In Germany, vaccinations have always been political | TBEN | 14.01.2021

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Anti-vaxxers have come up with many baseless conspiracy theories to oppose getting hit against COVID-19. They managed to mobilize people against this even though in Germany there is no legal obligation to get vaccinated.

Malte Thiessen, medical historian, says opinions on vaccines have always been “highly political”.

“Inoculation has always been more than just a shot. It’s also always about worldview,” he tells TBEN.

This is because the issue is at the intersection of society, the state, and its own body, and this is nothing new. “Until 200 years ago, vaccines were controversial and intensely debated,” says Thiessen.

A number of vaccines are compulsory in Germany today

Smallpox vaccine requirements

The relatively critical position of the Germans dates back to the 19th century. Many arguments and misconceptions from then remain today.

The Imperial Vaccination Act came into effect in 1874 following widespread smallpox infections across Europe, which killed tens of thousands of people in Prussia. Getting vaccinated has become compulsory. At the same time, the “Lebensreform” (life reform) movement accelerated. Adherents believed in natural ways to strengthen the body, such as the sun or special diets.

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The first vaccine opposition groups were founded in 1869 in Leipzig and Stuttgart – five years before the Imperial Vaccination Act. The Imperial Association Against Compulsory Vaccination will soon have 300,000 members.

For them, vaccines were “the devil’s tool,” says Thiessen. “Something artificial, chemical is injected into the body. It helps explain the huge opposition to vaccines in German alternative circles, until today.”

Anti-vax and anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories played a role in the early anti-vax movement. Opponents spread the lie that the vaccines were part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to intentionally harm the German people. These anti-Semitic views have found their way into anti-vax tweets and other social media posts today.

The belief that an omnipotent state forces citizens to get vaccinated is not new and may contribute to Germans’ reluctance to face COVID-19. An international poll conducted in December by the World Economic Forum ranked Germany in the bottom half of countries ready to accept a vaccine.

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Similar figures are valid for influenza in those over 65. Many German seniors worry more about the vaccine than about the virus it protects against. Figures from 2019 show that only 35% of them get the flu shot, compared to 85% of Koreans and 72% of Britons.

Acceptance of vaccines is higher in the former East Germany than in the West, according to the German Robert Koch Institute for Public Health.

Cold war vaccines

East Germany required vaccinations against diphtheria, tuberculosis and smallpox. Those who refuse face a fine. The former West Germany largely avoided compulsory vaccination. In the 1960s, for example, the East was much faster than the West to implement a routine immunization program against polio, which causes childhood paralysis. As a result, polio cases declined rapidly in the East, but spread to West Germany.

In 1961, Thiessen says that East German officials offered the West three million doses of the polio vaccine, given the epidemic’s dissipation in the East.

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“This would of course have been a propaganda victory for the East,” Thiessen says. Then West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer politely refused.

Woman in a crowd, holding a handwritten sign in front of her face stating that compulsory vaccination is a crime (in German)

Anti-vaxxers claim compulsory vaccination is a criminal attack on their personal freedom

Compulsory vaccination, a “ last resort ”

Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder made headlines this week suggesting that medical staff should be forced to get vaccinated because many of them refuse to do so voluntarily. Thiessen advises against the idea, saying that a requirement for particular groups should only be a “last resort”.

A better option, he says, is to appeal to their sense of medical ethics. “The sanctions do nothing for someone who absolutely refuses to be vaccinated,” says Thiessen.

History shows a secondary problem in this regard: false certificates of immunity. “This would make medical personnel potentially contagious, but not identifiable as such.”

This article has been translated from German.

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