Within the German conspiracy ideology milieu, the protests in Berlin on August 1st, 2020 under the motto “Day of Freedom/End of the Pandemic” served as a central identity-forging event. A very large number of heterogeneous protesters came together in Berlin, flouted the demonstration’s hygiene requirements (social distancing, compulsory wearing of masks) and demonstrated against the government measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mass street demos have stoked the emerging movement, with the scene then mobilising for another major protest on August 29th, 2020 in Berlin, which drew just under 40,000 people. Supporters were motivated by countless conspiracy beliefs, but two conspiracy ideologies stood out clearly and received increased attention and popularity during this phase of mobilisation: on one side of the coin, “QAnon”, on the other, the conspiracy ideology of the sovereigntist “Reichsbürger” movement. This conspiracist milieu is unique as it forges a link between the two concepts.
“QAnon”: Trump as saviour against satanic paedophiles
“QAnon” stories originated in the USA, initially distributed solely over the internet, starting in 2017. These beliefs have since led to political protest and violence, including murders. “QAnon” followers united under the idea that US president Donald Trump is working to free the US from a worldwide conspiracy of paedophile satanists who secretly control the state and the media. An alleged insider of the Trump administration who supposedly holds the highest level of security clearance, “Q” level security clearance – hence the name Q – repeatedly publishes cryptic messages and prophecies on imageboards – hence the ending Anon, for anonymous – which followers then use as “evidence” of Trump’s fight against the evil conspiracy. The idea of the abuse and murder of children fits alongside the antisemitic conspiracy myth of blood libel, which has been around since the Middle Ages and alleges that Jews ritually murder Christian children.
In Germany, the spread of the “QAnon” conspiracy ideology since spring 2020 can be largely attributed to two events. According to the political scientist Josef Holnburger, on April 2nd, 2020, a video of the popstar Xavier Naidoo, an active peddler of conspiracy ideologies, was shared on Telegram, in which he was crying and spouting “QAnon” mythology. In addition, he asked viewers to google a term in order to that lead them to further conspiracy ideology-based content. Only a few days earlier, according to Holnburger, Naidoo had joined a “QAnon” group on Telegram.
The original tweet in which political scientist Josef Holnburger describes the video and conspiracy ideology shared by popstar Xavier Naidoo.
Naidoo’s original video, as well as a follow-up video, were distributed on the same day by his US-savvy conspiracy ideology mentor, Oliver Janich, on his YouTube and Telegram channels and with further “information” about “satanic rituals”, of which Janich claimed to have been warning about “for years”. Right-wing libertarian Janich operates one of the largest conspiracy ideology channels on Telegram, which has grown rapidly since the start of the pandemic.
“Reichbürger”, sovereignty and QAnon
Even before Janich became involved, members of the “Reichsbürger” movement and other sovereigntists had already mentioned “QAnon” in a positive light. The sovereigntists focused on the NATO manoeuvre “Defender Europe 20”, originally scheduled for the first half of 2020 and set to include the largest US-troop relocation in 25 years. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe prevented the planned implementation of the manoeuvre. The cancellation did not dissuade the sovereigntist supporters of “QAnon” on Telegram. Since February/March 2020, both conspiracy ideologies continued to mix in their channels and groups. The “QAnon”-“Reichbürger” group and the associated channel “Defender/SHAEF 2Q2Q”, which were founded on March 5th and 12th this year are examples. The connection shines through visibly in the name of this community. Replacing the zeros with Qs refers to “QAnon” and “SHAEF” (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) is a common sovereignist/”Reichsbürger” dog-whistle used to “prove” an alleged permanent occupation of Germany by the Allies.
One of the first shared messages from an “expert”, ostensibly to explain the connections between “Defender 2020”, Q and the German Reich, includes the antisemitic fantasy that “Zionist Jews” have occupied the German Reich since 1918. The message continued, fantasising that the First World War never ended, that there was no peace treaty. But there is hope: in the USA, Trump has limited the power of the “cabal” – a favourite phrase of Oliver Janich – since his election. Now he has come to liberate the German Reich from the occupation by the “Zionist Jews”. The antisemitic conspiracy myth of a “Jewish world conspiracy” is a core element of sovereigntist ideology. In “QAnon”, some of its followers in the German-speaking world have found an extension of the history of salvation.
This connection between “QAnon”, sovereigntist and “Reichsbürger” ideology becomes evident once one looks at the protests. The demo in Berlin on August 1st, 2020 was organised and orchestrated by “Querdenken 711”, an organisation from Stuttgart centred around an esoteric conspiracy ideology, which in April 2020 caused a sensation nationwide. Founder Michael Ballweg managed to hold a rally in Stuttgart at the height of the lockdown on April 18th, 2020. Although the city banned the event in advance, the Federal Constitutional Court rules in favour of Ballweg’s urgent application against the ban, a decision the conspiracy ideology milieu praised.
