Conspiracy Stories and Democracy

…roots & reasons why we as „nature folks“ can fall prey to conspiracy stories – and why we need to find our way out of them again

…written by Elke Loepthien-Gerwert & Aaron Gerwert,
kindly translated into English by Franziska Hengl & other friends at Circlewise.
(Here you can find the original German version of this blog-article. )

Learning from our past

When I first heard about the NS era when I was in primary school my granny Gertrud was nearly 80 years old. To me she was a fun grandmother who often played with me for hours. The ‘old Trudy’ was a tiny tough person, who lived mainly off her self-subsistence garden produce. 

She was often called the witch by the kids in the village, because she spoke and behaved “crazily” – in the professionally diagnosed kind of way. Many books could be filled with her weird, sometimes funny, and often terrifying actions (for example, how she once grabbed her spade and buried an entire apple harvest overnight so no one else could steal the fruit).

The thing that troubled me the most, was that granny Gertrud was a fervent admirer of Hitler.

Despite her odd nature, I loved my grandmother dearly, and even despite my young age I was deeply disturbed by her unashamedly rose-tinted view of one of the most terrifying periods in human history.

Her eyes shone so innocently and joyfully as she spoke of the „best and most beautiful time“ of her life – during which her compatriots cruelly murdered an estimated 17 million people.

The experience of my grandmother’s naivety in the face of the unbelievable Nazi atrocities sparked two burning, urgent questions for me that still have an effect on me today and have been burning in me more and more painfully and urgently in recent months:

What on earth can lead to people becoming cogs in the machinery of a dictatorship despising life and not even realizing it?

And most importantly: How can we recognize such a dynamic early enough (in others and in ourselves) and prevent the whole thing?

The significance of facts

Hannah Arendt, who was a staunch social democrat of jewish origin, fled from the Nazis in 1933 and lived and published for the rest of her life in New York, investigated these questions very closely. 

One of her most well known quotations from her research into national socialism was: “The ideal people for a totalitarian system are not the card carrying Nazi or the card carrying communist; but rather all those people for whom it no longer seems possible to differentiate between fact and fiction (that which can be tangibly experienced), as well as between true and false (as a standard for our thinking).”

And this is exactly what seems to be occurring today. More and more in recent times I hear in conversations some kind of variation on this statement: “You just can’t tell anymore who you should believe. Everyone has their own view of reality, and the truth is somewhere in between or somewhere else altogether.”

In our courses and articles we often talk and write about how important it is to recognize the needs and world views of others in order to be able to live peacefully with one another. But here we are talking about personal/individual needs and opinions.

Yet this kind of communication is only possible if we have enough of a common foundation on the basis of which we can have that conversation.

We need a shared foundation

This common foundation is, from a societal perspective, at extreme risk right now. As the pandemic triggered for us a confrontation not only with the old well-known topics that have built up slowly over decades or centuries, but also (and so suddenly) with another kind of highly complex occurences, which are impossible for any individual person to fully understand, and indeed are completely new for humankind. 

This is why “Corona” was able to amplify and multiply what had been developing just below the radar of public awareness for a long time: the destruction of a shared foundation of facts, facts that are as objectively won as possible, through scientific methods and that are plausible for everyone, and that form a common ground for conversations, negotiations, and ultimately for living together rather peacefully. 

Genuine facts are crucial for a democratic society

The US American historian Timothy Snyder, who has also worked closely on how totalitarian regimes originate, describes it in an Interview (from 03:00 minutes) as follows:

“The Germans, the Soviets, and other nations who experienced a collapse in democracy were not less clever than we are today, perhaps even more clever. This is why it is now probably about time that we learned from them what we can do to protect our democracy. (…) To give up on facts means to give up on the truth. If nothing is true anymore then no one can criticize the exercise of power, because there is no longer any foundation upon which we can do this.

If nothing is true anymore, then it is all nothing but a play act. (…) What is the connection between this and a “post truth” democracy?

The connection is with what facism does: facism persuades you that nothing is true anymore: your day to day life is not important. Things that you thought you understood are no longer important. The only thing that counts is the mythology – the mythology of a united nation (…). Perhaps we might think that a society full of overtly tolerated lies is something new, or that it wouldn’t make a difference; but what “post-truth” does in reality is pave the way for a system change.

Because if we no longer have any access to facts, we cannot trust one another. Without trust there are no laws. Without laws there is no democracy. So if you want to rip the heart out of a democracy, if you want to directly destroy it – then the first thing you do is destroy the facts.”

So the question is: Is there such a thing as genuine facts, and if there is, how can we find them?

Learning to see through the power of fake news and lies

“Our brain is like teflon for positive things, and like velcro for the negative” says psychologist Rick Hanson. That explains why every lie or piece of fake news that we hear has the ability to awaken a fundamental vigilance or prejudgement, along the lines of: “there certainly must be a grain of truth in that.”

Yet this is often not the case at all. Many of the lies that are being spread in public are simply completely wrong. But because fake news stories can trigger such intense (emotional) reactions, they spread on Twitter about six times quicker than true stories

What is more, it seems, once heard, it is almost impossible to replace fake news stories with other facts – they seem to really stick inside our minds

In 2018 Facebook and Instagram reprogrammed their algorithm from “show the people what keeps them online the longest” to “show them what provokes them to react the most strongly”.

The consequence of this is (as whistleblower Frances Haugen explains in this detailed interview, that people in these networks are mainly bombarded with messages that trigger intense emotions, in particular anger. And what sort of messages are these?

To not fall prey to our own anger

Of course not the types of posts that are looking in calm and considered ways for solutions in the face of a complex worldwide crisis; but rather those that awaken our outrage – for example fake news stories that fuel anger and most likely an anger that we can direct at other people.

In addition there is also a tendency in people to believe something to be more true the more often we hear it – EVEN if in the beginning we actually thought that it wasn’t true at all. 

