2022). In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did.
The conflation of “Stalinism” and “fascism” with reference to Covid measures is common in the US, too, and clearly shows a lack of understanding about political terms, not to mention history. Hannah Arendt found links between the two forms of political oppression in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, noting the difference between the terror-and-control mindset of totalitarianism and autocratic regimes that pursue political power without employing “crackpots and fools” (Arendt, 1951: 416). But Communist thinking and fascist thinking are still profoundly different, with the latter raising a far uglier head in the current global turn toward populist nationalism. Complicating this picture even further is the co-opting of historical imagery out of context, particularly in the US.
Recently in the state of Utah, in a county known for its Latter-day Saint conservatism, a local government meeting shocked a local journalist and rippled into social media by displaying a Pine Tree flag. This flag, with origins as protest against the British monarchy during the American Revolution, included a phrase by John Locke, “An Appeal to Heaven.” The idea is that, as Locke applied biblical conflicts to his own time, the highest authority is not an earthly king but “the supreme judge of all men” (Locke, 1690, Chapter 3 Sect. 20-21). This motto and the pine tree image have become part of the iconography of Christian nationalism in the US, appearing at the January 6 insurrection and even flying in the Arizona state house as of January 2022.
Like the appropriation of “Amazing Grace” in the Berlin protest, the use of Revolutionary War imagery in the context of anti-vaccine, anti-mask local government meetings is not neutral. Ideology is “sticky” and attaches easily to images and songs (Kramer, 2012) that have their own sensory power, dragging cultural associations along with them. Just as Hitler’s propaganda machine took up Beethoven’s music as a nationalist soundtrack, ignoring the composer’s own commitment to French Revolutionary values and later repudiation of Napoleon (Lee, 2018), nationalist groups today co-opt cultural materials out of context and attach their own meanings to them.
Material elements of religion have a particular charisma that can be especially tempting to plug into political rhetoric, on the spectrum from pagan nativism to Christian hymns and salvation stories used by populist groups (see Zúquete, 2017). The Pine Tree flag calls up associations not only with a far-right version of Revolutionary War history but also, for Christians generally, images of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and for Latter-day Saints, the Tree of Life seen in a dream in their Book of Mormon scriptures. Cultivating these associations makes far-right adherents feel at home in their imagery, however far it has traveled from its sources.
Adapting and re-contextualizing familiar material is of course how human culture works, from novel-to-film treatments to mythology re-imagined in video games. The field of adaptation studies is well established, examining processes of media transformation as creative in themselves and even dialogic between source and adapted material (Bruhn, 2013). Ethical concerns arise, though, when a song, motto, or image is appropriated with cultural disrespect or in the service of harmful political movements (music in advertising is of course another, but related, subject). A number of well-known musicians have sued or censured Donald Trump for using their songs in his rallies, for example (Solender, 2020).
But sometimes the mixing of cultural media, even when messy, can lead to critical thinking and care rather than lockstep ideology. In contrast to the mixed messaging at the Berlin anti-Covid-measures protest, a recent performance at the city’s Komische Oper combined iconic German and Turkish poetry and song with the intention to explore questions of migration and vulnerability, not to push a particular agenda. This production, Üçüncü mevki – Im Wagen dritter Klasse(“In the Third-class Car”), set poetry by Nazim Hikmet and Turkish popular songs in motion with texts by Bertolt Brecht and other 20th-century German poets. A Turkish-German dialogue in a train car, with the actors sometimes speaking both languages simultaneously, formed a backdrop to the musicians and singers all wearing white onstage.
The “we are all migrants” idea, and the blending of Brecht’s words about wartime mourning with the voicing of hüzün, a particular sensation of sadness in Turkish culture, did not quite work, as they come from different backgrounds. Still, that uneasy fit made for an important conversation with my Brecht-scholar friend who attended the performance with me. He reacted with his own sense of melancholy about the loss of the German Hausmusik tradition, in which friends and neighbors gather and sing along with music they all know. We watched as many in the audience rose, sang, and danced with the Turkish songs performed onstage, celebrating café favorites like Tarkan’s “Şımarık” (“Kiss Kiss”).
In a time when Turkey, too, is threatened with ongoing anti-democratic populism, the singing of popular (and of course there is a difference) songs in Berlin was cathartic in the best sense, especially in an opera house usually offering Eurocentric fare. The mood onstage and in the audience was genuinely joyful, not exaggerated like the hugging at the Neptune Fountain protest. No one shouted into a microphone. The mood was one of welcome, not fear, even though we all wore masks.
Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Harvest Books.
Bruhn, Jørgen. (2013). “Dialogising Adaptation Studies: From One-way Transport to Dialogic Two-way Process.” In Bruhn et al., Eds., Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions. Bloomsbury Academic, 69-88.
Locke, John. (1690). Second Treatise of Government. Digitized Version, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm.
Kramer, Lawrence. (2012). Keynote address, Ideology in Words and Music conference, Word and Music Association Forum, Stockholm University.