Between ‘mouth-nose-protection’ and ‘muzzle’
Mask-wearing in German public debate
Joachim Scharloth (Waseda University, Tokyo)
Scharloth, Joachim. “Between ‘mouth-Noseprotection’ and ‘Muzzle.’” Public Behavioural Responses to Policy Making during the Pandemic, edited by Susumu Annaka, Masahisa Endo, Noriko Suzuki, Xavier Mellet, 1st ed., Routledge, 2022, pp. 57–75.
▤ Table of Contents
This chapter explores the interpretive frames that have been invoked in German public discourse on the issue of mask-wearing. First, the history of official policies on masks is outlined as well as recommendations from German ministerial epidemiologists. In addition, a short overview of street protests with regard to COVID-19 policies in Germany is provided. To explore the meaning attributed to mask-wearing in different parts of public discourse, this chapter focuses on nomination strategies. By analysing the referential, evaluative and emotive dimensions of mask-related terms, the underlying semantic and argumentative structures of public discourse become apparent. The frequencies of interpretive frames over the course of the pandemic are then traced based on the distribution of the linguistic references. Using a corpus linguistic approach as a methodological framework, the study is based on a corpus of approximately 90 million words that consist of all texts of the German newspaper Die Welt as well as all articles and user comments from the right-wing news platform Politically Incorrect ( from 1 January 2020 to 1 July 2021. The key finding is that while mainstream society embraces masks as a means of protection from contagion, the radical right, from the very beginning of the pandemic, has framed the mask as a symbol of a supposed totalitarian state and quasi-dictatorial government.
0. Introduction

On 18 September 2021, an alleged politically motivated murder occurred at a filling station in Idar-Oberstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. According to the investigations to date, on a Saturday evening, a 49-year-old man entered the kiosk at the filling station without a mask and placed two six-packs of beer on the counter at the cash register. The 20-year-old cashier reminded him of the obligation to wear a mask. Shortly after, the man left the filling station, making threatening gestures. At around 9:45 p.m., the suspect again entered the filling station, this time wearing a mouth-to-nose mask. At the cash register, he pulled down the mask. The cashier advised the man again to comply with the requirement to wear a mask. Instead of putting the mask back on, the man drew a revolver and fired a fatal shot at the 20-year-old student from Idar-Oberstein. He then fled on foot but later handed himself into the police. He was arrested and gave as a motive that the pandemic was weighing heavily on him. He had felt cornered and ‘saw no other way out’ than to make a mark. He stated that the victim seemed to him to be ‘responsible for the overall situation, since he enforced the rules’ (SWR 2021). Furthermore, in his interview, he stated that he rejected the COVID-19 protection measures.

This event highlights how the discussion around wearing masks in the Federal Republic of Germany is far more than a question of hygiene. Rather, the mask has become a symbol that can be politically interpreted in different, sometimes radical, ways.

Germany is not a traditionally mask-wearing country, at least not in everyday life. The face is considered to be a mirror of the personality. At the same time, the mask is associated with disguise or is representative of a sophisticated game of identity. Criminals wear masks to protect themselves from identification. However, masks can also be worn in theatres or at carnivals, where reality is temporarily suspended and people can assume another identity. In years gone by, masks were used as a punishment. In the 17th and 18th centuries, delinquents – such as adulterers and slanderers – were sentenced to wear a mask of shame (known as a scold’s bridle). The person was reduced to the level of their crime by the mask and made to appear as the community saw them. While the medical mask signifies hygiene, it also demonstrates the risk of infection. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become prevalent in everyday life, but at the same time, it has become an object of various designations.


This chapter will explore the debate around mask-wearing in Germany in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on the politicisation of the mask. As it is predominantly the radical right of the political spectrum that has framed mask-wearing as more than a hygiene measure, the analysis focuses on criticisms of masks in right-wing online discourses.