What is particularly concerning about this: even if we ourselves don’t use Facebook, Instagram, or other social media, we still feel their effects through the viewpoints and behaviours of the people (and organisations) around us, who spend time in these spaces. According to internal studies that have been released this is widely known by all at Facebook, and accepted.

Because people who roam around social media (three billion alone on Facebook) have been systematically conditioned for over three years now, by consistently getting more reactions by adding posts or comments that provoke anger (or at least forwarding them); a phenomenon that the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen also talks about.

Conspiracy Stories – the most grievous kind of false news

Looking back to Nationalsocialism and the question of how people back then could justify before themselves all the hatred and violence? 

Normally at the Circlewise Institute we dig into all the research around how much goodness lives inside of us as human beings from the very moment we are born. For many years we have been happily collecting growing evidence and explanations that show: Human beings evolved as a profoundly cooperative and altruistic species. 

If the opposite happens, oftentimes the phenomenon of dehumanization is at play. Simply put this means that we deny the other their “being-like-us-ness”. 

And nothing seems to dehumanize better than conspiracy stories. 

What are conspiracy stories?

Considering the key points gathered from the collection of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation and conspiracy stories are talking about:

  • a group of people who is being portrait as powerful (the evil ones) 
  • that is suspected to secretly steer and manipulate events of public interest. 
  • Therefore “reality” is said to be completely different than the general public opinion about the event or topic.  
  • Through their evil actions these grand villains would harm all other people,
  • oftentimes by mobilizing immense energy, technology, sophisticated strategies and more. 
  • For the conspiracy a huge number of signs of evidence can be found (which oftentimes are entertaining and also surprising, as they can seem pretty random or coincidental). 
  • Insiders can learn to read and interpret these alleged snippets of evidence
  • for example by finding out who benefits from an event (be it a natural catastrophe, terrorist attack or accident).
  • Conspiracy theories cannot be falsified through arguments that proof them wrong (unlike scientific theories) – no matter what argumentation you can muster against them, you wont be able to fully proof them wrong.

Why are we all prone to believe conspiracy stories?

In their book series „Fake Facts“ and „True Facts“ , the authors Pia Lamberty and Katharina Nocun explain the effects of conspiracy stories on people in detail and they stress how vulnerable we all can be to fall for them. 

The more unstable a situation is, the more likely people would seek consolement in conspiracy narratives. The reason is that these stories can offer us something really simple amidst a truly complicated situation. 

This is why they keep showing up right after big disturbing events – like after the massacre at the Sandy-Hook elementary school in the US in 2012. Even today, parents and relative of the children are being accused of being paid actors, that only enacted the massacre in order to provide reasons for changes in the US law on the private use of weapons. 

The first conspiracy theories around the pandemic and also about vaccinations also emerged immediately emerged after the Corona virus appeared. 

Despite their intricate and complicated story lines, conspiracy stories do also offer us the kind of simplicity that we long for in moments of insecurity: They define who is good and who is evil – and of course we are the good ones. 

With this they meet one of our key needs in life: To know that we are on the right side here, that our team are the “good guys”. 

Our hunger for knowledge and for getting confirmation pulls us in deeper 

Conspiracy stories can also stimulate our brain to release dopamin. As we work ourselves deeper and deeper into the winding pathways of the story and it’s underlying greater and older conspiracy myths (where all the different conspiracy stories can seemingly exist side by side, even though some do logically clearly contradict each other). 

Each puzzle piece that we find releases satisfying hormones and keeps strengthening our certainty – a certainty not only that we are on the side of the good ones, but also that we belong to a group of better informed insiders. We start to see ourselves as the ones that realize, understand and really get what is going on – especially compared to the unknowing majority of the population. 

To start assuming something evil in the other leads us into a one-way-street of progressive radicalisation 

One important aspect of the socially erosive effects of conspiracy stories is the power or overpowering force that is projected onto the group that is being blamed of conspiring: In the moment as we perceive ourselves as weak and left to the mercy of an absolutely overpowering other, an acute survival mode can awaken inside of us. 

This means, whatever we think is necessary to protect ourselves and our loved ones, seems justified. 

The Nazi-atrocities were founded on the incessant stoking of partly centuries old conspiracy myths against people of jewish origin, that had been influencing the German population for several decades before national socialists started to officially reign the country. 

When any and all means seem to appear as self-defense 

For nearly two years people have been starting what they call “fights for resistance” against an allegedly powerful “elite” and their “henchpeople”. 

From my point of view, one reason why the conspiracy narratives surrounding Corona virus and vaccinations could spread so quickly, can be found in the engagement of the extreme right from the moment the virus appeared on the scene. 

Media and people that deny or trivialize the holocaust, became the plattform and took advantage of the beginning times when greatest uncertainty existed even amongst experts. They gave half truths or lies a central stage and by doing so, at the same time could reach a greater audience for their own causes. 

The German “Querdenker”-movement that formed in spring 2020 had from the beginning connections to the far right. Again and again right-wing extremists were allowed to speak at demonstrations and the closeness to the German right wing party “AfD” is still prevalent.  One part of the party has been prohibited as being extremist by the federal constitutional court 

The emerging Querdenker movement also had connections to the right-wing scene from the beginning. Again and again there were speakers from the far right, an ever-increasing proximity to the AfD.

If we do not clearly demarcate ourself against the right

Unlike many protest movements of recent years (Ende Gelände, Hambi bleibt, Friday’s for Future, etc.), the Querdenker movement does not distance itself from right-wing extremist ideas and actors. Rather, their manifesto states, „We are non-partisan and exclude no opinion.“

We suspect that this, among other things, may have been due to the fact that the Querdenker circles brought together people who had taken little or no interest in politics for many years – simply because it had not been a necessity for them.

Political scientists have repeatedly shown that it is often more difficult to recognize right-wing propaganda if you do not know what to look for. The reason for this is that right-wing extremist parties and organisations act in a populist manner: They pick up on public fears, moods and opinions and instrumentalise them in whatever way suits them, simply in order to get as many people as possible on their side.

