In her office in Freiburg im Breisgau, a town in the sunny southwestern corner of Germany at the foot of the Black Forest, Sarah Pohl is overwhelmed. A woman has called in distress after her husband said he would divorce her if she got vaccinated. A man has lamented that his wife refused to send the kids to school, fearing that wearing masks would damage their brains. Another woman was alarmed after her partner insisted that they migrate to Paraíso Verde, a Paraguayan community offering newcomers a life “outside of the ‘matrix’ ” without 5G, chemtrails, and mandatory vaccinations.
Tending to such calls is Pohl’s job. A blond-haired, soft-spoken therapist in her 40s, she holds what must be one of Germany’s most peculiar taxpayer-funded jobs: She’s a counselor on cult duty.
While the rest of the world tends to see German affairs as stable and even boringly predictable, in the last year and change of the Merkel era, the country has become a flashpoint for conspiratorial thinking. The majority of Germans supported the government’s handling of the pandemic, but the country also saw some of the fiercest pandemic-related protests in the world, according to multiple media reports, with many started by a group called Querdenken, which originated near Freiburg. In August 2020 in Berlin, a few hundred protesters who believed that Donald Trump had come to the German capital to “liberate” the country even attempted to “storm” the Reichstag. And ahead of the September 2021 general election, theories circulated that the Green Party leader’s college degree was fake, that the floods that ravaged the country’s west in July were planned by Merkel’s government to gin up support for her party in the polls, and that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud. Calls began to pour in from confused people wondering if they should break off contact with conspiracy theorist and pandemic-denying relatives or friends.
Most of these theories reached Pohl’s office. Over the course of many months, she and her four co-workers, who call their specific intervention services Zebra (there are multiple such offices by different names and with slightly different focuses in other states), came to play a distinctive role in untangling the ways pandemic-related theories have driven rifts among Germans, separating families and turning friends against one another. Pohl’s team was tasked with helping to defuse conflicts, build bridges, and mend the suffering and anxiety that so many across the West have experienced since the start of the pandemic. Their services, like those offered by the other regional offices, are free to all citizens.
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