The chapter is organised as follows: Section 1 traces the development of the legal and institutional framework of the COVID-19 policy in Germany, with a specific focus on legal ordinances on the wearing of masks. Section 2 explores critical protest events to show how the anti-COVID-19 movement has become radicalised and developed into a far-right movement. Section 3 presents the theoretical and methodological frameworks of the study. Drawing on linguistic theory, the concept of nomination is introduced, and the power of linguistic naming as a means of structuring reality is discussed. Section 4 presents the data basis, and Section 5 presents the results of the corpus-based study: the development of interpretive frames over the course of the pandemic based on the distribution of linguistic references. The research question aims to address whether the criticism of COVID-19 policies is related to the political measures that were put in place or whether these measures were simply a pretext for a more general agenda aiming to subvert trust in Germany’s political system.


1. The legal and institutional framework for the handling of a pandemic in Germany

The Federal Republic of Germany consists of the national state (federal government, Bund) and 16 partly sovereign states, the federal states (Bundesländer), which in turn perform their own governmental functions. In Germany, infection control is a shared responsibility of the federal and state governments. As a result, health policy measures were implemented at different times and, in some cases, in different forms in various states. Therefore, the following chronological account does not provide a detailed list of all measures but is based on the major milestones of the country’s COVID-19 policy.

The general basis for government action at the federal and state levels is the Infection Protection Act (Infektionsschutzgesetz, IfSG). This act was ratified on 20 July 2000 and came into force on 1 January 2001. It is a federal law concerning common or communicable diseases in humans and regulates the necessary cooperation and collaboration between federal, state and local authorities, physicians, veterinarians, hospitals, scientific institutions and other stakeholders. It is intended to prevent communicable diseases, detect infections at an early stage and prevent their further spread. The law allows the authorities to sanction measures for the prevention and control of communicable diseases. While the term prevention refers to preventing the emergence of communicable diseases, the term control refers to the prevention of the spread of existing diseases. However, the IfSG restricts fundamental rights. These include physical integrity and freedom of the person, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, mail and postal secrecy and inviolability of the home. In addition, a ban on professional activities [58|59] can be imposed (IfSG 2021). The four federal Laws for the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance (Gesetz zum Schutz der Bevölkerung bei einer epidemischen Lage von nationaler Tragweite) enacted during the pandemic made amendments to the Infection Protection Act.

However, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was no talk of new legislative initiatives. Rather, the government assessed the risk to the German population as low and the virus, in general, as far less dangerous than SARS (Ärzteblatt 2020a). Yet uncertainty spread among the population, and as early as 29 January 2020, the day after the first confirmed case in Germany, newspapers were reporting that masks were sold out (Koopmann 2020).

The following weeks were marked by discussions about tests, tracking, possible travel restrictions and the procurement of protective material for medical professionals. On 29 February 2020, Ursula Heinen-Esser, minister of health for North Rhine-Westphalia, advised against panic buying (WDR 2020). The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German federal government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention, published guidelines stating that ‘there is insufficient evidence that wearing oral-nasal protection significantly reduces the risk of infection for a healthy person’ (Bayerischer Hausärzteverband 2020). In early March, Germany prohibited the export of protective masks, Mediclinic gloves and hazmat suits.

The situation started to change as cases rose. On 13 March 2020, after a meeting of the Conference of Education Ministers, all states decided to close their schools. On 22 March, the federal and state governments agreed to impose comprehensive restrictions regarding social contact. Among other things, a minimum distance of at least 1.50 m between people was introduced in public spaces, and people were only permitted in public spaces either alone or with one other person from outside their household. Restaurants, cafés and numerous other service businesses were closed (Bundesregierung 2020a).

On 27 March 2020, the first Act on the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance was passed (IfSG 2020). It authorised the Federal Ministry of Health, without the consent of the Bundesrat (the legislative body that represents the 16 federated states), to take measures with regard to the supply of medicines. This meant that in addition to the administrative competence of the federal states, in the event of an epidemic emergency caused by a transboundary communicable disease spreading throughout the entire federal territory, the Federal Ministry of Health could take steps to purchase and provide narcotics, medical devices, laboratory diagnostics, medical aids, items of personal protective equipment and products for disinfection. Furthermore, it meant that they could also increase human resources in the healthcare system.