When anger blinds us

The well-researched basic strategy of right-wing populist groups is to pick up on irritant issues that hold great potential for anger, to then stir up the public mood further and further, and finally to present themselves as the only capable saviors – exactly like the AfD has been practicing it since last year. Unfortunately successful: A study of Querdenkers in Baden-Württemberg showed that in 2021 (compared to 2017), twice as many of them wanted to vote for the AfD, one part of which had even been classified as right-wing-extremist by the Federal Constitutional Court

Many of the current „walks“ are co-organized by right-wingers, and they are actively participating and involved in them. The tailwind of the relatively large numbers of participants is used by individuals to publicly threaten and attack journalists.

Violent slogans, symbols, and demands have been turned into a new “normal” by the intense participation of right-wing populists, often seemingly accepted without any contradiction by those present in this emotionally charged space.

When violence is being normalised

Right-wing extremist groups do not shy away from violence and more and more people from the middle class, who actually want to stand up for peace and community, are radicalising with them.

It breaks my heart to see how journalists, politicians, doctors and simply citizens are threatened or attacked at the demonstrations and in the time between.

Many of them report waves of threats, as their private addresses and photos are regularly posted on social media with explicit calls to make their lives miserable, and women journalists in particular get rape threats written or shouted at them.

Politicians are threatened to be hanged or shot – and people reading along or walking along just accept it. When this kind of verbal rage and threatening is accepted on such a massive scale, it is only a matter of time before actions follows.

And that too has already become visible in the last few months, how much actual physical violence was tolerated at the anti-mask/anti-vaccination demos.

If violence is being strategically used to mobilize further

I was shaken to my bones when a group of people gathered with burning torches in front of the house of the Minister of Health in Saxony. I only know such terrible, disturbing images from history, from the SA, the „Sturmabteilung“ of the NSDAP, which demonstrated power in the Third Reich through such marches (Torchlight marches and also just marching in formations through the streets). The historian Daniel Siemens says in an interview: „The SA was a kind of advertising force for the Nazi movement, since it was not represented in parliament for a long time. They used the violence of the streets to draw attention to themselves. At the same time, the SA was important for creating community among the National Socialists through shared experiences such as marches, paramilitary camps and also violent attacks.“

Since the first march of this kind, there have been countless calls for further „house visits“, and several others have been launched (and fortunately stopped beforehand).

Plans for murder, attacks on vaccination centres, grave candles in front of doctors‘ surgeries, threatening letters against media and others and daily calls to kill – to tolerate all of this, to not speak out explicitly and vehemently against it, is in my understanding the toxic fruit of growing a deeply inhuman and unscrupulous demonstration culture.

When even killing seems legitimate

Even the murder of a student was not condemned by many Querdenkers, but rather celebrated. As a petrol station attendant, he had pointed out to a customer that masks were compulsory, after which the customer got a pistol and shot the 20-year-old in the head. He later told the police that he did it in order, „to set an example“.

Wenn du das alles liest und denkst, dass das weit, weit weg von uns ist, lass mich dir erzählen, dass auch Menschen aus unserem größeren Netzwerk im Dunstkreis von Querdenken unterwegs sind und sogar auf uns zugekommen sind, uns einladen haben, doch auch Teil dieser angeblichen Protestbewegung für „Frieden und Freiheit“ zu werden.

If you read all this and think that it is far, far away from us, let me tell you that people from our larger network are also in the sphere of Querdenken and have even approached us, invited us to become part of this alleged protest movement for „peace and freedom„.

Some people who have already experienced Connection Culture events were indeed rather surprised or even shocked that we are not and do not want to be part of the protest movement.

So why is it that people from our environment can feel they belong to Querdenken and we should, too?

We are not automatically „the good guys”

Again and again we experience how common it is in nature-loving, spiritual circles to feel and present oneself and the peer group as „somehow more empathetic, more conscious, healthier, more sensible, more enlightened, more knowledgeable“ and much more.

For many years we have been campaigning to replace this image, which is downright autocratic at its core, with more humility – because it simply could not be more deceptive and, as we are currently experiencing, is capable of bringing endless suffering into the world!

As unfortunately, history and social research have shown that the priorities in nature-loving, esoteric-spiritual circles have often not been and are still not set in a particularly people-friendly way.

I have long been preoccupied with the Lebensreform movement of the penultimate turn of the century, a colorful smorgasbord of people who stood for living close to nature, simplicity, spiritual experiences, animal rights and organic farming, alternative healing and physical freedom and well-being as well as community – in other words, actually for the good in people, right?

A common version of history is that the Nazis wiped out this wonderful movement.

Not only what we stand up for is important, but also what is and remains taboo for us

In fact, however, many of the people from the Lebensreform movement readily merged into National Socialism, became actors within the NSDAP and even prepared the intellectual ground for the National Socialist ideology.

One of the more prominent representatives of the Lebensreform, for example, founded the Hakenkreuz publishing house as early as 1919 as a „spiritual bulwark for cultural-folkish aims“.

The racist and anti-Semitic roots of anthroposophy are equally frightening, even if Rudolf Steiner’s own anti-Semitic statements are, according to Waldorf associations, relativised by other statements in which he clearly spoke out against anti-Semitism.

Many historians see a clear connection between the romanticism of nature in German-speaking countries and latent prejudices against all kinds of modernity, including what is called the “school medicine” (a term coined by Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy) and had often explicitly been seen as „Jewish“.

For us, clearly the main question here is: If naturopathic fanaticism has already been solidly documented historically as having held the stirrup for a totalitarian regime – how can we prevent this from happening again?

Above all, it seems very clear that we should use our values not only in a positive way – as what we stand for – but also as a standard measure to check what we definitely do not want to stand for, even if it would give us advantages.