A remarkable change in the messages spread by Michael Ballweg took place in his address to his Berlin audience on August 1st, 2020. He used the opportunity to praise the conspiracy ideology “QAnon” and repeated the movement’s motto “Where we go one, we go all” while on-stage. Just one week later, on August 8th, 2020, Ballweg used the sovereigntist dog-whistle “peace treaty” to outline his plans. He claimed to be in discussion with constitutional lawyers to clarify the question of Germany’s “peace treaty”. The conspiracist myth of the “missing peace treaty” claims that Germany or the German Reich should technically still be at war, since it doesn’t have a peace treaty. The apparent non-war situation in the Federal Republic is portrayed as the result of a secret worldwide conspiracy against the Germans that has been going on for decades, or even for the past century. At the end of his speech in Stuttgart, Ballweg asked the participants to google “peace treaty”, which would consequently lead them to far-right sovereigntist/“Reichsbürger” websites and YouTube channels, reinforcing their conspiracy ideology worldview.
Stephan Bergmann, the spokesperson for “Querdenken 711”, also shared sovereigntist/“Reichsbürger” content on Facebook. The drum maker and fan of the indigenous population of the USA also welcomed the far-right, antisemitic vlogger Nikolai Nerling, known as “Der Volkslehrer” (The People’s Teacher), in front of the stage with a friendly hug on August 1st.
A German antiracist group highlight the extremist beliefs of Bergmann.
Nerling gives Holocaust deniers a platform with his online presence and is a supporter of fascism and the German Reich. Given the proximity to extremism or the radicalisation of central organisers of the rally on August 1st, it is not surprising that “Reichsbürger” groups with their Reich war flags were accepted by the rest of the participants in Berlin.
Redemption for the Reich through Q(uerdenken)
The constellation of global crises, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, and the conspiracy ideology protests against government lockdown measures (measures framed by protestors as “restricting fundamental rights”) have catalysed the spread of “QAnon” and sovereigntist/“Reichsbürger” conspiracy ideologies. Both ideologies solidify the adversarial image of the state, which supposedly operates against the interests of its citizens. To followers of these conspiracy beliefs, a secret conspiracy against “the people” is taking place, a conspiracy controlled by the government. Notable within all of these conspiracy ideologies, whether in the sovereigntist ideology or in other forms, as with “QAnon”, are promises of salvation, contrasting with the doom-fixated conspiracy ideology narratives about the “New World Order”, forced vaccinations or the supposed “Great Replacement” that could ultimately only be stopped by terror.
Conspiracy ideology milieus always walk a fine line between hopelessness and megalomania. Richard Hofstadter described this phenomenon in his analysis of the ideological conspiracy of the American right in the mid-1960s. Sovereigntist ideology dampens the hopelessness with its concrete tips on how to “regain” sovereignty, both individually and nationally, through declarations of sovereignty, applying for certain documents, changing the spelling of one’s own name, proclaiming one’s own empire on one’s own land, the convening of a national assembly, the establishment of an imperial government, and so on.
“QAnon” extends this ideology with a perspective of power and Christian fundamentalist end-time ideas. In the USA, where the mythology of “QAnon” first spread, ideas about the end-times find extreme popularity among fundamentalist Christian groups, as well as among right-wing extremists. These ideas, presented here in a nutshell, describe, among other things, the beginning of the end-times with a period of suffering for Christians, caused by a conspiracy from the Antichrist. However, these groups believe they will rise up against this to defeat satanic evil in a final battle with the help of the Archangel Michael and will then usher in a utopian period of the rule of good in a millennial kingdom.
German-language conspiracy ideology discourse shares some of these ideas, with secular interpretations of the apocalypse predominating the discourse since the 2010s. The political scientist Michael Barkun described German conspiracy ideology and esoteric milieus’ improvised understanding of the apocalypse since the 1990s, in which there are no canonised writings, but where individual pieces from different contexts are brought together to form a whole. Against a backdrop of US-American political culture, Trump is fighting openly and in secret against the satanic conspiracy in the “QAnon” conspiracy ideology as a Christian saviour. The German conspiracy ideology context sees Trump as a political leader taking the field against perverse “globalists”. Corresponding to these ideas of salvation, the German sovereigntist milieus connected the logos of “Defender-Europe 20” and SHAEF with the flaming sword of the Archangel Michael, which in Christian end-time thought represents the divine intervention in the decisive battle against evil. After that, good would prevail and evil would be destroyed. The German Reich or a sovereign Germany, whatever that means, represents the place of salvation to be reached.
This similarly highlights the limits of “QAnon” within a German conspiracy ideology context. Life in the end times and the imminent victory of “good” requires a great deal of faith. This is challenged by the countless number of failed prophecies from “Q”, the mysterious figure at the centre of “QAnon”. “QAnon” not only unites the milieu, but is also susceptible to doubts about the correctness of the stories from “Q”. Over the past few months, several sovereigntist “Reichsbürger” groups broke off their belief in “QAnon”. Their trust in “foreign aid”, i.e. Donald Trump, has been exhausted. These groups now believe they must take their fate into their own hands.
The “Magazine for Sovereignty” has also used the opportunity around “QAnon” to convey its own “new right” agenda to budding conspiracy ideology fans. COMPACT advertised the week before the last “Querdenken 711” demonstration on August 29th, 2020 as a “Q week”. As a result, some people who googled “QAnon” or “Q”, as well as others who followed Ballweg’s request to search for the “peace treaty”, may end up finding right-wing extremists, such as AfD politician Björn Höcke, who spoke with COMPACT on the subject of “a peace treaty, a real constitution and sovereignty”.
Translated by W. F. Thomas.