After the big rally of coronavirus deniers in Berlin in early August, another one was announced for Saturday, 29 August 2020. The rally was officially registered by the Stuttgart-based initiative “Querdenken 711” (“Lateral Thinking 711”) which is directed against the COVID-19 measures of the German Federal Government. The same initiative had already called for the last major demonstration on 1 August 2020 which around 20,000 people attended. A heated debate broke out on social media about the actual number of participants. At the rally three weeks ago, hygiene rules were deliberately disregarded and Nazi symbols were openly worn. In order to prevent an escalation, the police did not intervene.
The organizers of “Querdenken 711” registered 17,000 participants with authorities for the upcoming demonstration and 22,500 for the final rally on the “Straße des 17. Juni” (“Street of June 17”). In addition, the initiative has registered further daily demonstrations with up to 25,000 participants from Sunday, 30 August, to Monday, 14 September. Initiator Michael Ballweg wants to “occupy” the “Straße des 17. Juni” for 14 days.
On Wednesday, 26 August, the Berlin senate announced a ban on the upcoming rally on Saturday. The main reason that was given was the “deliberate” violation of coronavirus rules, such as the refusal to wear face masks and maintain social distancing. Since the announcement of the ban, the police have been preparing for the eventuality that thousands of protesters will take to the streets regardless.
What is striking is the extent of the mobilisation from the right-wing extremist scene. Already in the past few months, these nationwide demonstrations have stood out in terms of their openness towards radical and anti-democratic attitudes. Right-wing extremists, conspiracy ideologues and “Reichsbürger” were not only tolerated but also invited to speak on stages. Berlin’s Senator of the Interior, Andreas Geisel, told the “Tagesspiegel” newspaper that he was observing the mobilisation in the right-wing extremist spectrum closely. He said that the protests had been “deliberately infiltrated” in order to make them compatible with right-wing extremist ideas. However, this is an inadequate representation, since conspiracy ideologies and antisemitic motifs were present during the “hygiene rallies” from the very beginning. Narratives popular among “Reichsbürger”, such as Germany’s alleged lack of sovereignty, have also been a topic among demonstrators for weeks.
Such a broad mobilisation was last seen in 2018, when the entire radical and far-right scene mobilised to gather in the German city of Chemnitz. This can be considered somewhat of a turning point in German far-right mobilisation. For instance, Stephan E. – the main defendant in the murder case of German politician Walter Lübcke, who was assassinated in the summer of 2019 – stated during a police interrogation in February 2020 that he attended the Chemnitz rally. Not only that, E. said that the decision “to act” was made on the return trip from Chemnitz to the federal state of Hesse. While he and his alleged accomplice had already previously discussed the idea of having to “drive by“ Lübcke’s house in order to intimidate and possibly beat him, it had by no means been established that they would kill him. After the demonstration in Chemnitz, E. said in his interrogation, “it was clear that we would do that”. For Lübcke was clearly jointly responsible “for what happened” – not only for the deed in Chemnitz, but in general for the so-called “over-foreignisation” (the German word he used is “Überfremdung”) of society perceived by Stephan E. and his co-defendant Markus H.
Mobilisation for the Berlin Rally on 29 August 2020
This time around, there are additional groups joining the “cross-front” – even from milieus that are not explicitly far-right. A list of the main actors and groups mobilising to the rally:
1. Right-wing extremists
Hermannsland / Lunikoff Verschwörung (“Lunikoff Conspiracy”)
On Telegram, the “Hermannland-Versand” (“Hermannsland Mail Order”) is looking forward to the rally: “See you in Berlin!!!”. “Hermannsland” is the far-right clothing brand of Michael “Lunikoff” Regener, a right-wing rock veteran and previously singer of the far-right cult band “Landser” – which was banned as a criminal organization in 2003. Here, the “Blood and Honour” milieu is looking forward to the demonstration in Berlin, producing not only the soundtrack for violence and hate with right-wing rock, but also contributing to the financing of Germany’s right-wing extremist scene. “Lunikoff” does not have to travel to the rally, as he lives in Berlin.
The right-wing extremist “alternative media” creator and rally speaker Sven Liebich (who runs the blog “Halle Leaks”) will travel from Halle to Berlin and already has „souvenir shirts“ ready in his mail order. Liebich has been an activist within the right-wing extremist scene since the late 1990s, has been participating in neo-Nazi marches since then, and was one of the associates of “Corelli” Thomas Richter – an informant of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution – who had been exposed during the investigations into the right-wing terrorist network “National Socialist Underground” (NSU). In 2000, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution ranked Liebich among the regional leaders of the “Blood & Honour” network. Since 2002, he is mainly considered an agitator at right-wing extremist rallies – such as the “Pegida” marches and now coronavirus denier rallies, as well as online. He riles up his more violent fans with disinformation until they are ready to attack those who think differently – online or in real life.