The role of vaccination skepticism

Alternative medicine gained particular momentum during the Nazi era, partly due to a polarising approach to the issue of vaccination (because at that time vaccination had already been compulsory for several decades. Concerns also got stirred when in 1930 the greatest vaccination disaster of the 20th century occurred, as 77 babies died in Lübeck due to contaminated tuberculosis preparations).

The journalist Christian Jakob writes: “In 1933, Reich medical leader Gerhard Wagner emphasised the ’superiority‘ of alternative medicine over ‚Judaised orthodox medicine‘. To oppose this with homeopathy, the Nazis founded the ‚Reichsarbeitsgemeinschaft Neue Deutsche Heilkunde‘ in 1935. Its members included the ‚German Central Association of Homeopathic Physicians‘, the ‚Reich Association of Naturopathic Physicians‘ and the ‚Association of Anthroposophic Physicians‘. In 1933, the Nazi propaganda sheet ‚Der Stürmer‘ shows a caricature of a mother with a baby in her arms. Next to her stands a ‚distant and lost doctor‘ with a syringe in his hand. With the doctor’s hooked nose, the caricature clearly fulfils anti-Semitic clichés. The mother looks sceptically at the doctor: ‚I feel so strange inside, because poison and Jew combined rarely turns out alright‘.

Anti-Semitism has a long history in connection with vaccinations, says medical historian Malte Thießen, who researches at the Institute for Regional History in Münster and at the University of Oldenburg. Vaccination is partly understood as a ‚conspiracy of an elite‘ that ‚intervenes in the body‘.

Few people could have foreseen that today the topic of vaccination, of all things, would once again (and probably to an even greater extent) be given such a prominent and potent role in the social discourse, especially since is now thirty respectively forty years since the compulsory smallpox vaccination was lifted in Germany.

An old topic that lends itself well to polarisation

Who would have believed that the topic of vaccination would actually lend itself to being used by right-wingers to polarise and mobilise people who were previously in the social centre or even standing for rather left-wing attitudes?

Yet that is exactly what is happening at the moment – so this topic, which has personal aspects, is from our point of view simply no longer a neutral or purely personal topic.

Nor was vaccination a purely personal issue at the beginning of the Nazi era. 

Ever since the advent of the very first vaccinations (against smallpox), there was a reluctance to vaccinate.

The Nazis deliberately incited this and used it for propaganda. In a report on mdr-broadcasting station, they are being quoted: „By ‚inoculating diseases‘ into people, mankind was to be ’subjugated to the Jewish rule of money‘. And Julius Streicher, the founder and publisher of the paper ‚Der Stürmer‘, fabricated that ‚vaccinations were brought into the world by the Jews as a racial disgrace‘, according to medical historian Thießen.

Incidentally, this soon changed again when it was realised that a lack of vaccinations would weaken the Wehrmacht in their fight against other nations. The NDR writes: In the end, however, the Reich Ministry of the Armed Forces prevailed with its arguments that abolishing compulsory vaccination could damage the German Reich’s striking power and ability to defend itself. The diphtheria vaccination remains voluntary, however. But the social pressure is high, because vaccination is seen as a service to the national community. Propaganda films are made to increase the population’s willingness to be vaccinated. The National Socialists work with slogans that are more convincing than any compulsory vaccination.“

Das alles sind Zusammenhänge, die heute in unserem alternativen Umfeld kaum jemandem bewusst zu sein scheinen.

This historical context is where today’s discussion has it’s roots, even though hardly anyone in our alternative milieu seems to be aware of it’s origins today.

The pitfalls of esotericism

For me, there is a deep cynicism at the core of what is happening – which I know from esotericism, and which sometimes goes under the broad term „spiritual bypassing“ – which means we explain away the uncomfortable in reality through pseudo-spiritual concepts. By doing so, we also simply push away any co-responsibility or even the very natural feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.

In the esoteric scene, for example, it is very common to blame the sick for their own suffering. „Deeds of shame in a previous life“ are mentioned just as much as „wrong diet“ or „too much negativity in thinking„.

I have heard similarly inhumane statements over and over again about the Corona deaths: „They would have died anyway„. Those who fall ill or die have simply done something wrong, perhaps they were simply too afraid of the virus?

Why are we „alternative people“ so prone to conspiracy ideologies?

In the alternative scene, to which we also count ourselves (at least until now!), the fixation on an ideal life, a real, true, best good life is so strong that the longing for it sometimes probably hinders common sense in thinking and decision-making.

Above all, however, there seems to be a great danger of self-glorification and falling into arrogance. 

A study last summer for our federal state of Baden-Württemberg in Southern Germany, showed that the entire Querdenken movement here consists to a large extent of people who belong to the alternative milieu and/or the anthroposophical milieu.

It says: „The two milieus have structural and ideational similarities and overlaps. Among other things, holism, individuality, self-determination and closeness to nature represent shared points of reference. (…) However, there is no direct path from the (former) left-wing alternative milieu to ‚Querdenken‘ in the 21st century.

It is precisely the transformation of this milieu in which basically nothing is left of either left-wing forms for political engagement, or of left-wing values such as solidarity and equality.“ (emphasis mine)

When self-realization and individual freedom are given the center stage

The study goes on to say:What has remained are above all lifestyles of body politics and self-realisation, the idea of wholeness, often (but not always) a spiritual and above all anthroposophical conviction and a libertarian understanding of freedom.

What is particularly disturbing here is thatthe movement is characterised by a deep alienation from core institutions of liberal democracy”.

Parliamentary politics and the parties, science and the media – all public institutions are met with great distrust. The voter migrations we have analysed reveal the basic dynamics of the Querdenken movement, which is also evident for Baden-Württemberg: it is a movement that comes partly rather from the left, but is moving towards the right.

The figures also speak a clear language here: while in autumn 2017 it was only 8% of respondents who voted for the AfD, in autumn 2021 around 20% of people in the study wanted to do so.

When there is no interest in politics

Others also conclude that a major problem is the lack of political interest (and thus knowledge and orientation) of people from the esoteric scene, who have now landed in Querdenken.

