BERLIN—Some of the German protesters sat cross legged on the pavement, eyes closed. They were meditating against the coronavirus. Other demonstrators sang songs from the Fridays for Future ecology movement created by Greta Thunberg. And some who claimed they were demanding their civil rights shouted, “We are the people,” a slogan favored by Germany’s right-wing extremist and anti-immigrant groups as if we and only we, the whites, are The People.
“I’ve been monitoring this scene for over four years and I believe that we are seeing … people completely lose touch with reality.”
— Miro Dittrich, who monitors online extremism for the project de:hate
Football hooligans and neo-Nazis were arrested, journalists beaten up and bottles thrown, while neighbors on the sidelines discussed how a Satan-worshipping clique of millionaires had planned the coronavirus pandemic, and how Germany was now a medical dictatorship.
These were some of the scenes at nationwide anti-lockdown demonstrations in Germany over the weekend, attended by an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people. Politically, it appeared a wild mash-up. But who exactly were these people?
Unlike in the U.S., where protests have mostly originated on one side of the political spectrum, the demonstrators’ signs didn’t offer many clues at first. One man held up a hand-written paper saying, “I’m not right wing, I’m not left wing, I am for free expression, constitutional rights and democracy.” Another sign said, “Don’t give [Bill] Gates a chance! No enforced vaccinations.” Yet another wore a mask nearby decorated with the words “Merkel’s muzzle,” and there was at least one with a T-shirt reading, in English, all caps: Q ANON – DO YOU BELIEVE IN COINCIDENCE?
The demonstrators call themselves “the corona-rebels,” or “alternative thinkers” or part of the Querfront, a venerable German political term that suggests different social and political subgroups drawn to one plan of action. In this case, they include anti-vaxxers, hard core vegans, neo-Nazis, members of the Reichburger sovereign citizen movement, which rejects the legitimacy of the modern German state, and politicians from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, plus a sprinkling of their sometime allies the Free Democrats.
Local experts talk about an emerging “hybrid ideology” because despite other political differences, there are a number of things that many of those protesting do have in common. It’s not just opposition to anti-COVID measures, it is a fascination—for some a kind of enthrallment—with conspiracy theories, which meshes with their mistrust of established information sources such as the mainstream media or their government.
Americans know this as a familiar pattern, one that has found something like its ultimate expression in the QAnon phenomenon, where every refutation of an implausible theory about the “deep state” is twisted into an affirmation. Given the nearly apocalyptic atmosphere brought on by the pandemic, this is not surprising, but it is potentially dangerous, especially when it makes fighting the spread of the disease that much harder.
“Conspiracy theories tend to transcend political ideologies,” Jason Reifler, a professor of political science at Britain’s Exeter University, told The Daily Beast. Reifler says the overriding principle here might be similar to populism. “There are core tenets that populists have in common but no policy positions, per se,” said Reifler, an expert in political psychology.
Sociologists have already spoken about pandemic populism where protesters believe it’s all about “us against them,” or the common people versus controlling elites.
Jan Rathje, who leads a project debunking conspiracy theories for the Berlin-based Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which opposes anti-Semitism and extremism, describes protesters being motivated by “a conspiracy-theory-based ideology expressed by action.”
“It’s not an overly complicated ideology,” he explained. “You don’t have to think about it too much. It’s more about saying these are the conspirators, they are responsible for all the evil in the world and we should act against them.”
Believing in conspiracy theories usually has more to do with emotion and identity than anything else, Rathje told The Daily Beast. Believers see themselves as good people, fighting evil. “And that’s hard to argue with,” he concludes.
“A lot of these things have been bubbling under [the surface] in our society,” Berlin-based researcher Miro Dittrich, who monitors online extremism for the project de:hate, told local media. “They’re now rising to the top and are achieving a kind of reach we’ve never seen before. I’ve been monitoring this scene for over four years and I believe that we are seeing … people completely lose touch with reality.”
Certain social media channels and messaging groups, many of them private, have been seeing huge membership gains since the pandemic began, Dittrich added. He believes the pandemic makes locals more vulnerable to conspiracy theorists because they’re stuck at home, most likely on their computers.
In something of a first for Germany, as Dittrich points out, a number of high-profile figures have been spreading this kind of disinformation. Athletics star and fashion model Alexandra Wester broadcast a video to almost 63,000 followers on her Instagram feed, hashtagging the video #Q, as in QAnon.
Germany has its own colorful versions of the group’s fraught conspiracy theories that tend to be more passionately defended as they prove more highly improbable.
Some German QAnon believers think pandemic lockdown measures have been a cover for the rescue of children held captive by a network of pedophiles, others believe a popular local tabloid, Bild, is sending them secret messages. The most recent example involved a major U.S.-European military exercise. German QAnon groups—as many as 73,000 follow one major proponent of QAnon theories on just a single channel carried by the encrypted Telegram app—thought American troops headed to the continent for the Defender-Europe 20 maneuvers earlier this year were actually going to free them from the Satan-worshipping “Deep State” they claim is in charge behind the scenes in Germany.
Celebrity vegan chef Attila Hildmann, whose products are sold in supermarkets around the country, accused Germany’s minister of health on Instagram of being a member of a conspiracy to establish a new world order. Hildmann told over 65,000 followers he was ready to take up arms to prevent this. And popular musician Xavier Naidoo posted an emotional video on his Telegram channel, weeping as he told his 54,000 followers about an international pedophile ring that tortures children.
