In Depth

German intelligence turns spotlight on Covid conspiracy theorists

Security services target ‘Querdenker’ movement behind violent anti-lockdown protests

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has begun surveillance of leading anti-lockdown protesters over concerns that they pose a risk to the state and have links to the far-right.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said the surveillance will target members of the “Querdenker” - meaning “Lateral Thinkers” - movement who have “organised increasingly violent protests against coronavirus lockdowns and includes conspiracy theorists and suspected far-right members”, Al Jazeera reports.

In recent months, the movement has moved beyond protests against coronavirus restrictions to also target “the state itself”, including “its leaders, businesses, the press and globalism”, The New York Times (NYT) says.

Covid sceptics

Anti-lockdown sentiment has grown in ferocity in Germany since the outbreak of the pandemic last year. A series of large-scale marches have taken place in Berlin, with guest speakers including Robert F. Kennedy Jr, an anti-vaccination campaigner and son of the assassinated US Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy.

In August 2020, police in the German capital arrested 300 demonstrators, “many from the far-right”, after they “tried to storm the Reichstag” during a mostly peaceful protest against lockdown measures involving around 38,000 people, the BBC reports.

Some of those arrested wore insignia from the far-right Reichsbürger - meaning Reich Citizens - movement, prompting Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz to say: “Nazi symbols as well as Reichsbürger and Imperial German flags have no place in the German Bundestag.”

Last week, police again clashed with protesters in Berlin as they “tried to disperse a rally” while parliament was approving a law that handed the government “more powers to fight a third wave of the pandemic”, Reuters reports.

Around 150 people were arrested after “they attacked officers or disregarded distancing rules”, the news agency adds, with police using “pepper spray against other demonstrators who threw bottles and tried to climb over barriers”.

“Our basic democratic order, as well as state institutions such as parliaments and governments, have faced multiple attacks since the beginning of the measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic,” the BfV said in a statement on the surveillance plans.

“The danger from coronavirus deniers and conspiracy theorists does not fit the mould posed by the usual, politically driven groups,” the NYT says, meaning a unit “specifically tasked with handling cases that seek to delegitimise the state” will be formed.

‘Lateral thinkers’

The Querdenker movement originated in Stuttgart last year and has since attracted “Germans from all walks of life” who have been left “frustrated with lockdowns in place since November”, Al Jazeera says.

The group recruits its followers on social media, including the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where it has more than 65,000 subscribers. Many of its followers “say they also believe in QAnon conspiracy theories” and its protests often feature “signs with anti-Semitic tropes”, the NYT reports.

Some members of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which holds 88 seats in the Bundestag but is also under surveillance by German intelligence services, have “allied themselves with protesters”, the paper adds.

Querdenker has grown in popularity through spreading “conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific claims”, some of which have been “amplified by media outlets linked to the Russian state”, openDemocracy reports.

In collaboration with political data scientist Josef Holnburger, the investigative site analysed around 20 million messages shared on social media by accounts linked to the movement and found consistent “messaging that undermined scientific consensus around the pandemic”. 

RT DE, the German branch of Russia’s state-controlled media network, Russia Today, was the sixth-most shared media outlet, while Russian state news agency Sputnik came eighth and Pravda, a Russian newspaper, ranked 11th.

“It is an open and very heterogeneous movement,” Oliver Nachtwey, a sociology professor in Basel, told the NYT. “It’s a turning away from the political system. And it’s being done with a sort of regressive rebelliousness.”

Fightback

Germany is experiencing a fairly high rate of new Covid infections, with a seven-day rolling average of around 19,000 cases a day, up from 8,000 two months ago. Its stuttering vaccination campaign is gaining pace, but new lockdown measures have been introduced to stem new cases.

“Formal observation” of the Querdenker movement and its organisers is “the first step in a process that could lead to it being declared unconstitutional and ultimately banned,” the NYT says. Last year, Germany outlawed a string of far-right groups including Wolfsbrigade 44, who want to re-establish a Nazi dictatorship, Combat 18 and Nordadler.

Domestic intelligence officials also fear that “far-right members could seek to boost anger against state institutions” ahead of national elections in September, Al Jazeera adds, prompting the government to allow “intelligence officers to gather data about individuals and their activities”.

Pia Lamberty, a psychologist and expert on the German conspiracy scene, has warned repeatedly about the rise of the movement. “The danger of Querdenken,” she told the NYT, “has long been underestimated.”

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