When we do not know how right-wing populism works, we can fall victim to what can be called incitement of the people so much more easily. This is probably one reason why right-wing extremists have for years been deliberately using the esoteric scene as a bridge into the middle-class milieu.

The illusion of being able to make the best decisions on your own and all by yourself

Another esoteric stumbling block especially now and today is certainly the erroneous assumption that all decisions are always best made „according to my own feeling“.

This is probably often helpful when I think of decisions that affect me alone, personally.

When asking „my feeling“ is not enough – in a decision that affects many

But it could not be more wrong whenever it comes to decisions that have consequences for other people, as is the case with vaccination.

And I also consider it highly questionable when it comes to decisions in which a kind of information, facts and knowledge play a role which I simply cannot have or know myself.

One such case for me is the question of whether or not I should be vaccinated against Corona.

Or let’s put it this way: We did not just answer this question by “feeling into it“. We looked at the knowledge, information, background and facts from many experts who have been working on this issue for almost two years (and some for many decades).

From our viewpoint, the situation is similar to the issue of climate change: a large majority of the scientific community as well as the medical community worldwide agree on most points.

A small number of people speak completely against it, and also insist on the correctness of their argumentation.

So how can we deal with all this?

Dare to challenge prior assumptions with fact-checks

Some misinformation or conspiracy theories are so absurd that they are easy to spot. Others sound so inconspicuous and have been around for so long that it’s really hard to even notice them.

I also only found out last year that the opinion that vaccination in itself is always dangerous, which many people around me take for granted, is basically based on centuries-old conspiracy myths.

Since I became a mother, I have heard critical voices about vaccination and passed them on with similar vehemence and confidence as the very clear recommendation that one should not give children alcohol to drink.

Even today, there are many alternative practitioners and even doctors who fundamentally advise against vaccination.

Yet it turns out that all fundamental concerns about vaccination have long been disproved

Each of the dramatic-sounding „criticisms“ of vaccination have long been investigated and clearly refuted, for example a supposed study by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who claimed in 1998 that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination would cause autism. His thesis has been widely circulated, although Wakefield’s study (for which, it later emerged, he received a large sum of money from the lawyers of the parents of the twelve children examined in the study) was so inherently flawed and/or downright fraudulent that it was withdrawn from the journal it was originally published in and he even lost his right to practise as a medical doctor. 

The whole story around Wakefield and the incredible concentric rings that his false claims are creating even today have been investigated and documented in a film that can be watched online on  „Anti-Vaxxers – who profits from the fear?“

Much of what has been handed down as risks for vaccination in general has no basis at all on closer inspection.

And because this may come as a real shock to you personally or to others reading this article, I will write it again slowly:

Much of what has been handed down as risks for vaccination in general has no basis at all on closer inspection!

Here is a short and concise fact-check on the widespread claims about vaccination, with explanations and links in english, and here also an even shorter fact-check in German.

This article here lists some of the few cases of actual vaccine damage that have occurred so far – which were not covered up at all, but all went public through the media. 

How does a fact check work?

Fortunately, it is so much easier to debunk misinformation than it was ten or twenty years ago.

For me, an often very fruitful and very simple strategy is to do an online search for the term, OR with a specific claim from a fake news article – AND simply type in „fact check“ to do so.

It often takes only a few days or even hours after posts are published for someone else to go through the trouble to carefully check whether a statement is true or point out which parts of a claim or argument are flawed or misleading.

Revealing what is wrong

Fortunately, there are now some people who invest a lot of time in directly exposing potential current false reports and also long-established baloney. They find and check reports and show in a simple and comprehensible way what is really not true about them.

A lot of fact checks can be found on platforms such as or, Faktenfuchs from BR or the „Volksverpetzer“ team. Here it is also worthwhile to simply browse through them and perhaps learn more about one or the other news item that has been spread through the social media in recent weeks.

Another option I often use when researching for our blog articles is to enter the authors of a post or the title and authors of a certain news platform or website and „criticism“ as a keyword with it.

In this way, I quickly find articles about which opinions or approaches are considered worthy of criticism and by whom.

A comprehensive fund of information on medical topics is available on this site: „The MedWatch team scans the net for dangerous and dubious promises of healing. One focus is on research from the grey area of the net, where supposed healers offer their miracles. MedWatch reports and clarifies.

(Incidentally, a large part of the false campaigns around vaccination in the English-speaking Facebook space could be attributed to only a dozen authors who spread them via various accounts).

Is there any way I can shorten this process?

Checking facts is always time-consuming, especially at the beginning, when you don’t know anything at all about a topic.

However, there are a lot of communication strategies that are immediately recognisable as basic patterns in many fake news stories, for example formulating false claims as questions, a technique that has been used in tabloid media for a long time.

The better I know these basic strategies, the easier and faster I can recognise disinformation.

Here is a comprehensive list from that I find very helpful, or also this one from the Landesmedienzentrum Baden-Württemberg.

And what about your news literacy? Here is a self-test that gives you an insight into how well you manage in the jungle of news and platforms.

All in all, I can highly recommend public media, or also long-established private media such as „Die Zeit“ and, especially for investigative topics, the „taz“.

One advantage of all these is, that their reporting is not perfect either, but they even send corrections when mistakes are made. ZDF, for example, has a whole page specifically for this purpose.

The future needs us to trust scientific ways of knowing – not only on the subject of vaccination

We follow original studies and scientific publications on all kinds of topics, including the Corona virus and Covid-19. Of course, scientists are also human and can therefore always make mistakes, misinterpret data or be guided by selfish interests.

But the ongoing scientific exchange in which countless people from a wide range of institutions around the world are involved, is for us one of the most inspiring learning spaces that exist and we see in it an incredible gift of today’s times.

