Germany had a big enough problem with far-right conspiracy theorists even before the COVID pandemic began.
But the onset of COVID sent them into overdrive, spawning a volatile “corona rebel” movement that’s unleashed dangerous, paranoid and frequently anti-Semitic currents into German society.
Germany, with its reputation as the stable economic powerhouse at the heart of the European Union, is now home to the continent’s largest anti-lockdown movement, in which opposition to coronavirus restrictions is mixed with wild conspiracy theories about the pandemic itself. This movement draws together a motley mix of fired-up anti-establishment malcontents that includes anti-vaxxers, QAnon adherents, new agers, right-wing extremists, and Reichsbürgers – the latter being followers of a far-right conspiracy theory that believes the modern German state is illegitimate.
“What drove these people together was the idea that there was a conspiracy going on during the pandemic [with the intention] to establish a new authoritarian state in Germany,” Jan Rathje, a German researcher on the far-right, told VICE World News.
According to their conspiracist worldview, he said, “behind that state, there's always a secretive group. And this is what resonates with the anti-Semitic stereotype, which basically is the foundation of the whole conspiracy movement right now.”
These anti-lockdown, “corona rebel” protests are superspreader events, and have regularly resulted in violent clashes on the streets of German cities. In August, in chaotic scenes that foreshadowed the MAGA insurrection at the US Capitol five months later, hundreds of protesters stormed the steps of the German parliament building, after a QAnon activist falsely announced to the crowd that Donald Trump had arrived in Berlin, supposedly heralding victory in their fight.
An anti-COVID restriction protester in Berlin this January. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Experts say the movement has been fuelled by a troubling resurgence of conspiracy theories – with an implicitly or explicitly anti-Semitic foundation – about shadowy elites plotting to oppress the masses. That’s led the domestic intelligence service in one German state, Baden-Württemberg, to place the main organisers of the anti-lockdown movement under surveillance due to concerns about its “advanced radicalisation.”
“Extremist, conspiracy-ideological and anti-Semitic content is deliberately mixed up with legitimate criticism of the state measures that aim to contain the pandemic,” Beate Bube, president of the state’s domestic intelligence agency said at the time, noting the overlap of the protest movement with known radicals from the Reichsbürger and right-wing extremist scenes.
Pia Lamberty, a psychologist and author of “How Conspiracy Theories Drive Our Thinking,” says the global crisis of the pandemic has been the “ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories.”
“We know that people who experience the lack of control are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories,” she said.
A man wears a T-shirt with the words "Trump for federal chancellor| at a Berlin demonstration last August. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
COVID-19 has left the public fearful and stranded in their homes, looking for answers online, where they’re susceptible to rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories which hold the pandemic is part of a sinister, orchestrated plot.
“They're looking for answers that science can't give yet, so they turn to … hocus-pocus conspiracy theories,” says Rüdiger Reinhardt of The Golden Tin Foil Hat, a German non-profit that researches and educates about conspiracy ideologies. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the group has been inundated with requests for help from Germans seeking help for friends and family who have gone down the conspiracy theory rabbithole.
German anti-lockdown protesters last November. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The anti-lockdown movement is a broad church, drawing from groups as diverse as the new age hippy and wellness scenes, through to hardcore right-wing extremists. A notable presence in the mix are the Reichsbürgers — “citizens of the Reich” — a German take on the so-called “sovereign citizens” movements found elsewhere around the world.
The movement’s 19,000 followers subscribe to a conspiracy theory that the modern German state is a legal fiction, and believe in the continued existence of the pre-war German empire, or Reich. They reject the authority of the state – issuing their own passports and currencies, and refusing to pay taxes.
Followers of the conspiracy theory, which experts say was circulated in its initial form by Nazi Party holdovers in the years following World War II, were viewed for decades as mostly harmless cranks on the fringe of society.
But in recent years, they’ve emerged as a growing threat. Many are convinced that society is on the verge of collapse, and are preparing for a so-called “Day X”, when they plan to take up arms against the state. They have higher rates of gun ownership than the general public and, worryingly, Reichsbürger cells have been found in the police and military, where their access to weapons and tactical training are a particular concern.
Photo: An anti-lockdown protester in Stuttgart last May. Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
“People within the Reichsbürger movement perceive themselves as the warriors for the German people, and essentially for the good against the evil conspiracy,” explains Rathje.
“This is what even motivates people from the military and also from police forces… to identify themselves with this whole Reichsbürger ideology.”
After a string of violent Reichsbürger crimes in 2016 that included the fatal shooting of a police officer, the domestic intelligence service started monitoring it as a potential extremist threat.
The movement – which experts say is anti-Semitic at its core, and has many outright Holocaust deniers among its ranks – has gained significant traction among the country’s increasingly violent far-right fringe.
And when QAnon – the wild U.S.-centric conspiracy theory that a powerful cabal of paedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring — began to find an audience in Germany, many Reichsbürgers were quick to seize on it, weaving it into their own delusional narrative about the looming battle between good and evil.
“When QAnon arrived in Germany, it was also spread by people from the Reichsbürger movement,” said Lamberty. “They share the same enemies… our democratic system. And so for them, it was easy to adjust to this new content … and use that for their own goals.”
These currents have fed into a febrile anti-lockdown movement, forming an unlikely alliance with many anti-vaxxers, new agers, and people from the wellness and spirituality scenes, who have bought into the belief that the pandemic is part of a malicious plot.
Experts are worried that these coronavirus conspiracy theories are acting as a pipeline to anti-Semitic “explanations” for the pandemic – and the dangerous conviction that believers must inevitably take radical action against the tyrannical elites supposedly behind the hoax.
Even despite recent developments having further exposed QAnon for the colossal hoax that it is – that “Q”, the movement’s leader, isn’t a government insider but apparently an internet forum admin – experts fear that for some followers, the scales may never fall from their eyes. They say that for these true believers, their belief in conspiracy theories becomes almost an article of faith – and they may be lost to reason altogether.
"This belief is not based on facts, it's based on a deep-seated need to believe,” said Reinhardt.
“If someone is [in] that deep, his whole approach to the world... is affected. And you can't change these people. You can't convince them. You can only hope to reach the people who are not that deep into the belief, and who are still approachable by facts.”