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They say politics makes strange bedfellows — but things can really get weird in a pandemic. In Germany, left-wing and far-right conspiracy theorists have been joining forces in growing anti-lockdown protests, united in the paranoid belief that elites are imposing an oppressive “corona dictatorship” on the public.
The bizarre weekly protests each Saturday outside Berlin’s Volksbühne theater pull together a motley alliance of fringe political viewpoints, from left-wing anti-capitalists to far-right agitators, alongside anti-vaxxers, gun nuts, and QAnon conspiracists.
At the most recent demonstration, attended by about 500 people, men with shaved heads, one with brass knuckles on his T-shirt, gathered alongside protesters carrying placards against “vaccine terrorism.” One demonstrator held a sign claiming “Corona = Trojan Horse” for the New World Order; others wore a “Trump 2020” hoodie and a “V for Vendetta”-style Guy Fawkes mask.
“I got my ass off the couch to stand up against this fascist dictatorship,” one masked attendee told video journalists documenting the event, wearing a fluorescent yellow vest with a Q scrawled across it that marked him as a follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Also in attendance were Carolin Matthie, a 26-year-old “far-right influencer” who is a poster child for the German gun lobby, and Nikolai Nerling, a far-right provocateur and conspiracy theorist who was kicked off YouTube last year for hate speech.
Despite the sizable right-wing presence, the protests — known as “hygiene demos” — are organized by left-wing figures with backgrounds in the anti-capitalist movement and artistic scenes. Experts say the protests are increasingly attracting support from figures on the opposite fringes of the political spectrum, who share a distrust of the state and have been gripped by conspiracist fantasies about the pandemic.
Kira Ayyadi, a researcher at the far-right monitoring website Belltower News, said that while the protesters don’t have a coherent platform, they broadly doubt the official account of the virus, minimize the threat it poses, and suspect that lockdown measures are a plot by elites to suspend their constitutional rights and oppress the public.
“The main thing is they believe in conspiracy theories,” she told VICE News. “They don’t have one conspiracy theory — there are a lot of myths about coronavirus. But they’re united in that they believe something is going on here.”
Jan Rathje, a researcher at the far-right monitoring group Amadeu Antonio Foundation, told VICE News that the organizers of the protests, who call themselves the “Communication Office for Democratic Resistance,” are writers and self-proclaimed liberals Anselm Lenz and Hendrik Sodenkamp. The pair have both previously written for a left-wing conspiracy website with 9/11 truthers on its board, and have previously been aligned with an anti-capitalist non-profit that carried out art stunts, like putting capitalism on trial.
With their current protests, Rathje said, the group was downplaying the threat of coronavirus, “insinuating that a powerful elite driven by greed and lust for power would use the pandemic to [conceal] the final breakdown of capitalism and to establish a dictatorship in Germany.”
The protest organizers did not respond to VICE News requests for comment, but in a recent interview posted to YouTube, Lenz outlined his views.
“Many of us doubted the story of coronavirus in the way it is told by our government,” he said. “As it appears to us, the government wants to overshadow the breakdown of the financial markets of the world, and in Germany, with some sort of moral panic about a virus which some people say is not much more dangerous than a normal flu.”
Lenz said that his movement, which has started publishing its own newspaper, “Democratic Resistance” to publicize its viewpoint, sees itself as the “liberal opposition to the government.” While experts say the group hasn’t publicly denounced or otherwise responded to its growing support from far-right conspiracy theorists, Lenz insisted in the video that the protests were “not nationalistic, racist … not at all.”
“It’s about liberal rights and nothing else,” he said.
As for the far-right individuals associating with the protests, it seems they’re willing to overlook the leftist affiliations of the organizers. Asked for comment, Nerling, an online provocateur who has gained tens of thousands of online followers for his far-right conspiracy theories, directed VICE News to a video he had made at Saturday’s protest.
Before attending the protest, he acknowledged his involvement was “a tricky situation” as Lenz was “as left as can be;” afterwards though, he seemed converted.
“Maybe we are now standing at the beginning of a new big revolution in Germany,” he said. German media reported that two people were arrested at the protests, which were attended by 260 police officers and were in breach of lockdown rules forbidding gatherings of more than 20 people in public.
Analysts say the protests are a manifestation of the conspiracist thinking that has increasingly gripped Germany’s far-right in recent years, and has only proliferated further since the outbreak of the pandemic. That’s despite Germany faring the pandemic much better than some large European neighbors; the country has recorded 4,735 deaths, compared with more than 25,000 in Spain. It has successfully flattened the infection curve and eased lockdown restrictions this week, with a number of shops permitted to reopen.
Ayyadi said coronavirus had become an obsession for the far-right, with increasing numbers buying into conspiracy theories about the virus. Far-right anti-lockdown protests have been held elsewhere in Germany in recent days, organized by right-wing populist groups in the far-right strongholds of Dresden and Chemnitz.
But she believed the Berlin demonstrations, which are set to continue this Saturday, were more concerning. While the rallies in Chemnitz and Dresden were clearly identifiable to the public as far-right events, the confusing ideological mish-mash in the Berlin protests meant they posed a greater threat as a potential portal to a swamp of far-right ideology.
“I think the demonstrations in Berlin are dangerous because for many people, it might not be easy to see that they’re right-wing,” she said.
Cover: A woman holds a sign saying "vaccination terrorism" during an unauthorized demonstration on Rosa Luxemburg Place. Photo by: Christophe Gateau/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images