Here, for example, is a website where scientists from all over the world take media reports and sift through them to see which claims are really true:

As the way they put it in the title of their website, is very much how we look at it, too:

Correct information is the basis for a functioning democracy

The importance of this open, free and thus very fast exchange of scientists, shared publicly with everyone who has access to the internet, is for us one of the greatest rays of hope in the world today. Especially when we think of the climate catastrophe and how to deal with the many challenges that will arise from it, our survival as a human race will crucially depend on our ability to share knowledge.

Basically, the question is how much influence we can give to those people who are interested in finding out what is really helpful – instead of primarily following political or corporate calculations.

In the face of the climate catastrophe that has been happening worldwide for a long time and will predictably continue to happen in far more violent ways, we think it is absolutely essential to trust the scientists who are committed to pointing out real facts and doing their best to develop helpful strategies.

We stand up for these genuinely brave people to be appreciated, encouraged and backed by our actions and communications, instead of being bombarded with shitstorms and dire threats (as they have been over the last 1.5 years because of their advocacy for vaccination and other unpopular but important policies).

Why we decided to get vaccinated

DISCLAIMER: Obviously neither of us are medical specialists! Everything we have written here is our personal understanding of the situation, and are just our opinions and interpretations. We share them here because various people have approached us and asked us in recent weeks. Perhaps our thoughts can be a stimulus to study the listed sources yourself and find more professionally substantiated statements there.

Covid-19 is a dangerous disease

In a way it is incredibly bad luck that Covid was first called a “flu-like” sickness. Whereas it is actually a multisystem-disease. Besides the acute dangers, such as organ damage and death due to lung or heart failure, already in early summer 2020, the potential for devastating long term effects were becoming more and more visible, for example an ongoing inflammation of the brain cells

According to a study with 250,000 unvaccinated adults and children in the US, more than half of the infected participants were still suffering after six or more months from long term effects, many of whom can seriously reduce a person’s quality of life (like an ongoing loss of smell and taste, inability to focus, loss of memory or reduced lung functioning).

Examinations commonly found damage from Covid throughout all parts of the body, including tissues and organs, most of which the patient was not aware of and had no complaints. 

Children also suffer from Long-Covid, even when some of the infections in kids remain completely asymptomatic. How many are thereby affected, varies more strongly than in adults; yet in some studies still as many as half of the infected children were suffering from Long Covid. 

Im Moment ist es nicht absehbar, welche wirklich langfristigen Folgen die Erkrankung nach sich ziehen wird.

At the moment it is not predictable which truly long term effects the disease will carry with it. 

In the beginning of January, the Finnish Health Minister warned that Long-Covid could become the most common chronic disease in the country and spoke in particular about the danger of a drastic increase in Alzheimer and Parkinson-cases due to the neurological effects on the brain.

Vaccination helps, even when it does not prevent infection

Sadly, Covid is not a disease like smallpox, that one could hardly get infected with at all after getting a vaccination. Therefore it would be wrong and misleading to say to someone else, “If you are afraid, then you can simply get vaccinated to protect yourself.” Even more so it is important that as many people as possible express solidarity and get vaccinated, so that in time the population as a whole fosters a growing immunity. 

Now even with the Omicron-Variant we can say: Getting a threefold vaccination still provides a significant protection from infection (and therefore from infecting other people as well). What seems even more important is that it protects you from a severe course of the illness. With that it reduces the number of emergency cases arriving in hospitals, it prevents people from dying off deadly lung- or heart-failures. This threefold vaccination also likely protects, (as at least could be shown in a handful of studies), from long-covid symptoms.

A study in South Africa reports that even just two vaccinations reduced the proportion of severe courses by 70%.

For pregnant women that are infected with Covid there is an elevated risk of losing the fetus or of developing severe symptoms themselves – so especially for pregnant women vaccination is highly recommended

It is true that vaccinations may (at least until now) need to be refreshed repeatedly, but Covid itself does also not offer full immunity even after you have been sick with it: At the beginning of the pandemic, it was still assumed that an infection would likely lead to complete immunity. In the meantime, however, it is clear that someone who has already been infected with covid can easily be re-infected, even as early as three months after the first illness, some researchers estimate.

Vaccination helps, even if there is a vaccination breakthrough

In some cases, the course of the second infection was even more severe. So far, it is not certain, but also cannot be ruled out, that for example the antibodies from the first infection could even aggravate a second one. In the earliest cases of re-infection, the courses have been less severe. Overall, however, the data situation here is still rather thin. In any case, vaccination breakthroughs seem to consistently be milder.

What is undisputet is that multiple vaccinations are one of the best possible ways to protect oneself and others, even if it is not clear how often they will be necessary to be more permanently protected.

Deshalb bin ich und sind wir dreimal geimpft. Und deshalb beschäftigen wir uns weiter mit dem Thema – weil auch die Expert*innen beständig dazulernen und sich mit neuen Varianten und vielem mehr die Rahmenbedingungen beständig entwickeln und verändern.

That is why we have been vaccinated three times. And that is why we continue to explore the topic – because even the experts are constantly learning and with the new variants that are developing, the ways in which Covid will be dealt with, also need to undergo further changes. 

Bei allen diesen Punkten wird deutlich: Nichts verspricht gegenwärtig eine schnelle und endgültige Lösung. Die Krankheit ist eine riesige Herausforderung und es gibt bisher wenig verbindliche Erkenntnisse, und wenn ja, können diese sich auch weiter verändern.

With all these points, it becomes clear: nothing currently promises a quick and definitive solution. The disease is a huge challenge and there is little authoritative evidence so far, and even what seems to be reliable information, may still continue to change.

Above all, we are also vaccinated out of solidarity and for freedom – not for our personal freedom, but for collective freedom, especially also for those people who really cannot be vaccinated, for example the youngest in our society.

As even though children generally have milder courses, Omicron is spreading so rapidly that in many places children are increasingly being hospitalized, too. As already mentioned, they may also suffer from Long Covid symptoms afterwards, which could really limit their later lives profoundly.

What else can we do?