On 15 April 2020, the federal government and all states extended restrictions regarding contact and, for the first time, strongly recommended that citizens use everyday masks (Alltagsmasken, cloth face masks), especially on public transport and when shopping in retail stores (Bundeskanzlerin 2020). Between 22 and 29 April, all states sanctioned mandatory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops (Deutsche Welle 2020). Due to the measures showing rapid success [59|60] and case numbers dropping, the first relaxations of the pandemic measures were adopted on 6 May 2020. However, contact restrictions, as well as mask mandates, remained in place. A Second Law on the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance (19 May 2020) further supplemented the regulations and measures that had already been adopted.

After a relaxed summer with very low numbers of cases, mandatory masks in schools became an important public issue with the end of the summer holidays and warnings of a seasonal increase in illness. On 20 August 2020, the Münster Higher Administrative Court approved the mandatory use of masks in school lessons. There was also controversy regarding whether masks should be mandated in outdoor public spaces. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn spoke out against nationwide mask requirements in public spaces on national television on 24 September 2020 (NDR 2020). In October 2020, Klaus Reinhardt, president of the German Medical Association, said that if sufficient distance could be maintained, mask requirements in public spaces would be excessive (Ärzteblatt 2020b). Nevertheless, many cities and administrative districts decided that when the case numbers were high, people in outdoor public spaces had to wear mouth-to-nose coverings.

With the buildup of the second wave from October 2020, the federal government and the states agreed on a flexible reaction according to the incidence rate, the so-called hotspot strategy (Bundesregierung 2020b). In counties with an incidence rate above a certain threshold, restrictions on social contacts were imposed. However, when these measures did not sufficiently contain the pandemic, representatives of the federal government and the states agreed, on 28 October 2020, to enact a lockdown light, i.e. nationwide restrictions on public life and social contacts (Ärztezeitung 2020a). This lockdown was extended on 25 November, this time based on the third Law for the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance, which was enacted on 18 November 2020. This law allowed the government to impose the following measures, among others: ordering social distancing in public areas; an obligation to wear a mouth-to-nose covering (mask obligation); curfews or contact restrictions in private as well as public areas; prohibitions or restrictions as regards recreational, cultural and sporting events; obligation to draw up and apply hygiene measures for businesses and facilities; prohibition or restriction of overnight stays; and ordering the processing of customers’ contact data, including guests or event participants.

As case numbers were still rising in December 2020, a ‘hard lockdown’ was agreed on 13 December (Ärztezeitung 2020b). This included the closure of most shops and service businesses. Day care centres and schools were closed or converted to distance learning. Businesses had to switch to home-based operations as much as possible. Tighter mobility restrictions were adopted for areas with high rates of infection. In addition, other infection-control measures were established, such as the obligation to wear medical masks in public transport and stores. All at-risk groups get access to free or discounted FFP2 masks, i.e. level 2 Filtering Face Pieces, comparable with N95 respirators (Bundesgesundheitsministerium [60|61] 2020). From 18 January 2021, an FFP2 mandate was introduced in Germany, starting in the state of Bavaria, on public transport and in retail outlets (BR 2021).

It took until 3 March 2021 for federal and state governments to agree to gradually relax the measures but only in the case of a stable incidence rate of less than 50 new infections. Shortly after, the so-called mask affair became public. Politicians from the governing Christian Democrats (from the CDU and CSU parties) had made considerable profits through commissions when procuring masks during the first months of the pandemic.1

From 23 April to 30 June 2021, the fourth Law for the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance, colloquially known as the Federal Emergency Brake, was applied nationwide in Germany (Bundesregierung 2021). The legal regulations took effect on 24 April 2021 in all counties and independent cities where the 7-day incidence rate was exceeding 100 for 3 consecutive days. These regulations usually resulted in stricter contact restrictions. In addition, there was a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the affected counties and independent cities.


2. Protests over COVID-19 policies

Although the anti-COVID-19 measures were judged adequate or even not extensive enough by 75% to 80% of the German population, they were opposed by about one-fifth of citizens (Infratest dimap 2021). This opposition was due to several factors, such as the restrictions on fundamental rights, the view that COVID-19 was just a mild form of influenza and finally the denial of the existence of the disease. The protest movement that had formed experienced its first peak in the summer of 2020 when the incidence rate was low. At the beginning of the movement, many different groups called for rallies, but from summer 2020, the Querdenken movement started to dominate the protests over COVID-19 policies. The original group from the Stuttgart area also held various demonstrations in Berlin.