Many of the protesters also share a desire to “re-set” contemporary society—that is, to improve the global order according to the rules of whatever version of utopia they prefer. For some, that means no migrants, guns, and motorcycles. For others, it’s about the end of capitalism, a return to nature, or even anarchy.
In fact, this “accelerationism” toward a supposedly better world, as it’s often described, was at the heart of the first of these protests in Germany.
The notion behind accelerationism is that you attack a system you hate by bringing out the worst in it, thus speeding its destruction. Murderous white supremacists have used the term when attacking mosques and synagogues around the world, hoping to provoke crackdowns and race wars. But in Germany the connotation is more anti-capitalist: let the one percent so abuse their power that the people rise against them. Americans saw some of this as well in 2016 when an accelerationist current of anarchists came out for candidate Donald Trump. The Daily Beast dubbed their strategy the “politics of arson.”
In Germany about six weeks ago, a group named Nicht Ohne Uns (Not Without Us) organized a small demonstration outside a theater in central Berlin. During this first outing—illegal at the time because of the lockdown—the organizers handed out their newspaper, dubbed Democratic Resistance, to 30 to 40 people. Their objective: To stand up for civil liberties and to improve the capitalist system after the pandemic ended.
Since then, various other groups have joined in. Alexandra Wester, the #Q enthusiast, also hashtagged #NichteOhneUns. Others who heeded the call included the anti-virus meditators as well as neo-Nazis, and even Germany’s far-right party, the AfD.
As those who monitor right-wing activity have noted, this happened partly because the original protesters never made it clear that racists, anti-Semites and other extremists were not welcome. If they didn’t let those people speak, some felt, then they might be considered as fascist as the state they were criticizing.
HERDING THE CATS
The protests have also seen the formation of a new would-be political party, Resistance2020, which aims to herd all these anti-anti-COVID cats together.
“A little while ago I said that, up until now, the dissatisfied and the frustrated, the conspiracy story tellers, the esotericists, anti-vaxxers, anti-Semites and right wing radicals here hadn’t yet managed to create a collective—which meant that the danger wasn’t great,” tweeted Matthias Quent, director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society based in the north-eastern city of Jena. “But all that changes with Resistance2020.”
The best-known face of the almost-three-week-old party is Bodo Schiffmann, a doctor from the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, who helped organize the protests in Stuttgart on the weekend.
His live streams, during which he often argues that COVID-19 is not as dangerous as authorities say, get close to a quarter of a million views and his own channel has over 140,000 subscribers. So far, Resistance2020 only has a handful of policies: apart from being animal lovers and mainstream media sceptics, they would also like to rewrite the German constitution and scrap the current German parliament. The party has ambitions to compete in next year’s federal elections.
Sceptics have also pointed out Resistance2020 a potentially troubling link to the AfD: when it was first launched, its registered address was a local AfD office.
Putting aside the physical danger of infection in crowds of demonstrators, this growing connection to the German far right is the main problem many people have with these protests.
This week, a number of senior politicians expressed concern. They worry that the protests will grow in the same way that anti-immigration protests did during the country’s refugee crisis of 2015. The AfD is infamous as a successful party of far-right outsiders in opposition, and won its place in the Reichstag, but has been losing public support as German communities unite against COVID-19 and behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A new opposition movement offers the AfD new opportunities.
“They [the right-wing extremists] sense a chance as dissatisfaction in the population brews,” an expert on the scene, Judith Rahner, told local TV channel, SWR. “The populists are very good at taking people’s fears, provoking them further for political reasons and then setting themselves up as the leadership of a movement. That’s the biggest danger I can see currently.”
‘DON’T BE DIVISIVE’
There’s a dangerous dynamic building, says Berlin-based organization MBR, a mobile team of counselors who support anybody speaking out against, or victimized by, right-wing extremists.
Participants in these demonstrations are positioning themselves as the only “democratic opposition,” the counsellors wrote in a report published earlier this month after spending five weeks observing the Berlin protests. “In the current, exceptional circumstances, that kind of narrative has the potential to mobilize people and go way beyond the usual audience for right wing extremism,” they concluded.
For the Amadeu Antonio Foundation’s Rathje, the dangers of this hybrid, conspiracy-based ideology are more abstruse. “If you can’t accept ambivalence or contradiction, or not knowing what will happen in the future, that’s where conspiracy theorists can step in and really influence your worldview,” he argues. “And if that kind of thinking—where it’s always about an apocalyptic scenario and eliminating the evil—becomes a larger minority belief, or even a majority belief, then that is critical for society.”
Despite the noise they made on the weekend, the intersectional front remains a minority for now. A recent survey found the majority of Germans—67 percent—are satisfied with the government’s crisis management. Six out of 10 say they’re not concerned if rights must be curtailed for longer. And Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), continues to be the most popular in the country, with 39 percent saying they would vote for the CDU; that’s the most popular the party has been since 2017.
Meanwhile, another opposition group has been evolving along with the protests. In Berlin, a network of left-wingers tried to protest the protests.
“Please warn your colleagues, friends and neighbors about these protests,” the campaign group, Stand Up Against Racism, wrote in a letter last week that was widely shared on social media. “It is legitimate to criticize coronavirus politics and to warn of a potential threat to our democratic rights,” the campaigners argued. “But anyone who takes part in these campaigns is letting themselves be manipulated by neo-Nazis.”
The producers of the original Democratic Resistance in Berlin may also have figured that out over the weekend. A video posted by the group shows one of their chief organizers, Hendrik Sodenkamp, insisting mid-protest Saturday that he never intended to include neo-Nazis and that he was no fascist.
Several in the crowd yelled back at him. “Stop being divisive,” they cried. “We are united.”