The NPD, for many years rather unsuccessful but still the most successful far-right party in Germany, has sunk into nationwide insignificance with the rise of the AfD – but of course, it still exists and remains significant for the networking of regional right-wing extremist scenes. Thus, the far-right party is now also mobilising intensely to Berlin, for example from Hesse and Saxony. It uses the “freedom” narrative: the democratically elected government is a “regime” and “insane” and when “the people” demonstrate for “freedom”, the NPD wants to join in.
Udo Voigt, long-time NPD party leader (1996-2011) and Member of the European Parliament, also calls on people to be present in Berlin.
“Germans, don’t put up with everything! […] Rally against the enslavement of free citizens – Together against corona insanity! […]”
Patrick Wieschke, a long-time “Comrade Unit Leader” and NPD operative from Eisenach, is also mobilising for the demo. In the comment section of his Facebook post, right-wing extremists from the region are organising themselves. Wieschke is known in Thuringia as a protestor and speaker. He’s appeared in court on charges of violence and resigned from his NPD posts when the violent mistreatment of his mother and sister and the abuse of a 12-year-old girl became known to the police.
“Volkslehrer” Nikolai Nehrling
“All other plans which I had for the weekend have to be postponed. We will see each other in Berlin! Thanks to both Michaels (Ballweg and Müller) for the invitation!”
The “Volkslehrer” (“People’s Teacher”) was expelled from his Berlin school service post in 2018 and since then reports on far-right demonstrations on his eponymous video channels. Nehrling also published a video with “critical thoughts” on YouTube: He is unhappy that there is a transparent “Querdenken 711” mobilisation video, in which the voices of two alleged Muslims can be heard – supposedly to mobilise especially Muslims for the rally. Nehrling claims to have no problem with Muslims (“I have even shot videos with Muslims”), but he does not want them to be more welcome at the demonstration than he is – in other words: “völkisch/ethnic Germans”. Despite repeated requests, Nehrling is not allowed on stage during the rally.
Der III. Weg (“The Third Way”)
The neo-Nazi micro-party “Der III. Weg” (“The Third Way”) also wants to be present, even announcing a liveticker on their “world net page” (or “Weltnetzseite” – a clumsy term they use to avoid any Anglicisms) and come to the conclusion: “The system is more dangerous than Corona!” The “III. Weg” was founded on 28 September 2013 with the significant participation of former NPD officials and activists of the “Freies Netz Süd” (“Free Network South” or “FNS”), which was banned in July 2014, and is considered an attempt to continue the “FNS” under the protection of party privilege. The party’s first chairman is the former NPD official Klaus Armstroff. The party sees itself as a reservoir for a very active small group of radical ethnic nationalists who in turn see themselves as a “conscious neo-Nazi elite that is not seeking growth”.
Patriot Opposition Europe
“Patriotic Opposition Europe” is another far-right splinter group, which appeared in Berlin and later also in North Rhine-Westphalia at the end of 2018. It consists “Reichsbürger”, those left over from “Pegida” structures, i.e. Islamophobes, and disappointed AfD members under the leadership of the right-wing extremist activist Eric Graziani (who also uses “Graziany”). They have many plans for the weekend, such as camping and “sealing the end of the injustice regime”. The movement labels itself as the “resistance” and a “family”. Interesting is also the writing on the picture in the upper left corner: “Gemeinsam S.T.A.R.K.” (“Together S.T.R.O.N.G”) is reminiscent of the group “Hooligans gegen Salafisten” (“Hooligans against Salafists”).
2. “The New Right”
The “New Right” is a self-description of right-wing extremist intellectuals who strive for an ideological and strategic modernization of the right and, at the same time, want to distinguish themselves from the “Old Right”, which is strongly associated with the Nazi-era. At coronavirus rallies, the “New Right” sees a possibility to dock ideologically onto a movement suitable for the masses.
One of the leading heads of the “New Right”, Götz Kubitscheck, also calls for the necessary participation in the demonstration in Berlin via his magazine, “Sezession”. The network around his publishing house “Verlag Antaios” and the “Institut für Staatspolitik” (“Institute for State Policy”) in Schnellroda, which he co-founded, is considered an influential ideological group within the “New Right” and also exerts influence on the AfD.
The “New Right” perceives itself to be facing a secret agenda and a “societal plan”. These formulations are evocative of the myth of the “Great Replacement” which is also popular among the “New Right”. According to this conspiracy ideology, governments and/or “secret powers” have conspired against “ordinary citizens”. The Covid-19 pandemic provides a link to myths that presume an extensive conspiracy behind complex situations.