On 29 August 2020, more than 43,000 people (Correctiv 2020) participated in a demonstration demanding the end of all anti-COVID-19 measures and the immediate resignation of the government. Querdenken founder Michael Ballweg even called for a new Constituent Assembly (Heidtmann 2020). In total, 450 to 500 people, among them many supporters of the Reichsbürger movement2 and Holocaust deniers, overpowered the barriers in front of the Reichstag building, occupied the steps and tried to enter the building, at which point they were stopped by the police. Many of the demonstrators waved the war flags of the German Reich.

More than 10,000 people demonstrated in the immediate vicinity of the Reichstag on 18 November 2020, the day of the vote on the third Law for the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance. During the demonstration, 77 police officers were injured, and 365 demonstrators were arrested.


On 21 April 2021, around 8,000 people gathered in Berlin to demonstrate against the amendment to the fourth Law for the Protection of the Population in the Event of an Epidemic Situation of National Significance, which they compared with the Enabling Act of the National Socialists in 1933. Due to the ongoing and widespread violations of the pandemic law, the police dissolved the demonstrations. Numerous demonstrators pursued violent confrontations with the police. A total of 250 people were arrested on that day.

It is not surprising that since December 2020, regional sections of the Querdenken movement have been classified as extremist and monitored by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In fact, from April 2021, the whole movement has been monitored.

The history of the COVID-19 policy protests in Germany is, as shown by these examples of critical events, one of political radicalisation regarding right-wing extremist attitudes and militancy, which aim to abolish the current liberal–democratic order.


3. Theoretical and methodological approach
3.1 Nomination strategies in language and politics

When looking at the social meaning of an item, it is important to consider the different ways it is linguistically referred to in society. Reality is not specific. Instead, several descriptions of reality are possible. When the meaning of a cultural entity is contested in society, different competing names or labels can emerge. When certain words become established in linguistic usage, this usually signifies that a certain interpretation has become hegemonic. Whether the attack on the Capitol in Washington on 6 January 2021 is called an act of protest against state injustice, as covered by the First Amendment, or an attempted coup d’état is not simply a question of right or wrong. Both interpretations are highly plausible, at least for part of the American society in each case. Public debate will decide which term will prevail.

Language-in-politics research is concerned with strategies to designate cultural entities or politically controversial matters so that the political action of the group using them appears adequate or necessary. This approach is evident in the concept of nomination. The basis of nomination theory is that linguistic conceptualisation and object constitution go hand in hand and that it is only in acts of communication that objects or facts can be made available intersubjectively (cf. Wengeler 2017, p. 28). Linguistic object construction owes much to the principles of perspectivisation (Köller 2004) relating to hiding and highlighting (Spieß 2017, p. 99): in the use of a particular expression to refer to an object, certain aspects of meaning are emphasised, whereas others recede into the background (cf. Klein 1991).

When calling a mask a Mund-Nasen-Schutz (mouth–nose protection), its function of protection is at the forefront. When calling it a Zwangsmaulkorb (coercive muzzle), the mask is framed as a medium of coercion that, rather than protecting its wearer, provides protection for those who have imposed it. Obviously, hiding and highlighting are not simply descriptive functions of nomination. Rather, in [62|63] the act of linguistic reference, an evaluation is also expressed, and with it, a deontic dimension of meaning is invoked. Protection is something that has a positive connotation and is, therefore, desirable. Protecting oneself and others is a socially desirable action. On the contrary, a muzzle is a restriction of freedom. Muzzles are for dangerous animals, and humans should not have to wear them.

The linguistic considerations in this section demonstrate that references to masks hold relevant specific aspects of the referenced object and hide others. They furthermore have pragmatic-evaluative and deontic dimensions. With regard to the function of the mask in public discourse, we must ask which of its aspects are often established as relevant and which, if any, are hidden. We must also consider which evaluations and attitudes are expressed by it and what calls to action are associated with the words used.

To trace the different nomination strategies in public discourse, large text corpora were examined.

