On a balmy late summer evening in August, anti-lockdown protesters in Berlin attempted to storm the Reichstag, the symbolic heart of German democracy.
In chaotic scenes that sent shockwaves through Germany, several hundred protesters rushed through a police cordon to gather on the steps of the German parliament building. Some waved the red, white and black imperial flag that is used by right-wing extremists in lieu of the banned Nazi swastika.
The incident drew condemnation from the highest levels of German politics, and raised fresh alarm about the volatility of the country’s increasingly violent, conspiracy-infused anti-lockdown movement.
Much concern focused on the far-right element among the protesters. But at first glance, the woman who whipped the crowd into a frenzy that day — a dreadlocked naturopath in a QAnon T-shirt — appeared to have little in common with your typical right-wing extremist.
Moments before protesters rushed the building, Tamara Kirschbaum had taken the microphone in front of the parliament’s steps, to deliver a rousing, albeit totally delusional, rallying cry.
“We are writing world history here in Berlin today,” she said, before exclaiming to the excitement of other QAnon supporters in the crowd: “Trump is in Berlin!”
But of course Trump wasn’t. And nor was he the saviour who, according to many QAnon followers in Germany — believed to have more adherents of the conspiracy theory than any other non-English speaking country — is destined to liberate the country from an illegitimate government in the clutches of a corrupt globalist elite.
Now experts tell VICE World News that the pivotal role of a naturopath in inciting unrest in the German capital was far from an isolated incident.
They say figures from the new age, alternative lifestyle, and health and wellness spheres have become core constituencies of anti-lockdown movements around the world.
Like naturopathy — a form of alternative medicine that emphasises the body’s natural healing powers over the use of surgery, vaccines or conventional medicines, and is widely considered ineffective, even harmful, by the medical establishment — these are scenes that are focused on holistic wellbeing, and may be susceptible to pseudoscientific beliefs on how to attain that goal.
From crystal-toting hippy healers to Lycra-clad fitness influencers, they’ve forged an unlikely alliance with the far-right as they become increasingly radicalised by rampant coronavirus conspiracy theories.
“There is a strong link between conspiracy theories and new age, wellness spheres and holistic communities quackery,” said Giulia Silberberger, head of the Golden Tin Foil Hat, a German non-profit that researches and educates about conspiracy ideologies. She said that, in their extreme iterations, the coronavirus conspiracy theories – which usually maintain the virus is a tool of “globalist elites” to control the masses – are serving as pipelines to anti-Semitic beliefs.
“Go up there, and sit down peacefully on the stairs, and show President Trump that we want world peace, and that we are fed up,” Kirschbaum had urged her fellow protesters, moments before they tried to storm the Reichstag.
“We have won!”
Alongside Kirschbaum, some of the most influential German figures peddling coronavirus conspiracy theories include Attila Hildman, a prominent vegan chef, and Cecil Egwuatu, a fitness influencer known as “Coach Cecil.”
But it’s a global phenomenon. In Australia, Pete Evans, a paleo chef and TV presenter, has gone deep down the COVID conspiracy rabbithole. Long a target of mockery for his embrace of supposedly health-boosting fads like “alkalised water” and “activated almonds,” Evans gradually tested the patience of his corporate backers by pushing conspiracy theories on COVID-19, 5G, and QAnon, before major retailers finally dropped him when he posted a cartoon featuring the neo-Nazi "black sun" on his Facebook and Instagram last month.
In New Zealand, the organisers of Luminate, a hippyish weeklong music and arts festival which promises attendees the opportunity to “bio-optimise and thrive” faced a backlash after publishing an approving list of anti-vax and corona conspiracy figures, including Evans and Holocaust denier David Icke, urging attendees to look into their beliefs.
Meanwhile, anti-vax and corona conspiracy content is increasingly creeping into the social media feeds of health and wellbeing influencers worldwide, from fitness coaches to yoga instructors.
James Smith, a high-profile British personal trainer and fitness influencer, recently posted a video praising vaccines to his 691,000 Instagram followers, in response to the anti-vax sentiment proliferating in the fitness and wellness scenes.
