— Trigger warning: explicit images —
This article was originally published in German.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been bad for many people. Among them are celebrities who began advocating conspiracy ideologies and opposing democracy. Was it out of conviction, out of calculation, or out of a desire to return to the spotlight after public figures suddenly lacked a public in isolation and quarantine? In the end, only those involved know. But some have gone further than others, destroying their previous careers more permanently in the process. The absolute frontrunner is undeniably Attila Hildmann. We shouldn’t really care less, if it weren’t for the fact that Hidmann has so many hyped-up followers, who pose a very real threat – and that the authorities undertake little to protect those who land in Hildmann’s crosshairs.
Attila Hildmann, born to Turkish parents and adopted and raised by a German family in Berlin, was already causing friction as a vegan chef. On the one hand, he was a successful self-made man, including financially – an autodidact with a YouTube channel and blog who went on to author bestselling cookbooks, appearing numerous times on television, releasing his own vegan product lines and opening two snack bars in Berlin. On the other hand, Hildmann presented himself in a loud and cocky manner. He sought to promote veganism beyond the animal-rights crowd to the fitness-oriented masses by presenting vegan nutrition with meat substitutes that would leave carnivores satisfied – a provocative tone in the vegan scene of the early 2000s, even if the concept proved more successful later. As people from Syria sought protection in Germany in 2014, Hildmann gained attention with his anti-refugee statements. Since 2017 at the latest, his favoured mode of responding to criticism has been verbal assaults and sexism.
Why the coronavirus pandemic threw Hildmann so far off track, only he knows. But it was a meltdown that everyone could follow on the web and the streets. In March 2020, Hildmann began taking an interest in protests against measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In May 2020, he personally registered car parades, demonstrations and rallies in Berlin. At one such rally on May 23, 2020, he was briefly arrested for violations of Assembly and Infection Protection Laws and was charged. He was again arrested on August 29, 2020 in Berlin after he, among other things, demanded during a speech in front of the Reichstag building that the barricades be removed and that demonstrators be allowed access to the building.
In June 2020, Hildmann set up his own Telegram channel, which quickly gained 50,000 followers. By November 2020, that number was up to 119,000. After fluctuations, the channel reached its highest following in February 2021 with over 120,000 fans, and currently holds around 106,000 followers.
Hildmann’s Telegram follower growth, generated with telemetr.io
According to Hildmann, “media” like Russian internet TV station RT Deutsch, a known purveyor of disinformation, “woke him up” (see Tagesspiegel). Hildmann quickly began networking with other prominent pandemic deniers and conspiracy fans such as the singer Xavier Naidoo, as their mutual expressions of approval and shares on social media show, resulting in more followers for Hildmann. Hildmann’s relationship with “Querdenkers” (a conspiracy-driven covid-denying movement, which literally translates to “lateral thinkers”) like Michael Ballweg was shakier. Sometimes they insulted one another, sometimes they stuck together, and the press and public looked on with interest. Ballweg spoke negatively about Hildmann’s actions, calling him “Avocadolf” or “Hirsehitler” (Millet Hitler), before even Hildmann himself realised that he indeed had the same initials as a certain Adolf Hitler.
The path of radicalisation
“In the beginning”, says Volker Beck, a former member of the Bundestag for the Green Party, “he was still a seeker. The world of conspiracies, including the various antisemitic narratives, was obviously still new to him, and he was constantly posting Wikipedia articles about topics and puzzling together his world view.” (see Belltower.News)
The Green politician Volker Beck, who is well known for his work against antisemitism, became an early target for Attila Hildmann. It was clear that Hildmann was already beyond mere seeking: online and at demonstrations, he proclaimed his violent and detailed murder fantasies, calling for the death of Volker Beck. Hildmann kept these comments neatly in the hypothetical subjunctive case, but his followers understood his veiled calls to action. Volker Beck has consistently and repeatedly reported Hildmann’s outbursts from the beginning (see Focus).
Attila Hildmann’s Telegram channel has been updated several times a day since its inception with text and image posts, links, videos and audio files. From criticism against coronavirus prevention measures to calls for demonstrations to posing loudmouthed with weapons, Hildmann quickly moved on to conspiracy ideologies. Hildmann began with the far-right Reichsbürger ideology of a non-sovereign Germany without a legitimate constitution, added the Kaiserreich flag colours black-white-red to his Telegram channel name and hung the flag on the wall of his room above his computer. He then became increasingly interested in conspiracy ideologies with antisemitic components.
It’s not known if Hildmann harboured antisemitic resentments before his 2020 radicalisation. Beginning in the summer of 2020, antisemitic dog whistles grew in importance on his channel. In other words, Hildmann developed in real-time a hatred of everything Jewish and expressed it not yet openly, but through references and insinuations, such as misinformation and lies that talk about the Rothschilds or George Soros instead of “the Jews”, but nonetheless contain antisemitic motifs such as “string pullers”, “secretly acting elites” or “child murders” that are behind the “Great Replacement” or the “Great Reset”. These conspiracy narratives are popular in the Querdenken scene as a whole and are even more popular among QAnon fans, whom Hildmann first courted but later saw as part of a Satanist-Jewish world conspiracy himself. Hildmann increasingly wrote about Illuminati and Freemasons, Cultural Marxists and Satanists – further stand-ins for Jews, illustrated with memes and caricatures reminiscent of the National Socialist propaganda rag Der Stürmer. While experts on antisemitism and Hildmann fans alike deciphered these codes with ease, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation received a request from SpiegelTV in December 2020 to explain Attila Hildmann’s antisemitism. This resulted in a report in which Hildmann presented himself as “ultra right-wing”. Shortly after the end of the filming – and a raid on his house in Brandenburg – Attila Hildmann left for Turkey (see Belltower.News).