To start with, as many different terms for masks as possible were identified in the text corpora. This was done by both studying central texts and specifically querying relevant lexemes used as names for masks in compounds. This group included expressions referring to parts of the body covered by masks, the excretions of respiratory organs and fabrics, garments and materials for covering or veiling. Aside from Maske (mask), these were the lexemes Mund (mouth), Maul (mouth), Nase (nose), Rachen (throat), Gesicht (face), Knebel (gag), Binde (bandage/sanitary pad), Schal (scarf), Lappen (rag), Filter (filter), Atem (breath), Aerosol (aerosol), Spucke (spit), Rotz (snot), Bedeckung (covering), Helm (helmet), Burka (burka), Haube (hood), Vorrichtung (device) and Blocker (blocker). This search resulted in 239 different terms for the cultural concept of ‘mask’.

In the second part of the process, these lexemes were categorised into terms referring to the mask as a commercial product, terms regarding the form or function of the mask and mask-critical terms. As the focus was on mask-critical discourse, the latter category was further categorised into semantic subgroups. Subsequently, the distribution of these lexemes and lexeme categories was examined in two ways: first, the distribution in different media, and second, the frequency of their use over the course of the pandemic. The latter was correlated with critical events in public discourse and the incidence rates during the pandemic.

The final step of the analysis identified compounds in which Maske (mask) appeared as a modifier. This needs further explanation. In German, the most productive word formation process is compounding, creating lexemes consisting of more than one stem. Compounds are written in one word. Most compounds are endocentric compounds. They consist of a head containing the basic meaning and modifiers, which restrict this meaning. For example, a Kinderarzt (paediatrician) is an Arzt (doctor) but one taking care of Kinder (children). By analysing compounds with Maske as a modifier, one can determine which other words are modified or specified in meaning by the term ‘mask‘. The analysis revealed 70 lexemes of this type, e.g. Maskenterror (mask terror) and Maskenlüge (mask lie). These terms were again semantically categorised, and the frequency of occurrence of the words in each category was examined in different media corpora.

3.2 Corpora

The corpora were selected to represent the full spectrum of opinions in the mainstream media’s discourse as represented by the daily Die Welt, and the discourse of critics of the COVID-19 policy, using the news platform PI-News as an example.

Die Welt is one of few national German daily newspapers. The paper is read by people on the bourgeois-conservative spectrum. The Internet news portal of Welt Group was launched in 1995 under the name Welt Online. At, users can access an electronic newspaper archive of all articles published since its digitisation in May 1995. For the present study, all articles from 1 January 2020 to 1 July 2021 were automatically downloaded and processed as part of the analysis.

The newspaper strongly criticised other media outlets for their coverage of COVID-19 and policies to curb the pandemic. For example, Andreas Rosenfelder, head of Die Welt’s feuilleton section, accused the media of preferring to criticise the government’s detractors instead of taking a critical look at its measures. ‘Or people have been critical of the critics, lumping them all into the camp of corona deniers and conspiracy theorists’, he told the radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur in an interview in January 2021.3

Due to the fact that the newspaper made the effort to critically examine the effectiveness of the COVID-19 policy, allowing controversial critics to have their say and giving plenty of space to those on the fringe, it can be seen as a bridge between the Querdenken movement and the broad social consensus of the proponents of the measures. Therefore, it provides interesting and relevant data for the study.

The news platform Politically Incorrect (short form PI-News) was founded in 2004. The platform names its central political standpoints as ‘news against the mainstream – pro-American – pro-Israeli – against the Islamisation of Europe – for the constitution and human rights’. However, media and political scientists agree that PI-News is a central platform for alternative news from the far right (Weisskircher 2020) and the most important online platform of the German-speaking Islamophobic scene (Schneiders 2016). Since its launch, the platform has been characterised by a monothematic and negative selection of topics and biased and distorting framing (Müller, 2008). The popularity of PI-News grew during the so-called refugee crisis (Weisskircher 2020). During the pandemic, the platform has been a forum for critics of measures, COVID-19 deniers and conspiracy theorists.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report of 2019, PI-News ranks third in the new right’s media ranking after the weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit and the monthly magazine Compact (Newman 2019). User comments play a significant role in the popularity of the platform and are often far more radical than the posts themselves (Müller 2008).

