On 4 December several protests against COVID restrictions were held across the German state of Saxony. In the town of Grimma about 30 people, among them at least one family with a child, met at a car park and marched in a torchlit procession to the house of Saxony’s health minister, Petra Köpping. The mob used drums and sirens to cause as much of a cacophony as possible. Köpping was home at the time and called the protest “despicable and indecent”. But this wasn’t a once-off. In fact, worse was to come.
From rhetoric to the streets
Closer to home, Irish anti-vaccination groups and those connected to the far right have followed the same playbook. Taking their rhetoric to the streets, they’ve targeted politicians and public figures at their homes. Leo Varadkar has had to deal with an array of conspiracy theorists and homophobes gathering outside his house, some of whom implied he’s involved in paedophilia. The same mob has also targeted head of the National Public Health and Emergency Team (NPHET) Dr. Tony Holohan, radio presenter Joe Duffy, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, and health minister Stephen Donnelly.
One of the common themes at these protests is that those being targeted are involved in some grand conspiracy involving the pandemic. Again and again you hear that they’re falsifying the number of people infected with COVID-19, inflating the number of deaths from the virus, or pushing supposedly dangerous vaccines on people. Alongside all of this are far-right groups pushing their own agenda in an attempt to recruit more followers and, perhaps, win an election or two. Threats of violence are never far away.
Back in Germany Saxony’s prime minister, Michael Kretschmer, has also been the subject of hate speech and threats in the Telegram channel of fringe party Freie Sachsen (Free Saxony). Only established in early 2021, the group is made up of right-wing extremists, with many of the founding members having a history of membership of far-right groups. Its Telegram channel has over 100,000 members who regularly post anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination material as well as posting content from the far-right Identitarian Movement.
In late November a member of the Free Saxony Telegram group published a post accusing Kretschmer of preparing for a hard lockdown. In response, many fellow group members voiced anger and incomprehension at the idea of another lockdown. Between calls for protests and a revolution, there were also posts containing personal insults and even death threats. One commenter calls for Kretschmer’s immediate arrest and the re-implementation of the death penalty. Another commenter merely wrote “Gallows”.
On a different post on the channel sharp criticism was directed at a police operation in relation to an anti-lockdown protest in the town of Zwönitz. Posters referred to the police as “Kretschmer’s Militia” and “Kretschmer’s Mercenaries”. One commenter wrote “May Kretschmer and his vassals including all the spies in this chat go down miserably. Then perhaps my Christmas wish to piss on his grave will come true”.
Then, on 15 December, German police raided a number of buildings in Dresden and arrested six people. All of them are members of anti-vaccination group Dresden Offlinevernetzung (Dresden Offline Network), and allegedly used Telegram to discuss assassinating Kretschmer. According to Reuters, “several pieces of evidence had been found, including crossbows”. In the aftermath of the arrests Kretschmer argued “Of course you can say what you don’t like. But when violence comes into play, it’s over. A line has been crossed which we will not tolerate”.
Across the online ecosphere of anti-vaxxers and the far right in Ireland, the same patterns are there for everyone to see, with taoiseach Micheál Martin as well as Varadkar facing similar threats as those Kretschmer experienced. It’s easy to dismiss these as just the words of a delusional and embittered few. But considering what happened in Germany, we’d better take it seriously.
Over a period of six months from June to December of this year The Beacon documented a number of such threats users in anti-lockdown and far-right groups on Telegram directed at Martin and Varadkar.
In one Telegram group for parents and teachers a user wrote that Irish leaders “pushing the agenda” should get the “Guillotine or the roap [sic]”. Another user in the same group accused Varadkar and Fine Gael of being “the enemy within”. The latter is a common theme amongst members of such groups, posing Martin and Varadkar as interlopers presumably as a way of making it easier to target them. Other examples we found are of users accusing Varadkar of not being Irish and having been sent here “to destroy our country”.
But this is just to make calls for violence more legitimate in their eyes. Having made fun of one of the protests outside of Varadkar’s home, a user in an anti-lockdown group said the tánaiste is “a traitor with BLOOD on his hands”. And, given this, they suggested “neck snapping is what’s needed via a noose!!”. In the same groups similar remarks and threats aimed at the taoiseach can be found. A poster in an anti-lockdown group said “the people of Ireland will hold Micheal [sic] accountable” for any side effects caused by COVID-19 vaccinations and that he’ll “pay for what he’s doing”. And a poster in another anti-lockdown group wrote that both Martin and Varadkar will “need to go into hiding”.
Gardaí are apparently taking the threat seriously though, with a recent report in the Irish Mirror revealing that the National Surveillance Unit is actively monitoring the situation. But so far their response to anti-vaccination and far-right demonstrations has been to largely stand aside and police counter-demonstrators instead.
They’d do well to heed the warnings from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in its most recent report about the anti-vaccination and far-right movements in Ireland. In closing, the report cautioned:
A lack of distinct leadership gives the impression of a fairly rudderless movement, yet the uptick in violent rhetoric and increasing use of intimidating tactics means the impact these groups can have on individuals and in wider society should not be underestimated.
Events in Germany have shown just how quickly things can turn. All the hallmarks of a violent attack on an Irish politician or public figure involved in fighting the pandemic are here. It isn’t scaremongering to point this out considering how public these threats are. And nobody can say they never saw it coming. German authorities only became aware of the threats as a result of an investigation by journalists. They were lucky. We mightn’t be.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – Felix O