From anti-mask to anti-state: Anti-lockdown protests, conspiracy thinking and the risk of radicalization

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared the attempt at violently occupying the Reichstag, the German parliament building, by far-right activists on 29 August 2020, as a direct attack on Germany’s very “heart of democracy,”. Demonstrations against state-imposed Covid-19 measures have been on the rise in many countries throughout the pandemic. Observers are now worried that extremist hate groups are using pandemic-related protests to advance their political goals – violently if necessary. Since December 2020, members of the Querdenken 711 group, the main organizer of nationwide anti-Covid restriction protests in Germany, are on an intelligence  “watch-list due to its increasing radicalisation”

However, what has puzzled many attempting to understand the mechanisms of anti-Corona policies protests is the disparity between attendees’ causes and persuasions. While neo-Nazi’s waving the black, white and red Reichs-Flag in front of the German parliament is certainly a reason for concern, most demonstrations draw a diverse group of people not associated with either side of the political spectrum. Their grounds for resisting health measures and denying the existence of a pandemic altogether entail a narrative that needs to be understood in order to make sense of anti-lockdown protester’s potential for public mobilization. Indeed, while anti-Covid policy protests are not tied to a specific corner of the political spectrum, the similarities in perception of state measures between groups such as Querdenken 711 and Germany’s far right scene are at the core of the larger problem of how conspiracies and political extremism align in their counter-factual narrative.

Who are the German anti-lockdown protesters?

The Querdenken 711 group (a word that roughly translates to “thinking outside the box” or “lateral thinking”) was founded by IT entrepreneur Michael Ballweg during the first lockdown in spring 2020. Originating in Stuttgart, as alluded to with their regional identifier 711, the group describes itself as fighting for “freedom” and “constitutional rights”, which they see violated by the regulations and restrictions imposed by state authorities due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The group promotes itself as defending the rights of “everyday people” and emphasise stories of “collateral damage” done to the working class, children and everyday citizens. What seemed like a very obscure little group of anti-maskers in the beginning of the pandemic has become a persistent force in organizing widespread demonstrations against Covid measures and government regulations in general. 

With over 38,000 protesters attending the August 2020 demonstration in Berlin and many more groups forming across the country since then, Querdenken 711 and its other branches are still gaining traction.  Interestingly, demonstrations draw a very diverse mix of people discontent over Covid-related policies. Some are outright denying the danger of spreading the virus, while others want to go back to “business as usual”. Backgrounds of the people attending demonstrations and participating in anti-Covid policy activism range from esotericism and alternative medicine to left wing anarchic groups and conspiracy theory followers. Thus, long-term anti-vaccination activists are increasingly among the protesters in reaction to the on-going vaccination program.

What is their ideological basis?

Groups such as Querdenken 711 are keen to emphasise no political association or particular opinion, citing themselves as “democrats” who condone any kind of violence or hate speech. And beyond few incidents, such as the 3000 neo-Nazi protesters in front of the Reichstag-building mentioned above, the demonstrations and manifestoes do not incite violence or extremist activism. However, despite these public displays of tolerance and peaceful civil disobedience, the Querdenken movement does hold potency for radicalization based on their ideology.

Protests against Covid measures have constructed a narrative around “alternative facts”, downplaying or outright denying the severity and extent of the current global pandemic. Deeming the restrictions largely unnecessary and “disproportionate,” the main focus lies on the damage done to business and the freedoms of leading a normal life. Secondly, the spread of misinformation is core to their mobilization of people for their cause. Vaccines are deemed dangerous DNA-altering experiments forced on innocent people, the media is accused of instilling fears on behalf of politicians and Querdenken statements declare that there is no excess mortality due to the pandemic and no infections can be traced to large assemblies. 

This one-sided narrative starkly contrasts scientific evidence on vaccine safety, official observations and entirely disregards the traditional democratic discourse surrounding any Covid policies, such as the vaccination program. While most citizens and politicians deem Covid restrictions as necessary to fight the pandemic, Querdenken groups constitute a small percentage of people constructing an entirely opposed counter-factual narrative.

All these efforts are underpinned by a deep mistrust in political and scientific authority. While one can say that both the EU and national governments in Europe have not always managed the pandemic well, Covid-sceptic groups focus on a narrative that places governments, elites and scientific advisors as staging a pandemic in order to gain political control over their subjects. Sociologists Nachtwey et al. have observed in a recent study that Querdenken members share a mentality of “conspiracy thinking” that showed itself most strongly when it was “related to the government, the media and Corona measures”.

The notion that powerful elites are conspiring against the common people in order to gain control helps construct a narrative where members of Querdenken groups are the only voice of reason and therefore have a claim towards protecting people from a common enemy. Breaking with health and safety measures at demonstrations or peacefully protesting Covid regulations become a very direct political act. 

When Richard Hofstadter famously described the “Paranoid Style in American Politics” in 1964, he notes that in persuasive conspiracy theories “very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction”. The pandemic has triggered an increase in conspiracy-thinking among anti-lockdown protesters, with the German state being vilified as a totalitarian overlord actively orchestrating the pandemic to gain control. No matter how disperse and disconnected Querdenken groups and other anti-Covid policy protesters seem to be, a shared scepticism of government institutions and a fabrication of alternative facts are evident.

Implications for addressing anti-lockdown activism

A persuasive one-sided narrative that dismisses scientific facts and official information constitutes the emerging “infodemic”. Misinformation and disinformation during the pandemic have spread alongside the Covid-19 virus and the WHO warns that this can “undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals”. For example, a paper by the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research and Humboldt University suggests that infection rates drastically increased in many German districts due to Querdenken demonstrations. Conspiracies thrive in an environment of mis- and disinformation, making people more susceptible to radical conspiracy groups, such as QAnon, which have seen more of their members attending anti-lockdown protests in Germany.

An intent effort to delegitimize public health responses to the Covid pandemic broadens the basis for rejecting the state as the absolute enemy. Seeking to revise the state is a common denominator with many far-right groups, raising the potential for Querdenken ideology to radicalize. Framing the one-sided narrative as the voice of reason society should wake up to, manages to transform individual grievances into a larger movement where anger can be directed at certain groups both within, and among those governing, democratic society. 

In this case, anti-Covid policy demonstrations open the door to more radicalized activism. While Querdenken does not directly associate with any other particular group, its claim to speaking an ultimate truth and protecting people from a conspiring elite finds much common ground with the likes of QAnon or anti-vaccine conspiracists. No matter how many rainbow flags are waved at Querdenken protests, the far right has gained access to the movement through a shared rejection of the current German political consensus.

By Mirjam Seiler

Mirjam is the editor for the Policy Centre for European Affairs. Her main research interests are European immigration policies and the history of economic globalization.

The header image is ‘Demonstrations in Berlin’ by Kai Schwerdt: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kaischwerdt/50454616542.

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