The following empirical study is concerned with both the articles and comments. All articles published from 1 January 2020 to 1 July 2021 were scraped from the online platform, together with their comments, and processed for analysis.


While software written by the author was used for scraping and pre-processing the data, TreeTagger (Schmid 1995) was used for lemmatisation and annotation with part of speech information. Overall, the empirical basis for the analyses in the following sections consists of three subcorpora (Die Welt, PI-News articles, PI-News comments), the size and composition of which are presented in Table 1.

Source Number of Texts Number of Words
PI-News articles 3,800 2,059,521
PI-News comments 343,747 24,552,771
Die Welt 312,708 64,737,303
Table 1: Number of texts and number of words in each subcorpus


4. Findings
4.1 Mask discourse, incidence rates and critical events

The first research question is whether public discourse regarding masks is driven by the infection rate or by political and discursive events. To answer this question, the frequency of occurrence of all 239 terms referencing a mask was counted week by week in all three corpora and correlated with the incidence rate in Germany. This assumes that an intensification of the discourse on a topic also results in an increase of thematically relevant terms. If the incidence rate increases, one could suppose that the need to wear a mask will become more obvious to the public and will, therefore, be discussed more frequently in the media.


>A line chart showing the weekly frequency of mask-related terms per 1 million words in all subcorpora from 1 January 2020 to 1 July 2021 on the primary y-axis. Six relative maxima are highlighted in the graph, which peaks in calendar week 17 of 2020. The development of the incidence rate in the same time span is shown on the secondary y-axis. The chart illustrates that incidence rate and usage of mask-related terms show no correlation.
Figure 1: Frequency of occurrence of terms referencing masks in all subcorpora (primary y-axis) and incidence rate (secondary y-axis) per calendar week from 1 January 2020 to 1 July 2021.
(Source: author’s own illustration)


Yet, as presented in Figure 1, there is no correlation between incidence rate and occurrence frequency of the terms. Only in the first phase do both incidence and the number of linguistic references increase together, which is to be expected insofar as the emergence of a new phenomenon is accompanied by a need to name it. Thus, the reason for the variation in the frequency of use of mask-related expressions must be related to events that are not directly dependent on the infection rate. Rather, the variation must be caused by political measures directly related to mask procurement and wearing as well as mask-related discursive events.

The highlighted phases in Figure 1 with relative maxima in the usage of mask-related terms can be attributed to the following events presented in Section 1:

4.2 Nomination and framing

From a nomination-theoretical perspective, it is of interest to see which aspects of masks are defined as relevant through their specific designation in the three [66|67] subcorpora. To track down the relevant semantic dimensions, we calculated which of the 239 mask-related terms occurred significantly more often in each subcorpus (Die Welt, PI-News articles, PI-News comments) when compared with the other two subcorpora. The calculation was based on a normalised frequency value (relative frequency per 1 million words). The log-likelihood ratio served as a significance measure; only words with a LLR p-value < 0.05 were considered statistically significant. The outcome of the analyses was visualised as a word cloud. The size of the words in the word cloud represents their logarithmic frequency, i.e. the more often a word occurs in the subcorpus, the bigger its size in the word cloud.


Word cloud showing mask-related terms occurring significantly more often in newspaper articles of Die Welt. The size of the words represents their logarithmic frequency. The biggest words in the illustration are technical terms for masks like 'mouth–nose covering' and 'infection protection'.
Figure 2: Mask-related terms occurring significantly more often in newspaper articles from Die Welt
(Source: author’s own illustration)


Figure 2 demonstrates that in Die Welt articles, standardised expressions and technical terms for masks were used significantly more often than in the other subcorpora.


