On a bitterly cold Monday afternoon, four days into the New Year, a small band of protesters commenced their weekly campaign against the Robert Koch Institute. They blared a steady stream of rock music at the organization’s stately red-brick building, which stands in stark contrast to its surroundings in the working-class Wedding district of Berlin.
Every few minutes, they paused to deliver speeches accusing the scientists inside of deliberately manipulating data in support of the German government’s approach to the global coronavirus pandemic.
The demonstrators present were part of the Berlin chapter of the Querdenken movement. Roughly translating to “lateral thinking,” Querdenken emerged in April, just weeks into Germany’s first lockdown, and has grown rapidly. Its adherents are united in the belief that federal Covid-19 restrictions are wildly disproportionate and part of a broader plan to strip citizens of their basic rights and freedoms.
The Robert Koch Institute is a respected body responsible for the monitoring and control of contagious diseases in Germany. Despite receiving state funding, it maintains fully independent status and its research has formed the foundation of the government’s approach to testing and quarantines during the coronavirus crisis. Some people, however, disagree vehemently with its recommendations.
“This is one of the centers of the policy,” explained Eckhard Schäfer, a regular speaker at the Monday demonstrations. “It’s very dangerous and evil, pushing all these corona measures.”
Schäfer, a 57-year-old psychologist who has lived in Berlin for nearly 30 years, has been skeptical about the risks posed by Covid-19 since the very outset of the pandemic. After a couple of months, he came to the conclusion that the threat was entirely manufactured and that scientists were producing and disseminating a “kind of manipulated information,” designed to prop up an ailing capitalist system. These views quickly led him to Querdenken, which casts the denial of scientific fact and expert opinion as an act of political opposition.
“I felt like this before, but now my ambitions are higher,” Schäfer said. “If I want to overcome this capitalism and its injustices, I really have to do something.”
While the movement’s followers believe themselves to be on a righteous mission, exposing hidden truths to an unaware public, others warn that Querdenken may be setting its followers on a path toward extremism and dragging German politics at large further to the right.
Though it appears to slot within a broader resistance to coronavirus regulations — including January’s anti-lockdown riots in the Netherlands and the persistent protests in the United Kingdom — Querdenken is uniquely positioned for broader political and social impact. Its ties to right-wing parties could enhance their fortunes in Germany’s forthcoming federal elections in September. Some also believe that the embrace of conspiracy theories rooted in antisemitic ideas — including the belief that a secret cabal is prescribing the Covid-19 response — has emboldened neo-Nazi networks that cling on at the country’s political fringes, waiting for a mainstream foothold.
Birth of a movement
The Querdenken movement was founded in April 2020 by a tech entrepreneur named Michael Ballweg, from the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg. Within weeks, thousands of people were turning up at weekly rallies in Stuttgart, the state capital. As followers took to channels such as Facebook and Telegram, chapters began to spring up across the country, numbered according to each area’s telephone code.
It achieved notoriety over the summer, when — alongside an assortment of far-right groups — its followers participated in protests that shut down German cities from Berlin to Leipzig. During an August demonstration in Berlin, protesters stormed the steps of the German Bundestag, displaying the red, white and black flag of Imperial Germany; a symbol that has been adopted by Nazi sympathizers.
In the outcry that followed, Ballweg insisted that the extremists had nothing to do with his movement. Critics reject that claim, even as they struggle to define exactly what Querdenken stands for.
Querdenken’s organizers claim to be guarding fundamental rights and standing up to government overreach. Involvement in the group appears to cut across class, educational and political lines, with followers banding together in shared frustration at Covid-19 restrictions — particularly the mandate to wear a mask in most public spaces — and a distrust of the experts behind them.
Though largely confined to German-speaking countries, it draws on broader global conspiracy theories, particularly QAnon’s focus on supposed deep-state plots to maintain and increase the power of a ruling elite. It has also welcomed the pseudoscientific positions of existing anti-vaccination and New Age communities.
“This movement gathered around questions about the legitimacy of science, about conspiracy theories,” said Oliver Nachtwey, a sociologist at the University of Basel. “Conspiracy theories are always about the rising complexities of society. Every conspiracy gives you some sort of control back.”
In its short existence, Querdenken has built a number of highly effective online communication channels on platforms such as Telegram and Facebook. They provide a home for torrents of alternative research and baseless conspiracy theories that have, for a number of people, successfully eroded confidence in scientific consensus on the coronavirus.
They also elevate figures such as the German ear, nose and throat doctor Bodo Schiffmann, who has attracted a massive following by posting YouTube videos that claim Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu and may not even exist. He is fiercely against mask wearing, which he believes offers no protection against the virus and has contributed to the deaths of at least three children. Even though such claims have been proven false, creating successful counter narratives is an unenviable task.
“The alternative science that they indulge in is really difficult to argue against,” said Sebastian Koos, a sociologist based at the University of Konstanz. He adds that where scientists, such as those at the Robert Koch Institute, emphasize the uncertainty that surrounds the virus, Schiffmann and others offer purported “solutions that seem so understandable and so convenient to believe in. That’s why their conspiracy beliefs are attractive to so many people.”
The alternative explanations make sense to Barbara Meinel. Aged 50, she lives in Tübingen, a small town southwest of Stuttgart, where she works as a mediator in a law firm. She explained to me that Germany’s lockdown “feels like war to me and I can’t see the reason for it.” She also spoke of the conflicting information she has received about the pandemic. While the newspapers she reads are clear about the danger posed by the virus, her brother, who is an undertaker in Stuttgart, has told her that he has seen no unusual increase in deaths. His anecdotal assertions stand in opposition to government reports of a spike in the number of deaths in 2020, compared to the previous four years.