“I would say that the reason why so many come from the alternative scene [is] we just think differently. We think further, we think more broadly than normal medicine.”
“I strongly believe this is a trend as much as anything else, the more extreme vegans have gone quiet and need a new religion to latch on to,” he told VICE World News from Australia, where he has been stranded during the pandemic, growing increasingly frustrated at the anti-vax rhetoric that could jeopardise the world’s return to normalcy.
“It's my job to counter the bullshit and say it how it is.”
Figures within the corona-sceptic movement are resistant to any suggestion the new age or wellness communities play any particular role in the scene.
“We are people [who] represent a cross-section of society, and can think for ourselves,” Michael Ballweg, the founder of anti-lockdown group Querdenken (Lateral Thinking) 711, told VICE World News in a statement.
His group, the largest coordinator of German anti-lockdown protests, has organised events that have descended into violence and disorder, including the Berlin demo on August the 29th, and a protest in Leipzig last month where hundreds of far-right hooligans attacked police and counter demonstrators. Last week, the domestic intelligence service in the German state of Baden-Württemberg placed the group under surveillance amid fears over the growing radicalisation of the movement.
Kirschbaum, the naturopath who incited the chaotic scenes in Berlin, also initially pushes back against the idea that the new age and wellness communities play a significant role in the movement, before conceding the point.
“I would say that the reason why so many come from the alternative scene [is] we just think differently,” she told VICE World News. “We think further, we think more broadly than normal medicine.”
In Germany, experts say the link between the holistic and wellness spheres and the country’s volatile anti-lockdown movement has been particularly pronounced.
Silberberger, head of the Golden Tin Foil Hat, told VICE World News that requests for help to her group had surged during the pandemic, from people whose loved ones had become consumed with the conspiracy theories around coronavirus. The group now gets about 30 such requests a week – about twice the number as before the pandemic.
In about 90 percent of cases, she estimated, the conspiracy believer had a background in “something holistic, spiritual, new age – alternative, in some way.”
Those beliefs often entailed scepticism towards established, evidence-based approaches to health and medicine – such as the aversion to vaccines among naturopaths – which could prime some to be susceptible to coronavirus conspiracy theories, she said. When the pandemic hit, upending society and leaving many people isolated with too much time on their hands, and a growing sense of dread about the unfolding biological catastrophe, some began “doing their own research” into the virus online, going down the conspiracy rabbit hole as they sought out answers that resonated with their existing beliefs.
“QAnon is interesting because there are so many questions…I haven’t found many answers, not yet.”
Other German experts tracking the rise of COVID conspiracy theories have observed the same phenomenon. They say that while, of course, not all people in the holistic, wellness and alternative medicine spheres have succumbed, there are underlying factors prevalent in the scenes that can incline people towards belief in conspiracy theories.
Bernd Harder, spokesperson of the German sceptics group GWUP (the Society for the Scientific Investigation of Parasciences) pointed to research that found the worlds of alternative medicine and other holistic wellness practices shared common philosophical underpinnings with conspiracy ideologies: a strongly dualistic worldview of “good“ versus “evil”; a desire for simple answers to complicated questions; and an anti-scientific tendency.
What’s more, he told VICE World News, followers of alternative medicines and esoteric beliefs often viewed the “natural” world as intrinsically healthy, in inherent opposition to the corrupting, polluting influence of the modern world.
“There’s an anti-modernist notion within all these milieus,” said Jan Rathje, a political scientist and expert on conspiracy theories at German anti-racism NGO the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.
“They are rebelling against the modern world, which they perceive as being part of conspiracy against the natural, cosmic, spiritual or organic order of the world.”
He said that the amorphous conspiracy theories that had coalesced around coronavirus – claiming it was a deliberate creation of a shadowy cabal of globalist elites to assert control over the masses, through mass vaccinations or lockdowns – were simply new iterations of centuries-old myths that almost invariably scapegoated Jews as pulling the strings behind such plots.