Word cloud showing mask-related terms occurring significantly more often in PI-News articles. The size of the words represents their logarithmic frequency. The biggest words in the illustration are sarcastic expressions like 'pest mask' and 'spit hood'.
Figure 3: Mask-related terms occurring significantly more often in PI-News articles
(Source: author’s own illustration)


In contrast, in articles from the far-right news platform PI-News, satirical expressions (spit hood, pest mask), terms that refer to the mask as a means of disguise (taqiyya4 mask, camouflage mask, character mask, balaclava5), expressions that emphasise the coercive character of masks (muzzle, corona muzzle, coercive mask, scold’s bridle) and one term using the person allegedly responsible for mask mandates as a modifier (Merkel mask) occur significantly more often than in the other subcorpora (Figure 3). It is obvious that the mask is not considered a serious method of controlling the pandemic but rather as a means of oppression and disguise. Furthermore, the mask is equated with the political leadership of the Federal Republic of Germany.


Word cloud showing mask-related terms occurring significantly more often in PI-News comments. The size of the words represents their logarithmic frequency. Among the biggest words in the illustration are mask-critical terms associating it with politics like 'muzzle', 'Merkel muzzle', 'mouthguard' and 'Merkel protection'.
Figure 4: Mask-related terms occurring significantly more often in PI-News comments
(Source: author’s own illustration)


In Figure 4, we can see that the vocabulary used in the user comments of PI-News is more diversified overall. Therefore, expressions occur significantly more often than in the other subcorpora. Here, we also find satirical expressions critical of wearing masks, often questioning their effectiveness (face condom, vacuum cleaner bag, spit mask, spitting hood, spit guard, face diaper, virus slinger, trunk [67|68] cloth, breath obstruction mask), and some that are outright derogatory (snout rag, dirt rag, ffp2 hate mask). Except for the term mask, terms that emphasise the coercive nature of the measures have the highest significance value (muzzle, Merkel muzzle, coercive mask, muzzle mask, Corona muzzle).

The term muzzle as a metaphor can be interpreted in different ways. On the one hand, a muzzle is a device that restricts the freedom of a dog, its main purpose being to protect other people or animals. In this sense, the mask can be understood as an instrument used by the government to protect itself from the population. On the other hand, the term ‘muzzle’ in German also figuratively refers to a ban on speech and thus to an encroachment on the freedom of expression.


Another category of expressions politicises the mask. This is done by making German chancellor Angela Merkel personally responsible for the allegedly misguided mask policies (Merkel muzzle, Merkel mask, Merkel spit guard, Merkel protection, Merkel cloth). Furthermore, mask and mask-wearing is also related to other policy fields, namely, migration and EU policy (do-gooder6 mask, welcome culture mask, EU cloth).

Critics of the mask policy feel that wearing masks interferes with their fundamental rights. As demonstrated by the concept of the muzzle, this is in relation not only to the requirement to wear mouth–nose protection but also to the democratic rights of freedom. The mask is a symbol of restrictions on freedom and a reference to a potential future dictatorship. The performative effect of the wearing of masks is that the citizen becomes a dangerous person who poses a threat to the government. Criticisms of the mask are also criticisms of the head of government as a representative of the state.


A line chart showing the weekly frequency of terms from three semantic categories from 1 January 2020 to 1 July 2021: (1) terms referring to the mask as a commercial product, (2) terms regarding the form or function of masks and (3) mask-critical terms. The figure demonstrates that expressions criticising and politicising the mask were part of the critics’ repertoire from the start of the public debate.
Figure 5: Frequency of occurrence of semantic categories of mask-related terms per calendar week from 1 January 2020 to 1 July 2021
(Source: author’s own illustration)


Figure 5 demonstrates that expressions criticising the mask and, thus, the system and its representatives did not start to take shape during the course of the pandemic but were part of the critics’ repertoire from the start of the public debate. The graph shows the distribution of three categories of terms in which the 239 mask-related expressions were grouped: terms referring to the mask as a commercial product, terms regarding the form and function of masks and [69|70] mask-critical terms. Even though terms regarding the form or function of masks occur about seven times more often on average, mask-critical terms appear from calendar week 13, with muzzle being the most popular. From calendar week 17, Merkel muzzle became a popular term.

The peaks in the graph representing the development of the use of mask-critical terms correspond to the big Querdenken demonstration in Berlin where there were excessive violations of social distancing rules and the mask mandate on August 29 (calendar week 36, 2020). They also correspond to a campaign against mandatory FFP2 masks in early February (calendar week 5, 2021). The data demonstrate that criticism of masks did not gradually develop as a result of the pandemic measures into a general criticism of the political system. Rather, the interpretation suggests that the term ‘mask’ was used from the start to reinforce an already widespread mood in the radical right-wing milieu, namely, that the Federal Republic of Germany is an undemocratic regime ruled by a dictatorial government.

