August 29, 2020, will be remembered by Berliners as the day when a bizarre crowd of almost 40000 Corona deniers came together from all over the country, among them hardcore neo-Nazis, Reich Citizens (Reichsbürger), Identitarians, anti-vaxxers, adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory, and other proponents lured into the "crossfront" under an anti-scientific and conspiracist umbrella. Under the loose slogan of "Demonstration for Freedom and Liberty" the rally was directed against the current Corona measures in Germany, but ultimately ended in some hundreds of neo-Nazis trying to storm the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament. The demonstration is a perfect example that a red-brown alliance can be nothing but brown at heart, which is confirmed by a closer look at the key people behind the organization of the demonstration, who have a consistently far-right and conspiracist background.
A portrait of Ghandi among a sea of Reich Flags.
The demonstration was mainly organized by Querdenken ("Lateral Thinking"), an initiative that brings together Corona deniers from different political and pre-political platforms to protest against the current Corona restrictions imposed by the German government. Querdenken had already organized a mass demonstration in Berlin on August 1, 2020, which made international headlines. Around 30000 people from seemingly various walks of life had gathered alongside obviously far-right proponents to protest against the anti-Corona measures of the German government, refusing to wear masks or follow the current requirements for social distancing (1.5 meters distance).
The success of the demonstration led the organizers to plan a follow-up event on August 29, 2020. The Berlin Senate decided to prohibit the event, because of the transgressions of the Corona regulations in the previous demonstration. But the organizers challenged the verdict by opening a constitutional court case, where they invoked the right to demonstrate, which they won. This ultimately allowed for a second mass demonstration of Corona deniers in Germany's capital, whose participants again rejected to wear masks and to keep the necessary distance to each other.
The legal haggling in the run-up to the demonstration had given the initiative free publicity and further heated up the tempers of the Querdenken crowd. With an "all the more now" mindset, neo-Nazi parties, such as the NPD and Der III. Weg, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the Identitarian Movement, as well as influential far-right publishers, such as Götz Kubitschek and the right-wing extremist Compact magazine, have called for a participation in the protest.1
While the police estimated that around 38000 people had attended the demonstration,2 the far-right peddled numbers of over one million. Many circulated aerial pictures from the Berlin love parade, which in the end of the 1990s to the early 2000s had gathered over a million visitors, grossly inflating the outreach of the demonstration.
The word "Quer" in Querdenken means across or diagonal in German, and evokes the term "Querfront." i.e. the cooperation of (ostensibly) left and right forces or the mixing of (ostensibly) left and right positions (Third Positionism) in order to establish cross-camp action alliances opposed to existing political positions (mostly the political center). The National Socialists initially pretended to combine the opposing ideologies of nationalism and socialism to lure workers sympathetic to socialism into the Nazi party, ultimately to gain political power. No less treacherous and opportunistic seem the endeavors of the Querdenken organizers, who are obviously ruthless enough to pretend that Querdenken is an apolitical anti-establishment umbrella initiative, while it is clearly a far-right project. This enables them to instrumentalize gullible and confused forces that do not identify themselves with the right or far right, but rather consider themselves centrists or left-wingers.
That Querdenken is a far-right initiative becomes clear when looking at the background of its leading figures. The founder of "Querdenken," the IT entrepreneur Michael Ballweg, flirts with the QAnon conspiracy theory and has been promoted on far-right platforms, such as Tichys Einblick3 and Compact magazine.4 According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung5:
During the demonstrations he organized, the Stuttgart-based Ballweg initially presented himself as an advocate of basic rights, but also polemicized against the wearing of masks and an allegedly coercive vaccination plan. In the meantime he has also expressed sympathy for the conspiracy group QAnon, which is particularly well-known in the USA.
Stephan Bergmann, press spokesman of Querdenken 711 is a hardcore racist, according to the Tagesspiegel6, although in the meantime he has gotten rid of the most revealing of his social media posts:
Stephan Bergmann repeatedly posted content in which he warns of a "mixing of the races." In one instance he warns against the breeding of a "light brown race in Europe." By genetic intermixing the intelligence quotient of the white population would go down. In order to understand the "great connections of world events," Bergmann also recommended a video describing how the German people are supposed to be systematically wiped out by the import of "tribal warriors from Africa" and "masses of Muslims."
