Lisa, a supermarket worker from Dublin, is determined not to get the coronavirus vaccine because she subscribes to the conspiracy theory that it’s a population control mechanism designed by Bill Gates.
But the 50-year-old, who says she was first introduced to conspiracy theories – or as she terms it, “what’s really happening” – through pro-life Facebook groups, has been feeling increasingly anxious since further restrictions were placed on the unvaccinated in Ireland, where about three-quarters of the population have received both jabs.
One person is giving her hope: a German lawyer called Reiner Fuellmich. “There’s just something about him, the way he speaks, that made me trust him,” Lisa, who asked not to be identified by her full name because of potential repercussions in her personal life, explained over the phone.
“I really do think he could be our knight in shining armour.”
Fuellmich isn’t a familiar name to most people. But for many of those sucked into conspiracy theories around COVID-19, he has become one of the most influential figures in the world. Thousands of people worldwide are clinging to the fantasy that he will soon be leading a major prosecution of world leaders, scientists and journalists, placing them on trial for “crimes against humanity” for their role in supposedly engineering a false pandemic.
His followers believe these trials will carry global historical significance, so much so that they’ve become known as “Nuremberg 2.0” in reference to the trials of Nazi leaders that took place after World War 2. Jan Rathje, a political scientist and researcher at German anti-extremism think tank Cemas, said the notion of a “second Nuremberg” – framed as mass trials of treacherous “elites” – was already familiar to many in the far-right before becoming synonymous with Fuellmich’s legal battle.
“The concept of a second Nuremberg trials has been present in far-right circles for a number of years, and it’s connected to ideas of revenge,” he said.
This push for a “Nuremberg 2.0” is gaining traction within the increasingly-interconnected global anti-lockdown scene. Rathje said that mentions of the term in German Telegram groups jumped from virtually zero to over 1,000 a day in April. The term trended on Twitter in the UK this summer, and in August, a man interrupted a police press conference in Sydney, Australia, shouting “Nuremberg 2.0”.
Meanwhile, on social media, Fuellmich’s followers refer to him as a hero, saviour or even, occasionally, “sent by God”. Memes are created showing him photoshopped into courtrooms with world leaders in the dock.
A Facebook group, in which Fuellmich’s supporters encourage people to contact their local police about the claims made in his videos, gained more than 17,000 members before being removed by Facebook as a result of inquiries by VICE World News. Many supporters are even donating money to make these trials happen – Lisa says she plans to start fundraising for him soon.
These people are going to end up disappointed.
“When I look at how this might stand up in court, it’s just not in touch with reality,” said a German lawyer who’s known Fuellmich for about ten years and asked not to be named due to fear of harassment from his supporters.
“It’s complete nonsense.”
Before the pandemic, Fuellmich, who runs his own law firm in Göttingen, central Germany, and also lives and works part-time in the US, was best known for his involvement in high-profile corporate fraud cases against companies including Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen.
But last year, as the pandemic swept the world, drawing vast numbers of people down conspiracy-theory rabbit holes, his career took a surprising turn. In July 2020 Fuellmich launched himself as a vlogger and founded the corona ausschuss – roughly translated as “corona committee” – to investigate “crimes against humanity” committed by governments and corporations regarding COVID-19.
The committee’s “findings”, which are broadcast weekly on his website in multi-hour-long sessions, read like a glossary of every COVID conspiracy going. Hosted by Fuellmich and three other lawyers, it comes across as an official-looking enquiry – similar to what a government might set up after a national disaster.
But it’s really just a series of interviews with various figures from the international conspiracy milieu, pushing myths about COVID-19: that the pandemic was planned by secret global elites, that vaccines are a deadly form of population control. According to Rathje, the committee has been the source of viral disinformation, such as a claim that vaccines violate the Nuremberg Code established after World War 2, because they are medical experiments that people haven’t consented to. This is, of course, not true.
The videos have racked up millions of views and made Fuellmich a star of Germany’s COVID-denying Querdenken (“lateral thinkers”) movement – which is central to the country’s volatile anti-lockdown scene – and a regular speaker at rallies.
But what makes him stand out from the many other figures spouting COVID conspiracy theories are the lawsuits he has filed since last year against politicians, scientists and other prominent figures. His most recent newsletter lists pending court cases in Canada, New Zealand, New York, South Africa and elsewhere. Typically, these take months or even years to reach the point where they can be dismissed or thrown out of court – one typically bizarre lawsuit filed in British Columbia, Canada, against Queen Elizabeth and the state’s provincial health officer, Bonnie Henry, claiming that COVID-19 is just influenza, is due to be heard in March 2022.
Fuellmich is also trying to bring a class action lawsuit – in either Canada or the US, he says – against Christian Drosten, the prominent German virologist who’s been described as his country’s “corona-explainer-in-chief.” Fuellmich is accusing him of “pandemic fraud” on the supposed basis that PCR diagnostic tests, which were developed at Berlin’s Charité hospital, where Drosten is the director of the Institute of Virology, cannot actually detect COVID-19. Charité did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Fuellmich has asked followers to donate €800 euros (£680) before tax to fund this case. According to receipts seen by the German fact-checking blog Volksverpetzer, he may have raised over €1 million (about £850,000) so far. Fuellmich did not respond to VICE World News’ requests for comment.