At the same time, it is still clearly relevant and effective to wear protective masks. Infection does not take place exclusively via droplet infection (which is only possible when we are in close physical proximity), but also via finer aerosols (which are also droplets, just tiny ones), which may under some circumstances persist for a long time in the air of a closed room.

The recommendation to wear masks indoors is therefore all the clearer, especially if these are not well ventilated (for example in public toilets, corridors, etc.).

Smear infections (that can happen by touching surfaces) have not been proven to occur outside the health sector and are therefore not to be completely excluded, but are probably rather rare.

So washing hands and disinfecting surfaces is important – but wearing masks, keeping your distance and ventilating vigilantly seems much more urgent and relevant.

Vaccination helps – and we have all benefited from the vaccinations in previous times

In my lifetime, I have been able to live without any compulsory vaccination. Because for many, many decades, people in different parts of the world have developed and disseminated vaccines for many of the most devastating diseases in history. The effects of these vaccinations still protect people today, for example, as far as the infamous smallpox is concerned.

In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 500 million people, 30-40% of the non-vaccinated. Some researchers believe that the viral disease introduced by white settlers in North America killed as many as 50-90% of Native Americans, depending on the region.

Thanks to the vaccinations of those countless people who overcame their personal doubts, especially during the last century, I could grow up with the privilege of never having to worry about smallpox in my lifetime, of never having to have even a glimmer of fear that myself or my loved ones might be affected by it.

One possibility that is at least not improbable is that Covid-19 could become endemic in our country in the medium term and at that point could progress much less severe for all people.

So that the pandemic really can be an opportunity, too

For us, the pandemic triggered many processes that we would not otherwise have gone through to the same extent:

  • contact with false reports and conspiracy stories and, over time, developing the habits of an increasingly serious questioning of information and its sources,
  • more knowledge and background information about right-wing extremist groups and individuals in Germany and Europe,
  • a whole new appreciation for media that take their mandate for factual and truthful reporting seriously,
  • a high regard for virologists and other experts who, from the start of the pandemic, have been caught in the crossfire of expectations, impatience, demands, insults, threats, and have still continued to share their knowledge,
  • a genuine and lasting joy that the absolute majority of the population in this country was and is willing to accept restrictions, now for a long time, in order to protect other people.

At the same time, the contact restrictions and other measures have brought untold suffering to many people, which cannot be glossed over in any way:

Domestic violence has multiplied, especially against children and women, fuelled among other things by quarantine periods and money worries. Depression and anxiety have greatly increased, especially among children and young people.

Every seventh company in Germany alone fears for its survival (as do we) – where people whose families suffer from existential fear are also oftentimes impacted severely.

Millions of people worldwide have been and are being driven into starvation.

Precisely because the contact restrictions are so hard on many people, we see it all the more as an opportunity to provide relief as quickly as possible if many people get vaccinated.

Another important question is to what extent we can take on additional responsibility for our fellow human beings by actively and practically supporting less privileged people in our environment and, through our renunciation of individual privileges, contribute to a slightly more relaxed situation.

For otherwise privileged people, vaccination and other measures can be an exercise in relinquishing

We can well imagine that the inconveniences of wearing masks, keeping our distance, contact restrictions and getting vaccinated might seem comparatively harmless – compared to the restrictions, renunciation or even suffering that the continuously progressing climate catastrophe has in store for us.

With everything that is already irrevocably thrown out of balance and considering the consequences that this will bring in the coming years, we will certainly not only need to rethink mobility in the future and consume differently than before.

Perhaps we will be rather required to share our Western prosperity and privileges, most of which have been created through centuries of exploitation, with the rest of the world’s population – making room for climate refugees and enduring resource scarcities.

For the years and decades ahead, it is a matter of heart to me that not only my loved ones, but also society as a whole can rely on me – on my solidarity and on my active involvement.

Crises can bring out the best in people – but only if we act in solidarity

What we will likely need most urgently in the future is cohesion! Humanity looks back on a few millennia of discord and violent enmity, but some anthropologists believe that behind this could lie many millennia marked by an absence of war.

For many years, many social researchers have been advocating the increasingly well-documented thesis that we as human beings have the potential and the preference for peaceful coexistence as a quasi biological basic endowment. Especially in times of crisis, our ability to love our neighbours can blossom and uplift our communities.

For us, the months with Corona have shown that billions of people are willing to make sacrifices to protect others first and foremost. This was especially clear in the early days of the pandemic, when it was still assumed that the disease would be severe, especially for the elderly and people with health problems, and that it would nearly invariably be benign for fit people.

It was and is wonderful to feel a social cohesion that would hardly have been imaginable in the years before the pandemic. This genuine and sincere cohesion is what we want to continue to participate in, because we all need each other now – and we will need each other even more in the future.

And what if I still just don’t want to get vaccinated?

We are of course aware that many people around us are not vaccinated AND at the same time reject violence and would never classify themselves as politically right-wing.

The tragedy at the moment, however, is that many of the people we have been able to talk to about these issues are nevertheless (and without knowing it) referring to sources who clearly had right-wing connections or were even themselves publicly visible in the past as Holocaust deniers or anti-Semites.

If we look back to the Nazi era, we see that the NSDAP had only 1,700 members in its first year. During the entire duration of the dictatorship, only a small percentage of the population actively carried out acts of violence. But these acts were supported, covered and legitimised with silent consent by many millions of people who simply held roughly the same ideology.

Not only regarding vaccination it is important what we give our consent to and what we do not.

The vaccination against Corona has become a topic that offers all of us the chance to look very closely at which sources we use and whom we trust.

For me, my choice clearly goes for those actors of liberal democracy who, according to the Querdenker Study, are currently reaping so much mistrust, above all the scientific community and the free and public media. These people do not know everything either, they make mistakes and often behave selfishly. But they keep an eye on each other and are willing to correct themselves and learn from their mistakes.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has determined in empirical studies that this very willingness could be the most important core ingredient for not falling victim to the disinformation surrounding the pandemic.

