Like the United States, Germany has a thriving anti-vaccination movement, and here it has encompassed conspiracy theorists, left-leaning spiritualists, and the far right. These last ties are the most troubling. In German-speaking lands, anti-science sentiment, right-wing politics, and racism have been entwined since even before Jews were accused of spreading the bubonic plague in the 14th century. These movements illustrate a grim truth: In both the past and the present, anti-science sentiments are inextricably tangled with racial prejudice.
Anti-vaccine movements are as old as vaccines, the scholar Jonathan M. Berman notes in his book, Anti-vaxxers, and what is striking, according to the author, is that early opponents at the turn of the 18th century believed that vaccination was “a foreign assault on traditional order.” But beliefs linking anti-science sentiment and anti-Semitism were already deeply set. During the plague outbreak of 1712 and 1713, for instance, the city of Hamburg initiated public-health measures including forbidding Jews from entering or leaving the city, Philipp Osten, the director of Hamburg’s Institute for History and Ethics of Medicine, told me. By the time cholera emerged in the 19th century, sickening thousands of people in the city within a matter of months, these antiquated ideas took on a new form.
Because this new disease was poorly understood, doctors, scientists, and laypeople promulgated competing theories about its spread. Some physicians blamed cholera on alcohol consumption, others on sadness or fear. Self-published pamphlets circulated misinformation much as social-media posts do today, and the public’s understanding of the disease was capacious, in many cases reflecting people’s anxieties. These ideas might have been innocuous enough on their own, but consummated through social movements and disinformation, they often posed a threat to people’s lives. As the historian Richard J. Evans has noted in Death in Hamburg, some Germans blamed the spread of cholera on Jews. These sentiments then extended to other epidemics, and to the vaccination movement. By the middle of the 19th century, anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets were being written against smallpox vaccination.
When cholera reemerged with full force in Hamburg in the late 19th century, local officials—following the advice of the scientists Robert Koch and Max von Pettenkofer—proposed a bill of public-health regulations such as school closures, disinfection of waterways, and quarantine. This led to a national uproar among constituents who saw state-enforced health measures as a threat to the German economy—and this time an ad hoc coalition joined together to oppose such measures. The German National Economic Association argued that the bill interfered with economic trade and personal freedom. But the opposition was as much about ethnicity as economics.