When news of a 90 percent effective COVID vaccine, based on trial results, was made public this week, much of the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. But for a militant far-right anti-vax group in Germany, the announcement was a call to arms.
The group, Forke und Schaufel (Fork and Shovel), has called for a rally later this month in the city of Mainz, where BioNTech, the German company that is developing the vaccine along with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, is headquartered. The self-described “corona rebel” group’s call to mobilise circulated on social media Friday, with the slogan: “End corona dictatorship; preserve democracy; save existence.”
The plans for the rally on the 28th of November have alarmed far-right monitoring groups, who say the organisers are deeply-connected figures on Germany’s right-wing extremist scene, and have seized on the country’s increasingly volatile and conspiracy-addled anti-vax, corona-sceptic movement as a way to advance their goals of overthrowing the government.
At a previous Fork and Shovel rally in Mainz on the 26th of September, Stefan Räpple, then a lawmaker for the far-right AfD party in Baden-Württemberg’s state parliament, was filmed giving a speech calling for violent insurrection.
“We must overthrow the government, and do it by force. It doesn't work non-violently,” he told the crowd. Räpple was subsequently placed under investigation by a public prosecutor and expelled from the AfD over the comments.
Fork and Shovel did not respond to a request for comment. But its paranoid, conspiracist views are laid out its website, where it says it was founded in May to demonstrate “against the insane coercive measures in connection with the so-called corona pandemic.”
“Today we know that it is a United Nations plan to establish a New World Order. With all their might and force the mighty of this world are executing this plan that has been developed over decades,” it reads.
“Let us make it clear to these traitors that we are [ready] to defend ourselves with all means.”
Lissi Pfeiffer, spokeswoman for DEMOS e.V., a German non-profit that documents extremism, told VICE World News the group’s name was a fitting symbol for an organisation that acted like a pitchfork-wielding mob.
She said the group was founded by Mario Buchner and Torsten Frank, both former AfD members with extensive connections on Germany’s far-right. While Fork and Shovel has organised 10 demos so far, Buchner has spoken at at least 17 other “corona rebel” events.
“We consider [Buchner] a wheeler and dealer in the second to third tier of the current extremist scene, deeply embedded and widely connected,” she said.
“[He] is part of an extremist network on the far right that wants to destabilise Germany to such an extent that it's possible to overthrow the government and install a totalitarian and racist one.”
Far-right experts from the counter-extremism group Mobile Counselling Against Right-Wing Extremism Rhineland-Palatinate told VICE World News that despite Fork and Shovel’s paranoid and delusional ideas about the pandemic, the group shouldn’t be discounted as a threat, given its accelerationist goals.
Figures such as “Buchner, Frank and many others should not be underestimated, because they… sense their chance for a national, ultimately fascist overthrow,” the group said in an emailed statement.
Germany’s right-wing extremists — now the biggest threat to national security, according to the country’s domestic intelligence agency — have embraced the broader corona rebel movement, fuelled by the rampant growth of anti-vaccination misinformation and online conspiracy theories like Q-Anon.
In recent months, the movement has become increasingly violent and attracted a growing far-right element, prompting warnings from politicians and intelligence officials that it poses a potential security threat.
On Saturday, hundreds of far-right hooligans attacked police, counter demonstrators and journalists at an anti-lockdown protest in Leipzig, while in August, protesters acted out a long-held fantasy of Germany’s far-right when a few hundred stormed the steps of the Reichstag, the parliament building that’s the symbolic heart of German democracy. Neither of those protests was organised by Fork and Shovel, however.
Pfeiffer said that Fork and Shovel had previously issued calls on Facebook for “hooligans, bikers and sturdy lads” to join their protests, and that known members of neo-Nazi parties, and people wearing right-wing extremist clothing labels, had been documented at the protests.
Although violence was becoming increasingly frequent at German corona rebel protests in general, there hadn’t been any significant attacks documented at Fork and Shovel rallies. But that wasn’t the point, she said.
“It isn't the objective to incite violence during the rallies,” she said, but at a later date. “They are meant to instil a feeling of being oppressed and threatened.”
BioNTech, founded in Mainz in 2008 by Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, a married couple of Turkish descent, did not respond to a VICE World News request for comment on the planned protests. Experts said that, perhaps surprisingly, the couple’s backgrounds hadn’t yet been seized on by Germany’s far-right “corona rebel” ecosystem, which has demonised Bill Gates, George Soros and other members of the alleged New World Order as driving the supposed coronavirus conspiracy.
“It might take a few days yet for that to be mangled into a slur by the far-right,” said Pfeiffer.