When the first pictures of rioters mounting the steps to the Capitol started to beam across the world on Wednesday, many Germans felt an unpleasant twinge of familiarity.
On Aug. 29, during a demonstration in Berlin against government restrictions to rein in the spread of the coronavirus, several hundred protesters climbed over fences around the Reichstag, the seat of Germany’s national Parliament, and ran toward the entrance. They were met by a handful of police officers, who pushed the crowd back and secured the entrance.
Things went differently at the American Capitol, of course. Still, even if the German protesters weren’t able to enter the building, the shock was similar: an assault on a democratically elected legislature. Some of the German protesters were far-right activists; several waved the “Reichsflagge,” the black, white and red flag of the German Empire, the colors of which were later adopted by the Nazis.
In the days that followed, Germans asked themselves a series of questions: Was this “a storming of the Reichstag,” evoking dark memories of the building being set on fire in 1933, which led to the suspension of the Weimar Republic’s constitution? Was it a sign that our democracy was under threat? Or was this just a bunch of extremist rioters exploiting a blind spot in the police’s strategy?
In a way, it feels inappropriate to compare what happened in Berlin in August to what happened in Washington on Wednesday. The crowd here was much smaller, it did not enter the building, and luckily, nobody was hurt, much less killed. The goals were different, too. American protesters wanted to overturn an election; Germany’s wanted to overturn a set of policies. And most importantly, while some far-right populist politicians backed the Berlin demonstrations, they did not have the support of the country’s leader.
And yet, the similarities are too big to ignore — and I fear that they indicate the arrival of a new phenomenon that may be found in many other countries, too: the decoupling of protest from the real world.
What connects the protesters on both sides of the Atlantic is a deep distrust in officials and a belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, many in both countries believe in the same conspiracy theories. The QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that President Trump will defend the world from a vast network of Satanists and pedophiles, is shockingly popular with many in Germany’s anti-lockdown movement, as it is with the president’s fiercest partisans at home.
The woman who uttered the decisive call to storm the stairs to Reichstag claimed in her speech that President Trump was in Berlin and that the crowd needed to show that “we are fed up” and would “take over domestic authority here and now” and to “show Donald Trump that we want world peace.” She was referring to QAnon.
The similarity that struck me most, however, was how aimless and lost some of the rioters both in Berlin and Washington appeared to be once they had reached their target. At the Capitol, some trashed offices or sat in chairs that weren’t theirs. In Berlin, too, there was no plan beyond this spontaneous gesture of rage and disobedience. Many just pulled out their smartphones and started filming once they had reached the top of the stairs. Is this their revolution? A bunch of selfies?
It seems like protesters on both sides of the Atlantic long for some sort of control, and want to assert their power over legislative headquarters that they see as representative of their oppression. But all they get in the end is a cheap social media surrogate. Their selfies may resonate in their digital spheres — and eventually spill back into the real world to create more disruption — but their material effect may be pretty limited.
In that case, what can politicians do to deal with these extremists?
So far, many politicians have tried to defang the far-right by placating its voters. Since the rise of the Alternative for Germany party in 2015, the mainstream consensus in Germany has been to stress that these voters should not be viewed as extremists, but as angry people, who can and should be won back. Many of them, particularly people in Eastern Germany where the AfD is much stronger than in the West, are seen angry about real grievances, like deindustrialization, job loss, and all the other cultural and economic traumas of Reunification. In some places, this has worked to peel off right-wing voters and bring them back to the mainstream.
But the remaining fringe has only drifted further away. Right-wing leaders and conspiracy theorists have now redirected the anger at made-up causes largely decoupled from real world grievances: Many on the far-right in Germany believe that Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to create a “corona dictatorship” and that vaccines will be used to alter people’s genes. The American equivalent, of course, is that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump.
This is a problem. Political compromise, and ultimately, reconciliation, starts with recognition. But real-world politics cannot follow those who become believers in their alternate realities. A different strategy is needed.
German policymakers have started to realize this — and it’s only become clearer since the August protests. Germany’s secret service has decided to put sub-organizations of the AfD, which is increasingly radical, “under observation,” an administrative step that allows for the collection of personal data and the recruitment of informants within the party. Organizers of the coronavirus protest in August are becoming a focus, too. The minister of the interior banned several right-wing extremist associations in 2020.
Of course, attempts to win voters back, to wrestle them from the grip of the cult, must never stop. But there are no policies and no recognition politics we could offer people who adhere to a cult. Instead, to protect our democracies, we must watch them, contain them, and take away their guns.
Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing Opinion writer, is an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.