Memorial candles with the words “vaccine victim” placed in front of family physician practices, poor reviews, threatening emails, calls to “burn down the practice,” and concentrated offensive attacks on Twitter and Facebook are all part of an increasingly radical segment of the anti-vaxxer and COVID-denier milieu in Germany. And many of these attacks are being directed at physicians who administer COVID-19 vaccines.
One of these physicians is Christian Lübbers, MD, an otolaryngologist in Weilheim. He was one of the first specialists in Bavaria to receive approval, in April 2021, to administer COVID-19 vaccines. He also vaccinates children against COVID, and recently received, in one day, more than 40 emails that contain false accusations.
The Federal Criminal Police Office, which deals with serious crimes, warned Lübbers that his name and social media posts were circulating in user groups on Telegram.
“How much longer must vaccinating physicians tolerate being labelled a ‘Nazi,’ a ‘child murderer,’ or being compared to ‘Dr. Mengele’?” Lübbers tweeted in response. “It is not right that these messages are often considered insults and only warrant a fine. We are being (fatally) silenced. There needs to be harsher penalties!”
The threats are not limited to Lübbers. “This is how it is. Because words are followed by actions. And I don’t want to come to an end like Walter Lübke [a German politician assassinated by a neo-Nazi extremist in 2019],” tweeted DerKinderarzt [The Pediatrician]. “We are protecting our patients. And we demand that, as medical personnel, we are also protected against these aggressors!”
In a different thread, Flow, an anonymous emergency physician and intensive care specialist, tweeted: “It’s extremely exhausting and unfortunately means that people read fewer and fewer comments. I’m actually happy about the anonymity an account provides: otherwise, who knows what would appear in your mailbox or on your doorstep.”
And cardiac surgeon and critical care physician Lämêth tweeted: “I do not share any current events from the clinic and am vague so I can protect my anonymity.”
Threats of Torture
Hate messages, insults, and threats were directed at one family physician in the Osnabrück area who suggested that an anti-vaxxer patient find a different doctor. Since then, the physician has been placed under police protection and police have investigated more than 40 threats against him. The police were able to identify some suspects because they signed their messages with their real names.
The physician describes everything that had happened to him in an article published in FAZ, a Frankfurt-based newspaper. “There are people who write ‘Die, asshole,’ and others who compare me to the Nazi war criminal and doctor Josef Mengele, or call me ‘Auschwitz selector,’ he says. “But it also comes to threats of violence and death. In one letter, someone wrote that he would come to my practice, find me and my practice staff, and torture us for as long as possible before we died from the pain. It sounds like the script for a horror movie.”
“It’s slowly coming into focus, the kind of threats are being written on Telegram,” tweeted Christian Kröner, MD, family physician in Baden-Württemberg. “Since July, I have had to deal with death threats, and so has pretty much every publicly vaccinating physician since then too. Should this be tolerated in a democracy? I say, definitely not!”
As journalist Jan-Henrik Wiebke reported, there have been at least 250 death threats directed at politicians, scientists, physicians, and journalists since mid-November in chat rooms on Telegram. Although Facebook and Instagram are increasingly deleting criminal content and blocking accounts, agitators have free rein on Telegram, which has no mechanism to report hateful messages or death threats.
Kröner tweeted a “vaccine notice,” in which he refuted the major myths and lies about COVID-19 vaccination. The fact sheet went viral and caught the attention of potentially violent anti-vaxxers. He has since been threatened with the burning of his practice and has been “inundated with a veritable shitstorm,” he reported in an interview with the German medical journal, Deutsches Ärzteblatt.
“This ranged from negative Google reviews of my practice from people who had never visited us, to public abuse on Facebook calling us murderers, traitors, corrupt, and guilty of taking bribes from pharmaceutical companies, a disgrace to the profession, fat, and ugly,” he explained.
Lübbers is currently taking legal action against the people sending him hate mail. “It is important to take a stand against these attacks,” he said. “The internet is not a legal vacuum and it is also not anonymous.” Criminal behavior on the internet can range from insult to coercion and then on to threat; it makes sense to engage the public prosecutor’s office. “I am very happy that these crimes are being prosecuted accordingly.”