The Querdenken initiative has been organized along the lines of the Gilets Jaunes movement in France: numbered regional "cells" with their own social media presence, and ostensibly no centralized organization or team. The Gilets Jaunes movement, infused by far-right proponents from the start, looked like having spontaneously emerged after an upped gasoline tax on the surface, but in fact was a continuation of the Macron Dégage campaign, directly attacking President Emmanuel Macron. Analogously, Querdenken is a continuation of the "Merkel has to go" (Merkel muss weg) trope that unifies a heterogenous right and a gullible center/left. The August 2020 demonstration in Berlin was organized by the cell "Querdenken711," managed by Ballweg.7 The uniform Querdenken logo, which for the purpose of maximum inclusion does not bear any symbols or colors, shows that the various local groups are working in a coordinated way.
Gilets Jaunes groups on Facebook, numbered according to the associated districts.
Querdenken accounts on Twitter
The most prominent speaker at the event was Robert F. Kennedy jr., son of Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of former president John F. Kennedy, a prominent anti-vaxxer. He is head of Children's Health Defense, which is currently in the process of branching out to Europe. Kennedy started his speech with the statement that, opposite to what he has been told, he is not speaking to a crowd of 5000 neo-Nazis, and then embarking on on a conspiracist "anti-establishment" rant of why governments love pandemics. Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, who had planned the pandemic, had “done a very good job of using the quarantine to bring 5G into all of our communities," and “to begin the process to shift us all to a digital currency, which is the beginning of slavery," according to Kennedy. Not surprisingly, in his speech he made reference to the famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" slogan of his uncle.
Anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. giving a conspiracist speech on August 29, 2020, denying that there are any neo-Nazis among the crowd.
Far-right figurehead Christian Bouchet has noted that there was an explicitly pro-Trump crowd at the protests,8 and also among the neo-Nazis who stormed the Reichstag American flags were waved side by side Reich flags.
The August 29 demonstration was publicized by various far-right media, for example by the magazine Compact, which offered the whole front page of its September 2020 issue to tie together "Querdenken" with the "Q" of Qanon - the absurd conspiracy theory popular in the US, claiming that (democratic) politicians are kidnapping children to extract a rejuvenating substance (adrenochrome) from them, which also has fallen on fertile ground in Germany. The headline reads4: "Q - Querdenker - Will the freedom movement topple the Corona dictatorship?" Compact's editor, Jürgen Elsässer appeared together with a prominent figurehead of the Austrian Identitarian Movement, Martin Sellner.
Identitarian figurehead Martin Sellner (blue t-shirt) and publisher of the far-right Compact magazine (white hair) arriving in Berlin one day before the large Corona Denier demonstration.
The team of the far-right Compact magazine held up a flag which tied together the Q of Qanon with Querdenken, the organization behind the demonstration.
One of the main Qanon promoters in Germany, Attila Hildmann, a vegan cook and (former) TV celebrity, who has earned the nickname of "Avocadolf." According to Deutsche Welle "The vegan chef claims Adolf Hitler was a "blessing" compared to Angela Merkel, accusing her of preparing a global genocide."9 He had been detained by the police in front of the Russian embassy during the August 29 demonstration. According to a report by the local public broadcaster RBB2410:
Senator of the Interior Andreas Geisel (SPD) declared in a press conference in the evening that there had been "fierce, violent clashes in the area of the Russian embassy". He said that 2,000 to 3,000 right-wing extremists and Reich citizens had gathered there and that this group had thrown stones and bottles at the police. Seven policemen and -women were injured. About 200 people were arrested, including Hildmann.
About a dozen politicians of the far-right AfD party were present among the demonstrators, including Ulrich Oehme (AfD Bundestag MP); Rüdiger Imgart (AfD Weilheim-Schongau); Hansjörg Müller (AfD-Fraktion); André Poggenburg (AfD MdL); Hugh Bronson (AfD Berlin); Robby Schlund (AfD MP); Thomas Rudy (AfD MdL); Gunnar Lindemann (AfD Berlin); Markus Frohnmaier (AfD MP); Björn Höcke (AfD MdL) and Steffen Kotré (AfD MP).
Also the forrmer head of the neo-Nazi NPD party, Udo Voigt, was present, giving his thumbs up in front of a Gandhi quote: "The future depends on what we do today."
Former NPD leader Udo Voigt giving his thumbs up in front of a Ghandi quote at the Brandenburg Tor in the course of the August 29-30, 2020, Querdenken demonstration.
Among the right-wing extremists on August 29 was also the neo-Nazi Mike Sawallich, a known companion11 of the alleged murderer of the CDU politician Walter Lübcke, Stephan Ernst, who is currently in pretrial detention.12
Mike Sawallich (white shirt), a comrade of Stephan Ernst, currently in pretrial detention for the alleged murder of the CDU politician Walter Lübcke.