Consequences for civil society
Attila Hildmann’s agitation has certainly had consequences. In the course of 2020, he was removed from larger social media platforms (e.g. Instagram) and his videos and posts with politically extreme content were deleted (e.g. Facebook, YouTube). He lost distribution channels for his vegan products and cookbooks as numerous retail chains and mail order companies no longer stocked his items. All that remains is Hildmann’s own website – and the shop of far-right NPD functionary Sebastian Schmidtke, who is now apparently an acceptable business partner for Hildmann.
Legal ramifications are, however, still lacking, even though Hildmann’s Telegram channel offers enough smoking guns: calls for murder and violence, slander and insults against perceived enemies, use of banned symbols or Holocaust denial, for instance. Numerous monitoring groups watch Hildmann’s activities and report such statements or inform those affected because, under German law, insults can only be reported by the offended person themselves. This is how Volker Beck first learned of Hildmann’s calls for the “death penalty” against him, before reporting them, along with the calls for violence the followed. “Becuase Hildmann was living in Brandenburg at the time, the Berlin authorities sent the case to Brandenburg. The Brandenburg LKA sent the charges to the Brandenburg public prosecutor’s office, and they were very adamant that the threats had been made in the subjunctive case and were therefore not punishable. I see it differently. It’s a general problem: it’s common legal practice that if a statement can be interpreted in several ways, and one of them is not punishable, the case is dropped. But on the internet today everything is public. Such statements resonate and are amplified. What is urgently needed here are public prosecutors who think in a new way and contextualise statements more strongly: How seriously is a statement meant, how often is it repeated, in which contexts and publics?”
Hildmann has not yet faced any legal consequences for his actions. An arrest warrant was only issued when the Berlin public prosecutor’s office took over the case, but it can no longer be enforced: Attila Hildmann left Germany as early as January 2021, as circumstantial evidence of his online behaviour shows. He claims to hold Turkish citizenship in addition to German and assumes that he can remain in Turkey for the time being without any problems. Hildmann feels so safe that he even mocked the Berlin prosecutor general’s office on Twitter.
What about the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG)?
And, apparently, he is right. The public prosecutor’s office in Berlin declined to answer a request for comment from Belltower.News about the state of the investigation after a week (tagesschau.de also was unable to find out more). Because Hildmann’s offences take place online, the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) could apply. If platforms do not delete criminal content after it is reported, a report under NetzDG should at least lead to fines against the network. In this case, the platform is Telegram. Unfortunately, Telegram is uninterested in the NetzDG and almost never deletes or blocks accounts and posts, including those of Attila Hildmann. When asked by Belltower.News, a spokeswoman for the Federal Ministry of Justice answered: “The Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection is not aware of any initiatives to close Attila Hildmann’s Telegram channel. There is no contact between the BMJV and the provider Telegram.” The spokesperson continued: “The Federal Office of Justice, which is responsible as an administrative authority for the enforcement of the NetzDG, does however receive isolated complaints from users concerning content by Mr. Hildmann on social networks.” In these cases, action is taken against the poster but not the network. This means no consequences are to be expected here either.
Why Hildmann’s continued agitation is dangerous
Because Hildmann has evaded prosecution and is presumably even more socially isolated than before in Turkey, he no longer uses ciphers for his hatred of Jews, nor must he hide his veneration for Adolf Hitler’s murderous antisemitism. He announced to his fans that he is now a “proud real Nazi” and calls for resistance against the “Jewish Republic Germany”. Hitler and Goebbels are regularly quoted. Holocaust trivialisation and denial are a firm part of his repertoire. Almost every post is directed against “Jews”, the “Jewish FRG” (Federal Republic of Germany) or even “Jewish faggots”, combining antisemitism with equally deep-seated homophobia.
Meanwhile, Hildmann has lost some 14,000 channel subscribers, but around 106,000 followers are still there. The followers are not in Turkey, but mostly in Germany – and they are ready to act. Fans post swastikas made out of jars of Hildmann’s vegan bolognese, extremely explicit antisemitic memes and graphics in the style of the far-right terrorist group Atomwaffen Division.
When Hildmann tags people or places on his channel, fans spring into action. In October 2020, after Hildmann described the Pergamon Altar on Berlin’s Museum Island as a “throne of Satan” that had to be destroyed, there were acid attacks on the altar and 70 other works of art in the Pergamon Museum (see Belltower.News). A month ago, Hildmann named a Berlin shop that took a stand against a pandemic-denier demonstration as a digital target. It took days to purge the hate comments and remove politically motivated negative reviews, paralysing the operators in their ability to act and creating direct consequences for people in Germany who are committed to democracy and are marked as enemies because of their actions.
Volker Beck, who is still regularly attacked by Hildmann, says: “Who knows how he would have developed if he had been fined early on – perhaps his self-radicalisation would not have happened so erratically then. But now it is difficult to act against him because he is in Turkey. It would have been possible to arrest him. But the authorities have obviously done a lot wrong. With the support of HateAID, I am also trying to take civil action against him.”
Maybe the judiciary could see their failure with Hildmann as an incentive to at least investigate his fans more closely and more quickly. Many of them are in Germany. And many of them are dangerous.
Translated by W.F. Thomas