Increased Reports by Affected Physicians
“In the last 2 weeks, we have received increased reports that physicians administering the vaccine are being abused by anti-vaxxers, being threatened by email or phone calls, or their practices, vaccination centers, and private houses are falling prey to vandalism,” said Horst Schumacher, MD, spokesperson for the North Rhine Medical Association (AEKNO) in Düsseldorf.
In the event of vandalism, personal threat of violence, or other criminal acts, the AEKNO advises that a complaint be lodged with the responsible police service. “We are asking physicians faced with threatening letters, emails, and phone calls, as well as other criminal acts in connection with the vaccination campaign, to also seek advice from the legal department of the association,” Schumacher told Medscape Medical News.
“This is no longer about the controversial exchange of opinions, which democracy can and must always uphold. Instead, it is about acts of violence with the aim of intimidating physicians and preventing them from conscientiously carrying out their work, said Rudolf Henke, MD, president of the AEKNO. “We must resolutely oppose this form of confrontation.”
These insults and threats from a “vociferous minority” must stop immediately, he added.
Physicians and other personnel who work in medical practices have reported discussions, debates, and verbal altercations with patients about COVID vaccines, mask wearing, and other measures to slow the spread of the virus, confirmed Oliver Erens, MD, spokesperson for the State Medical Association of Baden-Württemberg (LÄK BaWü).
Sometimes these “discussions” happen with “a high level of aggression from the patient,” he added. To date, however, no cases of physical violence have been reported to the association.
“Above all, people have been looking for advice, primarily from the legal departments of regional medical associations,” said Erens. The LÄK BaWü recommends that all physicians and their teams consistently prosecute any instances of violence, or threats of violence, against them.
The LÄK BaWü supported a survey to collect reliable data on prevention, consultation, and support structures available to physicians and their teams. The survey ran until December 2021, and results will be reported when they are available.
Erik Bodendieck, MD, chair of the State Chamber of Physicians of Saxony and general practitioner, confirmed that aggression and extremism have significantly increased.
“I have been personally attacked in emails and threatened with legal action,” Bodendieck, who has spoken in support of compulsory vaccination, told Deutsche Welle, a German news organization. He also reported receiving letters saying things like: “You should all be in front of a firing squad.”
Ulrike Schramm-Häder, MD, spokesperson of the State Medical Association of Thuringia, has also received threatening letters, as have 25 other physicians from the state medical association.
“Above all else, the letters say that the vaccines are dangerous,” he told Deutsche Welle reporters, and accuse physicians of conducting “experiments on humans.”
Some of the threatening letters come from the world of conspiracy theories, Schramm-Häder said. “They are talking about shady forces that apparently control the German government. But there are also people who simply reject all protective measures against COVID-19. And they also research the names and addresses of physicians.”
Schramm-Häder noted that the atmosphere is tense in many clinics. For example, sometimes patients react very aggressively if they are asked about their vaccination status, he explained.
Reservations about vaccinations are nothing new. There have always been people in Germany who are critical of, or opposed to, vaccines, as there are in other countries, Andreas Zick, PhD, from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict at the University of Bielefeld, told the German news organization tagesschau.
Previously, they were focused on vaccines or the pharmaceutical industry. However, during the pandemic, “new groups of anti-vaxxers have formed, which have combined their opposition to vaccines with political ideologies,” Zick explained.
These ideologies range from the adoption of conspiracy theories, notions of resistance to the state, and even radicalization, the researcher explained. Radical groups and cells emerge from such movements. The police, security forces, and media have been subject to attacks that have become “increasingly aggressive.”
Zick is critical of the fact that there is not a “good prevention” strategy for “early detection of radicalization in these new conspiracy groups.” These groups have long been “a melting pot from which new radical and action-oriented cells are constantly forming.”
He emphasized that this phenomenon — the radicalization of individuals, largely unnoticed, through digital propaganda — has been observed in the context of Islamic attacks and racist violence aimed at refugees.
