The widespread appropriation by COVID truthers of the yellow star that the Nazis forced Jews to wear is a sign that public displays of antisemitism have become normalised in modern Germany to an unthinkable degree, experts say.
The use of the Judenstern, meaning “Jewish star,” based on the dehumanising badges that Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis, has proliferated in the German and Austrian anti-vax, COVID-conspiracist circles since the pandemic began, worn as a symbol of their supposed victimhood. The misuse of the symbol has since gone global in radical COVID truther networks, and recently prompted the Austrian government to propose new laws cracking down on its appropriation.
“It is antisemitic, an antisemitism claiming ‘We are the new Jews’,” said Nikolas Lelle, an antisemitism expert at Germany’s Amadeu Antonio Foundation, who said the symbol had become a common sight in his country’s COVID conspiracist anti-lockdown scene.
“It shows that antisemitism is normalised in Germany in a way one couldn’t imagine a decade ago.”
Marco Siegmund, spokesperson for Germany’s Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism, said that the use of the symbol was the most extreme manifestation of a practice of trivialising the Holocaust by anti-vaxxers. Their actions, he said, “had permanently changed the limits of what can be said in everyday life.”
The symbol caused immediate outrage when it first appeared at anti-lockdown protests in Germany in the early months of the pandemic. By implicitly comparing the impact of coronavirus regulations with the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, the adoption of the symbol was a shockingly brazen manifestation of antisemitism – one that experts said would previously have been unthinkable in Germany.
Yet despite widespread condemnation and even prosecutions over the misuse of the star, the symbol, and associated allusions to the Nazi persecution of Jews, have become a mainstay of radical anti-lockdown, COVID truther movements.
At protests, on flyers and stickers or on social media, the star – often emblazoned with the German word “ungeimpft,” meaning “unvaccinated,” in a Gothic font – has become a frequent sight in the German and Austrian COVID conspiracist scenes in recent years. COVID truthers have also widely adopted other messaging equating themselves to the Jews during the Holocaust, such as the slogan “Impfen macht frei” (“Vaccination makes you free”), alluding to the infamous Nazi phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) displayed on the gates of concentration camps.
The Judenstern symbol has since gone global, being spotted at similar demonstrations around the world. While anti-vax activists had been condemned for using the symbol prior to the pandemic, it appears to have gained a new currency in the COVID truther anti-lockdown scene, being spotted at protests in countries including the US, Canada, the UK, France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Portugal.
The purpose of appropriating the symbol, say experts, is to assert a false sense of victimhood, by positioning anti-vaxxers and COVID truthers as being oppressed by a murderous and evil regime, as Jewish communities were under the Third Reich.
Steffen Klävers, a spokesperson for Germany’s Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Antisemitism, said the group had watched the spread of the offensive symbol throughout Germany’s COVID conspiracist Querdenken, or “Lateral Thinkers” scene, with alarm.
“By using this symbol, corona protesters equate their perceived victimhood with the actual victimhood of Jews living in Nazi Germany,” he said. “This equation trivializes and relativizes the Holocaust and denigrates its victims and survivors.”
Outcry from the public and civil society groups over the issue has led to measures in Austria and parts of Germany to crack down on the growing use of the symbol.
Earlier this month, the Austrian government announced proposed changes to the country’s Prohibition Act concerning the country’s Nazi past. Included among the proposed changes would be amending the wording of the current ban on "gross trivialisation" of the Holocaust to simply “trivialisation” – a change that lawmakers believe would capture the wearing of the star by anti-vaxxers.
Announcing the changes, Austrian Justice Alma Zadić said they would close loopholes and strengthen the prohibition law, while Gerhard Baumgartner, scientific director of Austria’s Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, said the changes would define where the boundaries lay in trivialising the Holocaust when it came to the use of symbols like the Judenstern.
In Germany, the misuse of the symbol falls into a grey area legally. While police in some parts of Germany have issued directives banning the use of the symbol at protests, and numerous prosecutions have been launched under a law banning the trivialisation of Nazi crimes, courts in different German states have handed down conflicting verdicts as to whether the symbol is illegal.
In the most recent case, a Berlin court acquitted a neo-Nazi on November the 21st who had filmed a video of himself railing against COVID restrictions in front of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial wearing the yellow star and brandishing a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank in the aftermath of an anti-lockdown rally in April last year.
The judge found that while Sven Liebich’s actions amounted to “an extreme trivialization” of the suffering of Jews under the Nazis, it did not amount to constitute a disturbance of the public peace or incitement to criminal acts, which were required to meet the threshold under the law. However, the judge also noted that other courts could come to different conclusions, and there were different opinions even among the judges based at that court.
Even though that case resulted in an acquittal, experts in Germany say that prosecutions over the wearing of the Judenstern during the pandemic – along with public outcry over the practice – has had something of a chilling effect on the most brazen displays of the symbol within the COVID truther scene. It was still widely used on flyers and stickers, or otherwise “modified to a point where prosecution can be avoided,” said Klävers, of the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Antisemitism.
Germany’s Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism documents anti-Jewish incidents which are reported through an online portal. Siegmund, the association’s spokesperson, told VICE World News that the group recorded more than 40 incidents in both 2020 and 2021 of the misuse of the Judenstern at Querdenken demonstrations. Although the 2022 figures were not yet available, he said that instances of the public wearing of the symbol had receded, but other expressions of trivialising the Holocaust remained widespread within the COVID truther scene in a way that was previously unthinkable in Germany.
In one concerning development, the Judenstern with the German word for “Russian” was even spotted on a vehicle in a pro-Kremlin convoy demonstration through Berlin in April.
In this context, Lelle, of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, said it was disappointing that Liebich, a right-wing extremist, had been acquitted for his provocation at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial in last week’s court ruling.
“[Convicting] someone for showing this kind of antisemitism would be a symbol – showing at least to Jews in Germany that ‘we hear you, we know what this kind of provocation means to you’; and a sign to show that this democracy is doing something against right-wing extremism.”
The recent verdict in Berlin did none of those things, he said. “It is showing antisemitism is not taken seriously enough in this country.”