A strange mix of conspiracy theorists, far-right extremists and ordinary citizens have taken to the streets. Why?
- Aug. 31, 2020
A protester with a former German Empire flag during a demonstration against coronavirus restrictions on Saturday in Berlin.Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
They’re out on the streets again.
On Saturday, around 38,000 people marched in Berlin, calling for an end to pandemic restrictions. It was a bizarre mix of people: families and senior citizens were joined by right-wing extremists, some sporting swastika tattoos. Protesters brandished signs reading “Take off the slave masks,” while others held up peace flags. Many shouted “We are the people” and others called on President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia to “liberate” Germany.
In a scene bound to be inscribed in the country’s history, a group carrying the “Reichsflagge,” the black, white and red flag of the German Empire that served as the basis for that used by the Nazi regime, broke through a police barrier and attempted to enter the Reichstag, the Parliament building.
It was a terrifying escalation in a sequence of protests against the country’s response to the pandemic, beginning in April in the southwestern city of Stuttgart. They have since spread across the country, with varying success — sometimes bringing 250 people out, sometimes 5,000. At the start of the month, they crossed a threshold: Over 30,000 protesters gathered in Berlin on Aug. 1.
These demonstrations are something of a mystery. One of the strangest things about them is that there is hardly anything to protest: Most restrictions, never as strict as in some other European countries, have been lifted.
So who are the protesters? What brings them to the streets? And are they here to stay?
ImageMichael Ballweg, a central figure in anti-lockdown protests, at a demonstration in April in Stuttgart, Germany.Credit…Christoph Schmidt/Picture Alliance, via Getty Images
A central figure is Michael Ballweg, a Stuttgart-based entrepreneur who runs a software firm. Mr. Ballweg, who did not respond to an interview request, is the founder of Querdenken 711 — “Querdenken” means “lateral thinking” and 0711 is Stuttgart’s area code — the organization that has registered most of the demonstrations, including Saturday’s. (While people can gather and protest without asking the authorities’ permission in Germany, all protests in open public spaces must be registered with the police in advance.)
“I am here today,” Mr. Ballweg said in his opening address to the Berlin protest on Aug. 1, “because I dislike the world the federal government presents to me” — a world he depicted as one of control, restrictions and fear. Though he does not outright question the existence of the virus, he claims that it is less dangerous than the government says and that the restrictions are excessive. “There is no pandemic,” he has said.
He seems to believe in conspiracy theories. During Mr. Ballweg’s opening speech, he appeared to reference the American group QAnon, reciting a phrase frequently used in social media posts linked to the group: “Where we go one, we go all.” He also referred to Mr. Trump, who many hoped would “save them all” — and were now disappointed to see him promote wearing masks.
Mr. Ballweg is the tip of the iceberg. At a protest in Stuttgart on May 9, Ken Jebsen, a former public radio host who was fired for anti-Semitic remarks and became a prominent YouTuber, claimed that the virus was “a Trojan horse” designed to “make the state and the lobbyists and companies that give it advice even more powerful, and citizens even more powerless.”
Similar views are legion. Wolfgang Wodarg, a physician and former member of Parliament for the Social Democrats frequently cited by protesters, has claimed among other things that new vaccines would alter people “genetically” and portrayed the media coverage of the pandemic as part of an effort to benefit the “greedy” pharmaceutical industry.
Skepticism about the danger of the virus is common to most protesters. Sometimes that’s relatively benign: A protester from Hamburg, for example, said she doubted the virus’s severity because she could not immediately see either overcrowded hospitals or “anybody breaking down” in the streets. But fueled by conspiracy theories and exacerbated by distrust in the traditional media, such skepticism amounts to a potent worldview.
Over 30,000 protesters gathered in Berlin on Aug. 1 to protest Germany’s pandemic restrictions.Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
It’s little surprise that the protests have drawn their fair share of far-right adherents. Right-wing extremist groups supported the large Aug. 1 demonstration in Berlin — organizing rides to the city, for example — and even dominated some of the earlier, smaller protests in the capital. Figures such as the right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic YouTuber “Der Volkslehrer” (“The People’s Teacher”) have spoken at some events, which have even been attended by officials from the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany.
Saturday’s protest, which turned out to be a parade of far-right leaders, regulars and newcomers, took things further. Right-wing groups were out in larger numbers than four weeks ago — and behaved more aggressively, culminating in the attempt to enter the Parliament building.
Even so, the protesters on the whole are not right-wing true believers. But they do share some characteristics. Those who have been badly affected economically by the lockdown — for example, people who have lost jobs in the service industry — “are not flocking to the protests,” Simon Teune, a sociologist at Technical University of Berlin who has been studying the protests, told me. “My impression is that these are mostly middle-class people with above-average education,” he said.
For all they share in outlook and socioeconomic position, the protesters are far from united: Talk of a new anti-lockdown movement may be overstated. “I assume that both the protests and their leaders will disappear again,” Mr. Teune said. “What they are lacking to form a long-term and more organized political movement is a common goal.”
But it would be wrong to dismiss the protests as insignificant. Behind this strange coalition of ordinary citizens, conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists is the belief that they have discovered a hidden truth, which has been either ignored or nefariously concealed — the same impulse that fuels populist movements across the world. Such conviction, Mr. Teune pointed out, can spill into violence.
What’s more, the depth of distrust in the government and the traditional media is troubling. Technology plays a role: The protests would probably not be possible without the closed environments of Telegram channels and WhatsApp groups — and they’re unthinkable without YouTube’s algorithm, which keeps showing you more and more of the same once you’ve watched the first Wolfgang Wodarg video.
The weekend gave Germany a lot to chew on. Though the protests themselves may drop away, the feeling of resentful suspicion — and the tools that feed it — will still be with us.
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