Criticism of mask mandates is, therefore, a pretext to pursue a more general agenda aimed at subverting trust in Germany’s political system. In doing so, the radical right follows a pattern that has been evident many times in the past. On virtually every political issue of national scope, the radical right and its parliamentary arm, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), occupy positions of fundamental opposition. They call for Germany to leave the euro, to leave the European Union (the so-called Dexit) and to suspend the basic right to asylum. Furthermore, they oppose vaccination against COVID-19 and all other measures to contain the pandemic.

Their justifications are the same: the government’s policies lead to the loss of sovereignty and restrictions on citizens’ freedom, allegedly pursuing the goal of abolishing Germany, replacing its population and suppressing opposition to this process. Mask mandates are inserted into this sequence as another narrative thread. Masks are stylised as a medium of dictatorial oppression that represents the restriction of fundamental rights and the gagging of the national opposition.

This interpretation is supported by the distribution of expressions in which Maske (mask) is used as a modifier. Expressions depicting the effectiveness of wearing masks as fake, such as Maskentheater (mask theatre) and Maskenlüge (mask lie), are comparatively rare (0.05 per 1 million words). Terms characterising the use of a mask as a collective mental disorder, such as Masken-Wahn (mask madness), Maskenirrsinn (mask insanity), Masken-Blödsinn (mask nonsense) and Maskenidiotie (mask idiocy), are also not very frequent (0.18 per 1 million words). The vast majority (3.29 per 1 million words) of terms with Maske as a modifier characterise mask-related regulation as coercive, e.g. Masken-Zwang (mask coercion), Maskenterror (mask terror) and Masken-Diktatur (mask dictatorship).


5. Final remarks

The mask has been transformed into a symbol representing the alleged dictatorial character of the Federal Republic of Germany and its government. This is also [70|71] evident by the number of online stores of right-wing extremists where masks carrying printed political messages can be purchased. In addition to masks with the slogan Merkel Maulkorb (Merkel muzzle), there are also masks in which the Federal Republic is explicitly or implicitly compared with the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Figure 6 demonstrates that, on the one hand, the Federal Republic is declared to be a second German Democratic Republic (DDR 2.0) but that, on the other hand, the Nazi regime also serves as a benchmark.7


Picture of six face masks with various imprints from the radical right online Some of the imprints compare today’s Germany with the GDR; others make reference to the Nazi era.
Figure 6: Sample masks from the radical right online shop ‘’


Heil Corona uses the Hitler salute, and its graphic design is reminiscent of the Reichsadler (Imperial Eagle) with a swastika. Jedem die Seine is intended to denote that everyone gets the mask they deserve. However, it is also an obvious allusion to Jedem das Seine (to each what he deserves), the motto at the entrance to the Buchenwald camp, thus comparing the mask mandate with imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Anne Frank wäre bei uns (Anne Frank would be one of us) is further proof of the spiral of self-victimisation in which mask critics are caught, comparing themselves with persecuted Jews during the Nazi era. Wo bleibt Stauffenberg? (Where is Stauffenberg?) is a call to action against the German government, as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was a key player in the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944.

The murderer in Idar-Oberstein also operated according to this ideology. The simple obligation to wear a mask to prevent the spread of a virus had become a symbol of dictatorship. The wearing of a mask for no more than 5 minutes while buying two six-packs of beer became, in this thinking, an act of humiliation before [71|72] this supposed dictatorship. As the analyses have revealed, the mask is simply a tool for right-wing radicals and extremists to further reject democracy, mobilise their activists and win new supporters.


Online resources

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Ärztezeitung (2020a) Corona ‘Lockdown light’ likely to begin Nov. 2 (in German). Available at: (Accessed: 17 November 2021).

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Deutschlandfunk (2021) Journalists too often see themselves as ‘advocates of our system’. (in German). Available at: (Accessed: 17 November 2021).

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