Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has placed a group orchestrating volatile anti-lockdown protests under surveillance, officials announced Wednesday, as concerns rise over the growing radicalisation of the movement.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg has officially classified the group Querdenken 711 (Lateral Thinking 711) as an “object of observation.”
“A limit is crossed when extremist endeavours abuse constitutional freedoms in order to feed their extremist and ideological conspiracy narratives,” the Baden-Württemberg Interior Minister Thomas Strobl said in a statement announcing the move.
"The advanced radicalisation of Querdenken makes an observation of their organisational level … essential.”
It’s the first time a group behind the country’s conspiracy-infused, anti-COVID lockdown protests, which have attracted growing concern for their increasing violence and far-right involvement, has been formally placed under surveillance.
The classification, the highest level of surveillance under Germany’s intelligence system, allows agents in Baden-Württemberg to use intelligence methods such as paid informants, surveillance, wire-tapping and online searches to investigate the movement, Lorenz Blumenthaler, spokesperson at German anti-racism group the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told VICE World News.
Querdenken 711, founded in Baden-Württemberg’s capital Stuttgart earlier this year by entrepreneur Michael Ballweg, has organised some of the largest demonstrations against Germany’s coronavirus restrictions, including major protests in Berlin and Leipzig in recent months that descended into violence and disorder.
At a protest in Leipzig last month, a riot broke out as hundreds of far-right hooligans attacked police, counter demonstrators, and journalists, while a demonstration in Berlin in August resulted in hundreds of protesters storming the steps of Germany’s federal parliament building, some of them waving far-right flags.
The Baden-Württemberg Office for the Protection of the Constitution said that it had observed indications of “extremist ambition” for the group, which it said had been infiltrated by right-wing extremists and Reichsbürger, a far-right “sovereign citizens” movement that rejects the legitimacy of the German state.
“Targeted extremist, ideological conspiracy and anti-Semitic content is mixed with legitimate criticism of the state measures to contain the corona pandemic,” said Beate Bube, the head of the Baden-Württemberg office.
Querdenken’s founder, Ballweg, has repeatedly denied the group is a violent or extremist entity. In a statement released Wednesday, he rejected the classification as a political decision, on behalf of Germany’s ruling CDU, to criminalise the country’s “largest extra-parliamentary citizens' movement.”
He said the principles that the domestic intelligence agency was bound to protect — human dignity, democracy and the rule of law — were the same that his organisation was committed to defend in its manifesto. And he welcomed the interior minister Strobl’s acknowledgment that the majority of people involved in Querdenken demonstrations were not extremists.
German extremism experts told VICE World News the move to place Querdenken under surveillance was long overdue, but questioned whether the move alone would have an impact in curtailing the movement’s growing radicalisation.
“Authorities had to do something, especially after the ugly pictures from Berlin and, more recently, Leipzig,” said Blumenthaler. “Placing it under observation, at least on a symbolic level, indicates we take this seriously.”
But, he added, if the authorities were really concerned, “then they could have listened to civil society's warnings that predicted such a radicalisation scenario at the beginning of the pandemic.”
“For us, the deepening Querdenken radicalisation came as no surprise.”
He was sceptical as to whether the classification would halt the radicalisation of the movement, saying that such steps often inspired a “rally around the flag” reaction from supporters for whom the move bolstered their narrative of being oppressed by a “dictatorial government.”
“Maybe some people will be scared away, now that Querdenken carries the official state-approved anti-democratic label, but I would not place too high hopes on that,” he said.
“People that have entered this stage of conspiracy theory-based thinking and radicalisation are very hard to reach.”
Lissi Pfeiffer, spokeswoman for DEMOS e.V., a German non-profit that documents extremism, agreed. “I don't think that this will stop the radicalisation,” she told VICE World News.
“The right-wing extremists have already taken over the show. The only thing that will help now is disrupting the money flow, on the one hand, and using police force on the people in the street.”
Linus Pook, co-founder of non-profit research centre democ., Germany’s Centre for Democratic Contradiction, said the question of whether to extend the surveillance of the group to other German states, or at a federal level, would likely be a topic of discussion at a conference of state interior ministers, where politicians are scheduled to discuss new forms of extremism, including those produced by conspiracy theories, on Thursday.
Blumenthaler said some state politicians, such as Bavaria’s state president Markus Söder, had called for the group to be placed under surveillance in response to growing violence at protests.
“Nevertheless, solely placing Querdenken under observation of the Verfassungsschutz [Office for the Protection of the Constitution] will not solve any problems,” he said.
“If you want to stand up to right-wing extremists, conspiracy believers and anti-Semites, you have to approach the problem holistically: strengthen prevention work and democracy, and provide convincing answers to the challenges of the present.”