They call this bundle of competencies „intellectual humility“ and consider its importance so central that just recently they even announced scholarships for journalistic works dealing with the topic.

The importance of intellectual humility

These aspects are counted in:

  • An awareness of one’s own ignorance and fallibility and admitting that this is so: „I accept that my beliefs and attitudes may be wrong, and I admit it when I don’t know something„.
  • An awareness that other people’s views are valuable, listening to them and also accepting corrective feedback: „I listen to others and recognise value in their opinions, even if they are different from my own.

So humility has not only been proven to make us happier, as described in our blog article from last year.

It also helps us to sort and classify news, and thus also to make decisions – especially when they affect not only ourselves but society as a whole, as it is the case with vaccination.

In view of the many different voices that can be heard in our society, this can be exhausting and nerve-racking. Especially when it comes to a topic where something changes very quickly and constantly – as is the case with vaccination and Corona in general and will certainly continue to be like this for quite a while.

But especially when you feel tired of continuing to deal with a controversial topic, it can be all the more reasonable and important to take breaks, but to still keep at it nonetheless. 

For as a well-known saying so creepily puts it: „Politics is like dental care: if you don’t really take care of it for a long time, everything eventually turns brown.“ (Translation note: Brown as a political color symbolizes the far right.)

So what can we do?

It is extremely important not to remain silent in the face of false facts and conspiracy narratives. As these are not and will not be presented as personal opinions.

Rather, they are claiming to be true compared to all other available information on any subject, which makes them so destructive.

That’s why Pia Lamberty and Katharina Nocun advise not to just leave it there, but to address it directly (even if perhaps one-on-one first instead of in front of the whole gathered family).

Because many people are not at all aware that that video clip, that interview, that article that has just inspired them so much is actually just the tip of a huge conspiracy ideology iceberg.

This advice reminded us of the teachings of Karl Popper, a philosopher who was born in Vienna, fled during the Nazi era, but lost sixteen family members to murder by the Nazis. He was later knighted in England for his work on totalitarianism and other subjects.

The tolerance paradox

Popper described his so-called tolerance paradox in clear words:

A space that makes tolerance possible can only be kept tolerant in the long term if it remains protected (in an intolerant, i.e. non-tolerant way) from the intolerant. Popper defined people or groups with the following characteristics as intolerant:

  1. Refusal of a rational discourse
  2. Call for and use of violence against people who hold different opinions or adhere to other ideologies

Both are clearly aspects of conspiracy narratives or myths. That is why violent crimes motivated by conspiracy theories happen again and again, and terrorist organisations (like the NSDAP back then) usually include conspiracy stories as an important part of their training.

In summary

  • Historically, the Nazis in Germany did not come to power because a majority of the population would stand behind them from the beginning.
  • They initially managed to convince individual groups of the population.
  • People from the nature-loving, spiritual, esoteric Lebensreform movement were one (of several) target groups here, many of whom backed the National Socialist agenda early on.
  • Only over time the Nazis were able to convince more and more people, above all by fiercely criticising the government in the crisis-ridden period after the Spanish flu and the world economic crisis.
  • In doing so, they used populism – they seized on the popular irritants and conspiracy myths, exaggerated, polarized, demonstrated their willingness to use violence in the streets, and presented themselves as the only possible saviors.
  • It was only when the Nazis came to power in 1933 that they managed to seize full political control through continuous propaganda, violence, repression and extermination of their opponents.
  • Today, right-wing extremists continue to fuel conspiracy myths and narratives that can radicalize people enormously within a very short time.
  • In this way they also ensure, especially in the last two years, that more and more people not only tolerate violence, but even are convinced that it is legitimate, they see it as the only possible way, and are finally even prepared to use violence themselves. They normalize violence.

The Corona pandemic and vaccinations have been the central issue for the last two years, which the right-wing parties and groups have been abusing to specifically radicalize people, normalize violence and even attract originally left-oriented people to their side.

For us, this means: Not every person who is critical of vaccination and especially of Corona vaccination is automatically a Nazi.

But any kind of misinformation and conspiracy narrative (on the topic of Corona or vaccination, but also on other topics such as climate catastrophe, migration, terrorism, etc.) inevitably plays into the hands of right-wing extremist forces, especially today.

Heute werden wir über soziale Medien regelrecht in Falschmeldungen gebadet. Während diese wie von allein auf uns einprasseln ist es ist zeitaufwendig und nervenaufreibend, diese immer wieder zu relativieren und zu entkräften.

As humans, we are all (more or less) prone to conspiracy thinking.

Today, we are literally bathed in falsehoods via social media. While these are pouring down on us as if by magic, it is time-consuming and nerve-wracking to keep putting them all into perspective and refuting each single one of them.

That is why we need each other even more to carefully question stories and reports together and for each other, to get to the bottom of the actual facts again and again.

It is important not to condemn ourselves and others for our „gullibility“. As after all, the false leads we might have fallen for were specifically designed to deceive.

Together we can make it

Conspiracy experts Pia Lamberty and Katharina Nocun describe in their books („Fake Facts“ and „True Facts„) that it is often just as difficult for people to break away from conspiracy narratives and the movements based on them as it is to leave cults.

According to the researchers, what enables many people to take the big, hard step of admitting that they may simply have been wrong in the midst of their radical beliefs is – you guessed it – personal relationships.

So the most we can do is to clearly distance ourselves from conspiracy stories and hate campaigns – while continuing to be loving, compassionate and welcoming to the people themselves.

According to Lamberty and Nocun, „constant dripping wears the stone“. Often, people cannot be convinced directly within one or even several conversations.

But what such talks could achieve: Sowing doubts that, over time, can enable a new, more critical view of the conspiracy narrative and thus also create a foundation for different insights and new points of view.

If possible, such points of view, which help preserve our (certainly more than upgradable!) democracy and support it to develop in a life-friendly way.

If you are interested in learning more about how we at Circlewise facilitate connective social spaces, you are welcome to get in touch through our contact form

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