Legal experts told VICE World News the case is fundamentally flawed. US class-action lawsuits cannot be brought by or against people in other countries. There is also plenty of evidence that PCR tests are accurate.
Despite its extremely limited prospects of success, conspiracy theorists around the world have latched on to Fuellmich’s project in droves, with thousands believed to have donated to his legal fund. German lawyer Chan-jo Jun, who has been following Fuellmich’s lawsuits, said his supporters seemed heartened by the success of a few minor cases in Germany where businesses challenged lockdown rules that were hastily and poorly written.
“However, what [these lawsuits] usually aim for is proving there is a worldwide conspiracy that corona doesn’t exist,” he said. “Obviously they have a hard time proving this in court. Most of the time they don’t even get to court.”
In spring last year, Fuellmich appeared to make deliberate moves to grow his global audience outside of Germany. He set up an English-language Telegram channel and appeared on a number of well-known podcasts, including The Delingpod, hosted by James Delingpole, the editor of Breitbart London.
In the episode, released in late May 2020 and described as “Nuremberg 2 and why those involved in the Coronavirus scare should be tried for crimes against humanity,” Fuellmich called the pandemic “worse than the Third Reich” and claimed that a number of big lawsuits will begin “over the next two or three weeks.”
The buzz around Fuellmich’s legal battle grew from this point, with supporters on social media declaring that the trials would start soon, or that the lawsuits were already succeeding. A Facebook group was created called “We the People Crimes Against Humanity,” urging people to write to their local police using Fuellmich’s videos as evidence.
The group had more than 17,000 members before Facebook removed the group for spreading misinformation, following queries from VICE World News.
“We thank VICE for bringing this to our attention,” wrote a Facebook spokesperson.
“We have removed this Group for violating our policies on COVID-19 and vaccinations. We do not allow harmful COVID-19 misinformation that has been debunked by public health experts – like fake preventive measures or claims that the virus doesn’t exist.”
A live-streamed speech by Fuellmich at the anti-lockdown “Freedom” rally in London in July added to the hype surrounding him. On QAnon-affiliated Telegram groups, users shared a website with a Zoom link to watch the trial, which it claimed would start on July the 4th, 2021. The stream on the website, which doesn’t appear to have been created by Fuellmich, didn’t work.
Experts say that while the lawsuits are almost certainly doomed to fail, that's almost beside the point. The long-running legal battles perform an important function for conspiracy movements, giving them a project to unite and mobilise around – and any losses are likely to only reinforce their beliefs.
“Even if they lose the case, it just proves there is a conspiracy reaching into the legal system,” said Jun. Plus, he added, “they are also gathering money.”
The significant donations flowing in to bankroll “Nuremberg 2.0” raise the obvious question: Does Fuellmich genuinely believe what he’s saying, or is he pulling off a massive grift on corona conspiracy theorists around the world?
According to the German lawyer who has known Fuellmich for over a decade and describes him as a friend, there’s no question that the conspiracy theorist believes what he preaches.
“Yes, he believes it – he is completely convinced of it,” the lawyer told VICE World News.
He speculated that Fuellmich’s professional background fighting corporate wrongdoing may have shaped his worldview, making him distrustful of institutions and contributing to his slide into conspiracy ideology. The friend said he’d heard Fuellmich talk about a belief in “global elites” even before the pandemic hit; in his videos, Fuellmich himself describes becoming convinced that there were people behind the scenes “pulling the strings” in his profession over the years.
After losing one court case against Deutsche Bank, he accused the judges of being in cahoots with the company. The judges then successfully sued him for libel.
“He’s not a bad man; he’s a man who is strongly driven by injustice,” the friend said. “But these things he is talking about aren’t real injustices.”
Fuellmich’s lack of progress in delivering on the hype has led some of his supporters to lose faith. In the Crimes Against Humanity Facebook group, some commentators declare they think Fuellmich is a “fraud”, just like the rest of the political and scientific establishment.
For many others, though, the lack of any meaningful progress is merely interpreted as further proof that the legal establishment is corrupt and committed to thwarting their attempts to expose the global coronavirus plot – reaffirming their belief in the conspiracy theory.
“It’s like when prophecies fail – some people will turn their backs on it, but others will keep believing,” says Rathje, the extremism researcher.
Fuellmich himself shows no sign of drifting away from the conspiracy movement in which he’s become something of a global figurehead. He’s even tried translating this support into a permanent presence on the German political landscape, standing as candidate for chancellor for the fringe conspiracy theory party Die Basis, often referred to as the Querdenken party, in last month’s federal elections.
While the party won a seemingly unimpressive 1.59 percent support, that amounted to 735,000 votes – enough to secure them potentially hundreds of thousands of euros in public funding, and a stark reminder of the size of the increasingly radicalised conspiracist fringe.
“Fuellmich will likely stay in this movement, as he’s invested so heavily in it now,” said Rathje.