“Inevitably, in these beliefs, the Jews are the ones ultimately conspiring against the natural order,” he said.
Despite the vehemence of their activism, it can be hard to pin down exactly what the corona-sceptics believe. Like many, Kirschbaum frames much of her beliefs about the pandemic as “questions” and hazy suspicions.
“I think the coronavirus does exist, but I think it’s not so dangerous as the mainstream makes us believe,” the 44-year-old told VICE World News in a phone interview. She says there are plants that can be used against the virus, and suspects the pandemic could be part of a plot to assert control over the masses.
“But it’s really an assumption,” she said. “I don’t know.”
For Kirschbaum, her activism in the corona-sceptic scene is a natural evolution in a lifetime of questioning official narratives that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“This was the moment I recognised there was something wrong,” she said. “I began to search… I found there were a lot of lies in the government. I found many questions, and no one can answer these questions.”
In recent years, her “searching” led her to anti-establishment protest movements like the “yellow vests” – the populist grassroots movement, spurred by anger over fuel tax hikes, that erupted in France in late 2018 and inspired emulators elsewhere. The volatile movement held many similarities to the anti-lockdown protests that would follow, drawing from both the political left and right, particularly the margins, with a violent and anti-Semitic conspiracist fringe.
In 2018, Kirschbaum got into QAnon, the amorphous meta-conspiracy that originated in the United States, and whose global reach has exploded during the pandemic. The conspiracy theory — which centres around the wild notion that Trump, between rounds of golf, is secretly taking down a global cabal of paedophiles — has become staggeringly popular in Germany, with as many as 200,000 followers by some estimates.
“QAnon is interesting because there are so many questions,” said Kirschbaum, who has become a prominent figure in German-language QAnon channels.
“I haven’t found many answers, not yet,” she concedes.
The arrival of the pandemic, she says, only galvanised her worldview and made her more committed in her path.
“Now it’s more clear than five years ago. I think the government wants to control… people. And this is not possible.”
Kirschbaum concedes she has gotten at least one big point wrong – her infamous statement on August the 29th that Trump was in Berlin.
“I wish I hadn’t told the lie, with all my heart,” she said, explaining that she believed it at the time.
She blames a fellow protester, who she said she had only met the previous day, for feeding her the false information that Trump was in Berlin. She even suggests the man, who she says police later told her was a conman, may have spiked her drink that day, leading her to making the outlandish claim.
“I wish I had been blood tested,” she said. “Because I wasn’t completely myself when I said that.”
Her actions that day have had momentous consequences for her, leading her to being reviled as a dangerous idiot across Germany. She said she has received death threats, was temporarily placed under police protection, lost 12kg due to the stress and has been forced to close her business.
“I can’t work, I have to look for a new home, I have nothing,” she said. “It’s really horrible what has happened here.”
She blames “the mainstream” for whipping up a “shitstorm” against her, but the vitriol has also come from her own camp. Factions of the paranoid corona-sceptic scene have publicly denounced her as some sort of agent provocateur commissioned by the “deep state” to carry out a false flag incident to discredit the movement.
The vicious blowback, she says, has forced her to step back from her activism in the anti-lockdown movement. “I don’t know if I was a leader for other people before, but now I’m completely out.”
Kirschbaum says the allegation is ridiculous. But equally absurd, in her eyes, is her designation by the domestic intelligence service in her home state, North Rhine-Westphalia, as a Reichsbürger – a member of the far-right, conspiracist “sovereign citizens” movement that rejects the legitimacy of the German state.
“It’s so ridiculous,” she laughs. “[Apparently] I am antifa, and Reichsbürger, and neo-Nazi, and agent provocateur, and a ‘deep state’ agent.”
For her, the designation only heightens her sense of persecution by the state – and bolsters her conviction that she is on the right track.
“In Germany, when you are for the government – if you think, ‘Coronavirus is very, very dangerous’ – then you are good. But if you ask questions? Then you are a Reichsbürger, or a Nazi.
“I think they classified me this because I ask questions and I’m critical. I ask why.
“I only want to know.”●