Since many demonstrators had traveled to Berlin from afar, they were staying over the weekend, and extended the demonstration into Sunday. Since the Sunday demonstrations were not officially announced, during the day, a cat and mouse game between police and demonstrators went down, with several attempts by neo-Nazis to reach the Reichstag building. When the demonstration drew to a close on Sunday evening, a die-hard remnant of demonstrators gathered in front of the Brandenburg Tor, who all stood up when the speaker proclaimed that "Europe is rising" (Europa erhebt sich), accompanied by triumphant orchestral music.13
In the course of the demonstration, the Querdenken organization had distanced itself from the neo-Nazi riots. But it did not shy away from offering them a stage on Sunday evening, for example when the microphone was handed to a visceral rabble rouser in camouflage outfit and Reich flags painted on his cheeks. Neo-Nazis use the black-white-red Reich flag, from 1871 to 1919 the flag of the German Empire, as substitute for the Nazi flag, which is forbidden in Germany.
Speaker on the Querdenken demonstration in camouflage outfit and Reich flags painted on his cheeks.
That Reich flags, even just for a brief moment, were waved in front of the Reichstag again, many may have deemed an impossibility, and the incidence will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for the German public. It should not come as a surprise that the most nasty forces are being unleashed amidst the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, which has severely slowed down the German economy and threw many people into unemployment. When capital is in crisis, and social unrest is on the horizon, a resort to fascism has to be reckoned with, which tends to serve a twofold purpose: when push comes to shove being able to mobilize a militarized mob, while keeping the floodgates closed for a growing precariate to demand for true political change. That people, who are not necessarily neo-Nazis would march side by side with them, without any attempt of demarcation, for the greater cause of sacking the powers in be, is a truly dangerous liaison from which all progressive forces should clearly distance themselves and stand their ground, to not once more loose a disoriented mass to the demagoguery of a dangerous few.
- 1. Lena Hummel, "Verbot der Corona-Demo: Querdenker wollen trotz Verbots nach Berlin," Stuttgarter Zeitung, August 26, 2020, https://www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/inhalt.verbot-der-corona-demo-querdenker-wollen-trotzdem-nach-berlin.6e8f9580-05dd-4b95-9888-9358cb1527b5.html.
- 2. Anna Sauerbrey, "Meet Germany’s Bizarre Anti-Lockdown Protesters," New York Times, August 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/opinion/germany-covid-lockdown-protests.html.
- 3. Alexander Wallasch, "Querdenken-Gründer Michael Ballweg will zur Not vors Bundesverfassungsgericht," Tichys Einblick, August 28, 2020, https://www.tichyseinblick.de/kolumnen/alexander-wallasch-heute/ballweg-interview/.
- 4. a. b. "Compact-Magazin - Ausgabe September 2020," Kopp-Verlag, https://www.kopp-verlag.at/a/compact-magazin-ausgabe-september-2020.
- 5. Claudio Henzler, "Michael Ballweg: Der selbsternannte Querdenker agitiert gegen Auflagen wegen Corona," Süddeutsche Zeitung, August 27, 2020, https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/profil-michael-ballweg-1.5012098.
- 6. "Der Hass, den Stephan Bergmann im Netz verbreitete," Der Tagesspiegel, July 31, 2020, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/dokumentation-der-hass-den-stephan-bergmann-im-netz-verbreitete/26054768.html.
- 7. "Impressum," Querdenken 711 - Stuttgart, https://querdenken-711.de/impressum-%2F-kontakt.
- 8. Facebook post by Christian Bouchet, August 31, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=192444042283715&set=a.130975308430589&type=3.
- 9. "Berlin bans rally by vegan chef and conspiracy theorist Attila Hildmann," Deutsche Welle, July 23, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/berlin-bans-rally-by-vegan-chef-and-conspiracy-theorist-attila-hildmann/a-54299794.
- 10. "Eskalation vor russischer Botschaft Hildmann bei Reichsbürger-Demo in Berlin festgenommen," RBB24, August 29, 2020, https://www.rbb24.de/politik/thema/2020/coronavirus/beitraege_neu/2020/08/berlin-protest-russische-botschaft-corona-demonstranten-attila-hildmann-fersehkoch.html.
- 11. "Suspect in Lübcke case is well-known Neo-Nazi," Exif Recherche, June 18, 2019, https://exif-recherche.org/?p=6268.
- 12. Ellen Rivera, "The Assassination of Walter Lübcke: A Murky Tale of Germany’s First Political Murder in Over Fifty Years," CovertAction Magazine, February 21, 2020, https://covertactionmagazine.com/2020/02/21/the-assassination-of-walter-lubcke-a-murky-tale-of-germanys-first-political-murder-in-over-fifty-years/.
- 13. Twitter post by Lorenz Maroldt, August 30, 2020, https://twitter.com/LorenzMaroldt/status/1300071538008481794.