This article was originally published in German.
It began with a simple invitation that was shared in Telegram groups. It mentioned “veterans of the Bundeswehr and the NVA”, the former being the Volksarmee of East Germany, who want to “peacefully stand in the front row between protesters and police” at Querdenken demos against covid measures in Germany. These ex-soldiers want to organise themselves, they write. That this “organisation” would ultimately lead to confrontation, was clear from the outset: “On the one hand, this should give the demonstrators symbolic support. On the other hand, this should show the police what it means to stand by their oath once taken on the constitution and that veterans are ready to stand as shields in front of the sovereign people.” The Telegram group spread like wildfire, attracting thousands of members in just a short space of time.
The reason for this explosion in interest was not only the numerous veterans flocking to the group, but also the Telegram structure of the Querdenken movement and effective networking between the various key players within the scene. The call to join this channel has already been sent more than 210,000 times through the Telegram channels of various conspiracy ideologues and Querdenken groups. Among them is, for example, the channel run by Bodo Schiffmann, a leading figure within the movement, with over 137,000 subscribers. But also seemingly more inconspicuous Querdenken sub-groups such as local “Eltern stehen auf” (Parents stand up) groups against covid measures. Large Telegram groups linked to the conspiracy ideology QAnon have also been sharing the Veterans Pool – successfully. Many new members of the group have QAnon symbols or codes in their profiles and nicknames. However, “classic” far-right symbolism such as “88” for “HH” or “Heil Hitler” is also popular.
Other channels and groups that have been promoting the Veteran’s Pool group belong to the far-right Reichsbürger movement. Reichsbürger, or “citizens of the German Reich”, firmly reject the existence of Federal Republic of Germany and consider Germany to be still “occupied” following the Second World War. Followers of the Reichsbürger movement are dangerous: time and again large arsenals of weapons have been found at their properties and they have also been responsible for violent and fatal attacks on police officers.
“Finally, everyone is coming together”
These same groups are now trying to recruit former soldiers. And many hundreds of members seem to have been waiting all too eagerly for such an organisation to come along. “Finally everyone is coming together”, writes one. Another expresses himself even more radically, summing up what many seem to already think: “Would finally like to hunt down the traitors” – referring to all those radicalised protestors from the Querdenken movement have come to see as enemies in recent months, including epidemiologists, politicians and journalists. Now, this radicalisation also seems to have reached the ranks of ex-soldiers. According to the German newspaper Tagesspiegel, AfD politician Daniel Freiherr von Lützow has also joined the group and has been bragging about his time in the Bundeswehr. There have also been explicit calls to action: for example to attend the demonstrations in Weimar and Leipzig at the weekend and in Berlin on Monday against the pandemic measures of the government.
We are not going to war. We are at war.
Many members of the group credibly detail their Bundeswehr past – including service time, rank and regiment. Some seem happy to have met like-minded people. It almost seems like a group organising a class reunion – but not quite, as they also exchange stories about which weapons they have enjoyed shooting the most with and even discuss whether they are already at war. The fact that the group is public does not seem to bother most of the members. “Give my regards to MAD and Staatsschutz. We are not afraid and we do not surrender!”, writes one of the members, referring to Germany’s military intelligence agency and state security services. Such statements can only be understood as a declaration of war. “Not without reason, we have served”, another one points out, “We have never won anything by singing and clapping”. Such comments are common – and they show where this journey is headed: “We are not going to war. We are at war. The aim is to break the spell”, the group founder writes.
The aim of this large and complex melting pot of ex-soldiers, QAnon fans and covid deniers, however, is local networking. By the time this article was published, moderated networking groups had already been set up for nine federal states in Germany. A person responsible for the regional group for Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg also sees himself as being in battle. His Telegam profile points to a website that clearly belongs to the Reichsbürger scene. There, he speaks of a “national liberation movement” that wants to restore a supposedly “lost sovereignty for our country”. The fact that members are organising themselves in a chat whose admin seemingly rejects the peaceful democratic order and instead wishes to actively fight it, doesn’t seem to bother the other members. On the contrary: for many, their former camaraderie seems to be in a state of revival, with them feeling almost inspired. So much so that they have no qualms about posting a photo of their veteran badges and the accompanying letter in the groups.
While large parts of the Querdenken movement are now being monitored by Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, regional groups of mostly inactive soldiers are forming out of precisely this milieu – closely networked with right-wing extremists and radical conspiracy ideologues.
Veterans’ associations such as the “Bund Deutscher EinsatzVeteranen e.V.” view the development with concern and have already clearly distanced themselves from the groups. The Ministry of Defence, on the other hand, strikes an almost defensive tone on Twitter: “This is not an organisation of the Bundeswehr. We distance ourselves from the content.” Almost as if we should be relieved by this fact after a score of far-right scandals in the ranks of the Bundeswehr.