Querdenken 711: lockdown sceptics or far right agitators?
Since the beginning of the pandemic the German group 'Querdenken-711' has grown to become one of the largest movements in Europe to oppose Covid-19 related restrictions. While the group’s leader, Michael Ballweg, claims the ‘democratic movement’ is peaceful, the initiative has been heavily criticized for its activities on numerous occasions.
On visiting the 'Querdenken-711' website, the first thing that struck me was a flashy video entitled ‘fundamental rights are non-negotiable.’ According to the group, which originated last year in Stuttgart, Germany, Covid-19 containment measures, and especially lockdowns, interfere with civil rights. As I continued looking into the activities and profiles of their followers, I discovered that these peoples' ideological beliefs are closely linked to those espoused by conspiracy theorists and movements like QAnon, a network of far-right extremists, which first emerged in the U.S.
I wanted to explore the functioning of the group for myself and get to the bottom of their practices. Organizing a direct interview with anyone from the group turned out to be impossible. The founder of the movement Michael Ballweg, who is known to be averse to the media, requires journalists to sign forms to ensure they uphold the press codex (the German Press Agency has stated that this is clearly an attempt to limit journalistic freedom).
Throughout the past year so called ‘Querdenker’ (mavericks) have taken to the streets all across Germany to declare that they ‘disagree’ with the Covid-19 containment measures, while blatantly ignoring the regulations. After a winter break, the group has recently been busy announcing a new wave of upcoming protests across the country through their website and Telegram channel.
Previous protests organized by the Querdenken movement reached their apex on 29 August last year, when followers of the initiative attempted to storm the Reichstag in Berlin. At a demonstration on 13 March in Dresden, twelve police officers were hurt and more than one thousand violations were reported.
"We are more unfree now than we were back in the DDR"
According to the 46-year-old Ballweg, who is a former entrepreneur with the software company ‘Media access GmbH’, "it is not certain that vaccinations are effective." He also falsely claims that "many scientific studies show that lockdowns don’t have any effect on containing COVID-19 cases," and that "even the WHO agrees with these findings." The public response to an interview that the journalist Boris Reit-Schuster conducted with Ballweg reveal that he has, nevertheless, obtained considerable support. One comment reads: "Compliments to Mr. Ballweg and all the organizers who are protecting our freedom." Another says: "We are more unfree now than we were back in the DDR."
At another rally that was held in the south western city of Mannheim last year, Ballweg declared that "the wearing of masks is a symbol of political suppression" in front of a crowd of applauding supporters. The collective, which has more than 27,000 followers on Facebook, is also endorsed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the nephew of former president John F. Kennnedy, who is known to be an anti-vaxxer. Kennedy Jr. actually spoke at one of the group’s largest rallies in Berlin.
Spreading the misinformation virus
The Querdenken slogan ‘Where we go one, we go all’, is a direct quote from QAnon. QAnon is based on an unfounded theory that maintains that the former U.S. President Donald Trump is fighting a covert war against Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and media organisations. The content that the 'mavericks' share among one another is clearly linked to these kinds of conspiratorial tendencies. Members of the group believe that the lockdown was a strategic effort to initiate "a fourth industrial revolution in the interest of global corporations to benefit big, money, big pharma and big data, at the expense of citizens", as stated in a video present on their website.
Times of extreme political and social uncertainty foster the spread of misinformation, which may result in conspiracy theories. According to Boris Noordenbos, an Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam who is specialized on this subject, conspiracies gain momentum as a consequence of "a gap in meaning making."
"Essentially conspiracies are based on the belief that social and political reality is manipulated in secret by a group of elite people who profit from others," says Noordenbos. "People are hardwired to create meaning out of the things that happen to them. The accidental nature of things, in this case a virus that just happened, can be hard to accept, which is why some revert to story-making to create connections between events," he remarks.
A threat to society?
At past 'maverick' demonstrations, flags of the German Reich have been visible among the QAnon posters and T-shirts. Ballweg has frequently been asked about the affiliation with right-wing parties, yet he continues to vehemently refute any links to such extremist philosophies. He has stressed in pretty much every interview he has agreed to that "there is no room for extremist right or leftwing philosophies or violence" in their group. There is also a separate section on the group’s website drawing attention to their ‘peaceful’ code of conduct. In an interview with German newspaper SWR, Ballweg admitted to having seen right-wing ideological symbols on display at Querdenken rallies. He claims however, that the flags "were just handed out somewhere," and that participants "were not aware what kind of flag it [was]."
As it turns out, however, Ballweg had actually arranged a meeting with Peter Fitzek, the self-proclaimed ‘king of Germany’, in November 2020. Fitzek is a political activist associated with the Reichsbürger movement, which is linked to far-right and antisemitic positions. According to the German newspaper FAZ, who reported on the story, an invitation was sent out to selected 'mavericks' in which Ballweg stressed that this meeting was supposed to remain secret.
"The movement poses an attack on democracy.... it's dangerous," said Michael Blume, Anti-Semitism commissioner in Baden-Wuerttemberg, when referring to Querdenken-711 during an interview with the German broadcaster ZDF. Another dangerous side effect of the movement’s growing popularity, however, is the spread of vaccine scepticism. A poll by the German news site SPIEGEL has revealed that 41% of those surveyed would definitely get vaccinated, as of March 2021. The remaining 59% consist of people who are either unsure (11%) and those who say they would most likely not get the vaccine (48%).