“It’s done on purpose to make people afraid, so that they do everything they are told to do,” Meinel said.
To make sense of the situation, she has found herself increasingly turning to Schiffmann and other critics of the scientific community. The fact that their theories have been widely discredited and their content stripped from YouTube and flagged as false on Facebook appears to have had little effect on her decisions.
Meinel does not consider herself a full-blown Querdenken follower. She did, however, attend an October rally organized by the movement in Konstanz, just on the German side of the border with Switzerland. During the gathering, maskless participants formed a human chain along the shores of Lake Constance in protest against the lockdowns. To her, Querdenken’s value is in amplifying alternative readings of the data collected by bodies like the Robert Koch Institute and challenging orthodox views.
The movement’s online channels provide an accessible forum for sharing exactly the content Meinel finds so convincing. Attempts to refute such positions there are routinely bombarded with insults or volumes of additional information too great to effectively challenge.
Koos believes that exposure to this relentless flow of misinformation can gradually harden the positions of moderately skeptical individuals.
“There is a large group of participants who are not extremists, but risk becoming more and more extremist,” he told me, describing many of the people in question as “out of reach of any type of intervention that might be necessary to get society back on track.”
Querdenken after Covid
Germany moved quickly to stall its first wave of Covid-19 infections last spring, shutting down shops and schools — and briefly, its borders — while instituting a rigorous testing system. The country consistently had among the lowest rates of new infections per capita in all of Western Europe throughout the spring and summer. However, that early success is being undone by a second wave that spiked at the end of last year, after restrictions were loosened. In December, the nation recorded more than half of its total coronavirus deaths for all of 2020 and entered the New Year in a new lockdown.
Against this backdrop, Querdenken continues to challenge official statistics and foment resentment against regulations designed to protect everyone. The movement is also spreading doubt about the vaccines that began to roll out in Germany in January, sharing numerous stories that claim people have fallen severely ill or died after being immunized.
While the movement has defined itself with such rhetoric, some observers are also beginning to consider its political and social ramifications beyond the pandemic.
The far-right party Alternative for Germany counts hardline nationalists among its leaders and typically distances itself from mainstream positions. But, early in the coronavirus crisis, its parliamentarians in Baden-Württemberg appeared to be falling in line with the government’s response, even pressing to be included in Covid-19 relief discussions.
Their positions began to change alongside Querdenken’s rise. Laura Hammel, a political science researcher at the University of Tübingen registered a rapid shift in the party’s rhetoric around the pandemic in April 2020, when state parliamentarian Christina Baum warned of an emerging “hygiene dictatorship.” That message has since been echoed by its politicians nationwide.
Hammel believes this is comfortable ground for a party that, as it has entered the political mainstream, has lost some of its anti-establishment credibility among supporters. Adopting Covid-19 skepticism “shows that they’re not part of the political establishment,” she said.
Some Querdenken members appear to be responding in kind. According to Nachtwey’s findings from interviews at rallies and surveys of the group’s Telegram channels, 27% of respondents said they would vote for Alternative for Germany, a rise from the 15% who said they did in the 2017 federal election.
Kerstin Kuballa, who works for the organization Mobile Counseling Against Right-Wing Extremism Berlin, sees troubling overlaps between Querdenken and even more extremist positions. In her opinion, what unites them is a shared belief “in an elite secretly pulling the strings in the background to control politics and global affairs.” She went on to point out that such conspiratorial thinking echoes the antisemitic tropes at the heart of most far-right ideologies.
Dietmar Lucas, a 58-year-old member of Querdenken’s Berlin chapter, is frustrated by such associations being made in coverage of the movement. He describes them as “absolutely ridiculous” and propagated solely to discredit the group’s arguments.
Lucas helps organize the Robert Koch Institute pickets and a weekly demonstration in Alexanderplatz, under Berlin’s landmark television tower. Recent gatherings have felt like an outdoor party, with DJs playing to crowds that dance in a roped-off space lit by candles and fairy lights. But the reality of the pandemic is inescapable. Police officers cluster around the makeshift dancefloor. Under their gaze, organizers begrudgingly encourage the dancers to adhere to government regulations and keep their masks on.
The area is also ringed with signs warning off Nazis and other extremists. That such groups still appear at Querdenken events is a testament to the movement’s resonance, Lucas said, not proof of its followers’ susceptibility to far-right influence.
Such associations have certainly damaged the Querdenken movement, particularly after reports emerged that it had been placed under surveillance by authorities in Baden-Württemberg over fears that it had been infiltrated by extremists. Another blow came in December, as questions arose about Ballweg’s potential misuse of Querdenken funds.
Rising Covid-19 infections have also sapped some of its energy. Amid tightening government restrictions, Ballweg called off a major New Year’s Eve rally in Berlin and has announced a moratorium on Querdenken marches until spring.
Despite these developments, many believe that the movement’s influence will be lasting. After all, the deep distrust in which its followers hold the government and the scientific community is not likely to fade and its model for spreading conspiracies and misinformation will remain highly effective for some time.
“I don’t think this movement can live on after Covid, but these people will live on,” Nachtwey said. “They are searching for other opportunities to resist.”