Chris Ares, a far-right rapper who is close to the “new-right” “Identitarian Movement”, has called on his fans to attend the demo via Telegram. He, too, sees Germany already on the way to a dictatorship and calls himself and his comrades-in-arms the “patriotic youth”. This youth, assembled around his music label “Neuer Deutscher Standard” (“New German Standard”), sees itself as persecuted and denounced. Ares belongs to a milieu that tries to make a young, hip and right-wing lifestyle socially acceptable and to penetrate the musical mainstream with far-right ideas via rap. As the “Tagesspiegel” newspaper reports, Ares will already appear as a speaker on Friday (28 August) at an opening event of “Compact” magazine, which is classified as a “suspected case” of being an extremist organisation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Hagen Grell is a German Truther, YouTube video creator, and sympathizer of the right-wing populist party AfD and the “new-right” “Identitarian Movement”. The video shared by Grell is a mobilisation video by Michael Ballweg. Grell claims that a new lockdown has been “planned” and “coordinated” and that the rally is the last chance for a peaceful large-scale demonstration. With this, he pursues a line of conspiracy ideological “reasoning” according to which it is always “the eleventh hour” and the apocalypse is always imminent. Moreover, the assumption that this is the last chance for a peaceful demonstration suggests that violence may be a justified means in the future.
Head of the “Identarian Movement”, Martin Sellner, has recently had some problems with the social media world, where many of his channels have been banned. Now he is opting for the offline route with the rally in Berlin – and is mobilising for it in one of his only remaining channels, on Telegram. However, the audience there is not completely enthusiastic. “Querdenken” is too “radically left” for them. One of Sellner’s subscriber’s comments: “Can’t, got shooting practice”. Others are happy: “Of course I’ll be there, I’ll be joining with 30 biker friends” or “I’ll go there spontaneously, it’s a 2-hour train ride from Hamburg to Berlin. It would be nice if there was still some action in the evening. [Like] Hunting a couple of antifa members.”
Already after the first large demonstration on 1 August 2020, Sellner had praised the coronavirus deniers in the “New Right” publication “Sezession”: “The digital potential that had been built up over months in an organically developed and explosively grown German ‘Truther scene’ could definitely be called upon the streets. The joint mobilisation of all forces has resulted in a visible symbol that can no longer be denied. […] An uncontrolled, rebellious mass that manifests and organises itself against their will spells a serious problem of authority for the elites. […] Indeed, there is much to suggest that the topic of the coronavirus is a classic proxy topic for a patriotic critique of globalism and its control over the media world”. In his newsletter, he prompts “All-in to Berlin”.
The “Alternative für Deutschland” (“Alternative for Germany”, AfD) party is also mobilising for the Berlin rally. On social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, various members of the Bundestag and state parliaments are calling to take part in the demonstration. Among them are prominent members like Alice Weidel, Tino Chrupalla, Stephan Brandner, Björn Höcke, Enrico Komming, Dirk Spaniel and others. At the centre of this mobilisation is an alleged threat to freedom in Germany by the “established parties”, supported by the “established media”. In his call to action, the leader of the Thuringian parliamentary group, Björn Höcke, speaks of a “reign of fear”. In their mobilisation, the AfD draws on the same programme with which it tries to utilise in every crisis: The main point is to be against “it”, against the “mainstream”, and against the “establishment”.
Stephan Brandner, lawyer and member of the Bundestag, delivers a side blow to democratic media and also speaks of a “corona dictatorship”.
“It is obvious: the more members of the AfD will go to Berlin on Berlin next Saturday, the better and more valuable the rally will become. So: Come on, let’s go, friends – and don’t get divided by the #UniformityMedia! Clear position against #CoronaDictatorship, #Merkel, #OldParties and the like!”
Björn Höcke is mobilising, but not as a “representative of a party, but as a freedom-loving citizen”. The demonstration should also be a “symbol of freedom”, against the “reign of fear” (i.e. caution in the face of an unexplored pandemic), which allegedly curtails “basic rights” and works “against its own population”. For this reason, he raises a point which has hardly been addressed during the rallies: He wants popular referendums.
Alice Weidel sets a more middle-class framework, but one that still clearly defines enemy stereotypes. She writes: “for freedom, for a self-determined life and against the arbitrariness of politics and the established press”.
Tino Chrupalla has remained very reserved and gives an impression of legitimacy and justification to his call for the rally – despite the fact that the rally is still championed by anti-democratic groups, pandemic deniers and conspiracy ideologists.
The Berlin party colleague Frank Hansel, on the other hand, draws comparisons with the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and styles himself as a “dissident”.