Nazis, vaccines, and manipulation: On why understanding the past matters

I never expected that one day I would write a blog post about Sophie Scholl, the Munich student involved in an anti-Nazi resistance group, who was executed by guillotine at the age of 21 in February 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. I never expected to write a blog post about her, even after working in a school dedicated to her and her brother Hans, co-founder of the resistance group, who was executed minutes after her.

You can read more about the group here:

More specifically I never expected to write about her in the context of a wave of anti-vaccination campaigning in the UK that is doubtlessly costing lives and is using the name of their group. Yet, here I find myself, writing on just that topic as the centenary of her birth is being marked in Germany. The UK news has even picked up on the story, respectfully acknowledging her and her fellow resisters actions in the face of Nazism.

The challenge of this particular post is not actually writing about Sophie Scholl, or even resistance to Nazism but rather the challenge is in how to write about debunking dangerous ideas, yet without doing the bidding of those who would do damage about an organization which has adopted the same name as the group to which Sophie Scholl belonged, without unintentionally amplifying their message? I am not sure I have an answer to that, but I am going to try here.

Photo by Pixabay on

The cognitive dissonance on display in British media coverage of the centenary of Sophie Scholl’s birth is staggering. Yes, let’s respectfully remember what Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorrel, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, their Philosophy professor, Kurt Huber and others, did and died for, but let’s not celebrate their anti-Nazism whilst simultaneously ignoring our own homegrown fascist problem and the manipulation of iconography and language of Nazism and the Holocaust that is being utilized by anti-vaxxers. Let’s not celebrate actual resisters to Nazism and stay silent on the anti-vaxx organization that is using their name to promote their anti-vaxx message, using and adapting phrases and slogans associated with Nazism in a mind-warping psychological  manipulation of the past that is utilized to infer that the anti-vaxxers are the victims of some kind of persecution and are the true opponents to an unjust state when what they are actually pushing is an agenda that serves the far-right’s purpose and kills indiscriminately.

Are all anti-vaxxers fascists? I couldn’t say with certainty, but we know it attracts those who identify with Nazism. In the run up to the recent elections, images were shared on social media of individuals raising their arms in a Nazi salute – also known as the Hitlergruss or Hitler greeting. Their political inclinations are in no doubt here. But it is not just their politics that they were wearing openly but they had also stitched a yellow star to their clothing, visually reminiscent of the Judenstern or Jewish star that the Nazis forced their Jewish victims to wear, so as to mark them out as other. Yet, these individuals, were using the symbol to suggest that they were being marked out, they were the state’s victims because they are anti-vaxx. It Is not the first time this image has been used recently – in the anti-lockdown rally in London in April some of those attending wore a yellow star and carried signs comparing the vaccination programme with the Holocaust – their supposed victim status doing nothing to prevent them from violent outbursts. The false equation is as horrendous as it is entirely intentional – designed to spark outrage. I share the Auschwitz Memorial Museum’s comment that it marked a “sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline.” Although I strongly suspect that there are those that will believe it – there are those, whose moral decline is in no doubt but who are far from ignorant and stupid, on the contrary they are intelligent and they will use or rather they are using that moral and intellectual decline intentionally.

It is also not just at one-off rallies that these views are being intentionally promulgated either, albeit with a tad more nuance and rather more quietly, but toxic anti-vaxx messages are being drip fed day-in-day-out in a campaign whereby anti-vaxx messages are plastered over bus stops, at cash machines, any useable surface in a public space, particularly in areas where the demographic suggests these messages are likely to be met with a ready and willing audience, where there are plenty who are ignorant of history or simply do not care.

A few months ago, I started noticing this sticker campaign around my local area. The references to the Munich resistance group, to Nazism and specifically to the twisting of the messages to suggest the anti-vaxxers are somehow saving us from the state exploitation, immediately caught my attention. The use of the same name is intended to infer a sense of legitimacy on the group, their actions and their views. Sophie and her compatriots, after all, secretly distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets, some by post, some in person, most notably in the main building of their university – Ludwigs-Maximillian University, Munich. The pamphlets were not the only means used to distribute the group’s anti-Nazi messages; they also painted anti-Nazi slogans on buildings and walls around the city of Munich. In this way this anti-vaxx organisation is not only taking their name but also adopting similar tactics as if to infer a continuity with those who opposed fascism and were executed for their legitimate stance. That is deeply troubling but also what it also shows how important a knowledge of history is – this group aren’t the first ever to manipulate the past in pursuit of their own agenda, and they doubtlessly will not be the last, those orchestrating this anti-vaxx campaign clearly know their history and how to manipulate it – but knowing history also enables you to recognise when it is being manipulated – a knowledge of history serves as a sort of inoculation in itself – one against historical manipulation.

On first seeing the anti-vaxx campaign stickers, my immediate response was to fetch my camera and take as many images as I could. I will not share them, rather they serve as a record for the future. The campaign is undeniably clever in many ways – the persuasive potential lies in the fact that the messages do not preach as such, but they suggest a path to enlightenment that the reader is enjoined to follow, they ask you to respect these views and the messages appear to convey a rational truth about what is happening – when in fact it is the opposition. These stickers are multiple with the organisation clearly using the tactic of sheer volume in conveying the message – the more you see of something, so the thinking goes, the more likely you are to believe in it, especially if the person who reads it is hard of thinking. Sticker messages include references to the media lying – reminiscent of designation of the media as the Lügenpresse, or lying press, a pejorative term that dates at least from World War One and was later adopted by the Nazis and more recently Donald Trump. Others play on the long since disputed defence of many a Nazi war criminal or Wehrmacht apologist of ‘just following orders’. The campaign is undoubtedly clever, and it is certainly being orchestrated by people who know their history and know how to manipulate it so that people follow. Having even a little relevant historical knowledge meant it was easy to spot the significance of these phrases and the imagery and to see it for the mind-warping manipulation that it is, but not knowing your history is proving deadly – if not for you then for others. Those that are taken in by this campaign my do so in ignorance rather than malice, but the end effect is the same – the greater the impact of this campaign, the fewer the people who will get themselves vaccinated, the more COVID-19 and its various variants will spread, and more people will die unnecessarily.

The campaign has not met with a resounding success everywhere – over in Sheffield people kept removing the stickers and after a while replacements stopped appearing, but that is not the case near me. No sooner are they removed than replacements appear. I have taken to writing counter-messages so that at least for a while the toxic messages are undermined or concealed but the campaign’s impact is plain to see in the looks I get for walking around wearing a mask, in our neighbours’ politely shared but ill-informed anti-vaccination views, and more so in the fact that the local vaccination centre has walk-in days. I found this out from a chance, overheard conversation, went along and asked if I could have mine even though I did not have an appointment. I was welcomed in. On being advised that it was the AstraZeneca vaccine and replying I’ll have whatever you’re offering, my response was greeted with a ‘good on ya’ that echoed around the near empty hall that was doubling as a vaccination centre. In that echoey hall then the quiet impact of the anti-vaxx campaign – the impact that is going largely unseen but is deadly. We will perhaps never know how many people died because of the anti-vaxx campaigning but we can say with certainty that being historically ignorant is deadly.  

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