Fodder for Conspiracy Theorists
There is plenty of material on conspiracy theories for vaccine skeptics to pore over. Heinrich Fiechtner, MD, former member of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, said, at a demonstration organized by the Querdenker [lateral thinker] movement, that the government’s COVID measures are exposing its “ugly dictatorial, fascist side.” He went on to reference Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the German officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler, and said that this is an occasion to “think about Stauffenberg and what he did, or wanted to do, to create freedom for civilians and free them from this tyranny.”
During a meeting of the “Corona Committee,” a self-appointed body of conspiracy theorists that spreads crude ideas about the pandemic, a suspended federal police officer referred to COVID measures as a “coup d’état,” and attorney and COVID-19 anti-vaxxer Reiner Fuellmich claims, in videos promoted by the committee, that 25% of the vaccinated will die immediately and that the vaccine is “organized mass murder.”
Physician and homeopath Carola Javid-Kristel is spreading similarly crude ideas, saying that COVID-19 measures are “just about vaccinating people as quickly as possible to make them ill and kill them.”
And Bodo Schiffmann, an ear, nose, and throat doctor the public prosecutor’s office is investigating for hate speech, equates physicians who administer the vaccine to doctors from Nazi concentration camps.
In a video disseminated in December 2021, Sucharit Bhakdi, a retired microbiology professor being investigated by the public prosecutor’s office for anti-Semitism, claims that the COVID-19 vaccination destroys the immune system. “They are killing our children,” said Bhakdi, adding that he wants to escape “from this condemned country,” so that “our” 4-year-old son will not be “shot” up.
Security Agencies Are Seeing Signs of Terrorism
At the end of September 2021, a 20-year-old gas station employee who tried to enforce the mask mandate in Idar-Oberstein was shot dead. The 49-year-old alleged shooter stated that he rejected COVID-19 measures, and that the pandemic had put a heavy strain on him. He had “seen no other way out” than to make a mark. He further stated that the victim was “responsible for the whole situation, since they had implemented the rules.”
Word from investigative circles is that the suspected shooter shared content about conspiracy theories on social media and was “proficient” in the theories of COVID-19 deniers.
Stephan Kramer, president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia, told the German newspaper Tagesspiegel that he is seeing the first signs of terrorism in the Querdenker movement, in far-right groups, and in individual preppers.
“Society should be terrified,” he said.
Sebastian Fiedler, chair of the Federation of German Detectives (BDK), also thinks an escalation in violence is possible. The murder in Idar-Oberstein was “a significant warning signal with regard to radicalization in parts of the scene,” he said.
Opponents of the COVID policies have become “enemies of the state,” said Thomas Haldenweg, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. “They are fundamentally rejecting our democratic political system,” he said, noting that the pandemic is just an excuse.
In the digital world, especially on Telegram, large, sometimes quite professional, networks have emerged that “mobilize, coordinate, and spread conspiracy theories, hostility, and intimidation. This doesn’t stay on Telegram, it also affects society,” tweeted Pia Lamberty, a researcher on conspiracy ideologies.
“The potential for violence was always there, but it is becoming more tangible. If we had listened to these people sooner, we would have quickly realized that their demands are not about the COVID measures, but instead about a systemic revolution,” stressed right-wing-extremism researcher Miro Dittrich in the German newspaper, ZEIT. Dittrich is expecting an increase in violence.
What Can Be Done?
“Physicians administering the vaccine simply should not be subject to this kind of hate any longer. Politicians must do something to quell this quickly and above all, resolutely!” Lübbers tweeted.
Canada recently made the intimidation of healthcare workers a criminal offence, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
And Germany? Interior minister Nancy Faeser announced that she was closely monitoring the activities of the Querdenker and COVID-denier scene. She also wants to review whether platforms such as Google and Apple can increase pressure on Telegram to regulate what is posted on its platform.
Until recently, Querdenker and COVID deniers have been playing a game of cat and mouse with the police, at least in Dresden. Earlier this month, medical students in masks and lab coats trying to protect the University Hospital of the Technische Universität Dresden from demonstrating anti-vaxxers were kettled by police, although the police ultimately prevented the demonstration.
This article originally appeared in the German edition of Medscape.