Main Image Credit Courtesy of dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
Far-right movements are joining hands with coronavirus-deniers and lockdown critics. This is an ominous trend, but it is unlikely to have any serious impact on the upcoming elections.
It was the first sign of the links between the far-right and anti-lockdown advocates. The rally, in August 2020, saw over 300 protestors attempt to storm the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament.
Some protestors held the red, white and black Reichsflaggen – the historical flag of the German empire. Nowadays this flag is often used by the Reichsbürger movement. The Reichsflaggen represent the inchoate movement’s core beliefs: that modern Germany is the artificial creation of the winners of the Second World War, and that the country’s former frontiers should be reinstated – 1937 seems to be a particularly popular year to revert to, with its inclusion of half of today’s Poland.
According to Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the BfV, this half-baked ideology has attracted approximately 19,000 people. A number of violent attacks and several uncovered arms caches demonstrate the group’s willingness to use violence to achieve their ends.
The Querdenken Movement
The August 2020 rally was not organised by the Reichsbürger or known far-right groups, but by the Querdenken movement, which means ‘thinking outside the box’. It is a protest movement against the government’s coronavirus measures and Querdenken argues that masks, lockdowns and other social restrictions are unconstitutional and an intolerable attack on personal liberties.
The group attracts a variety of people, from those who simply disagree with the German government’s handling of the crisis to those who believe the pandemic is a hoax and that the vaccine contains microchips. The group’s one-page manifesto states that its members consider themselves to be above party politics and that ‘no opinion is excluded’.
At first glance, there is no apparent connection to far-right ideologies. Querdenken rallies, now held in many German states, seem to attract a diverse array of people with pictures of peace signs visible at rallies. However, far-right symbols and slogans are increasingly visible. Rallies sometimes feature speakers spreading far-right views. According to the minister of the interior for the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, up to one-third of demonstrators are right-wing extremists.
The real question is whether Germany’s Querdenken movement was always on the far-right, or whether it was just infiltrated by opportunistic far-right elements.
An Accidental Alliance?
Michael Ballweg, the founder of Querdenken, has not done much to distance himself or the movement from extremists. Ballweg did say that no extremist ideology is welcome in the movement, but when asked about his connection to Reichsbürger member, conspiracy theorist and convicted embezzler Peter Fitzek, he played down the meeting by dismissing it as a mere ‘networking opportunity’. Others beg to differ. The meeting, attended by around 80 Querdenken members, was an important factor in the BfV’s decision to add the movement to its watchlist.
It is unclear to what extent Ballweg’s complacency over the purpose of his meeting with Fitzek reflects sheer negligence as opposed to opportunism – it may well be both. What remains clear, however, is that the far-right has used this new movement to push their own agenda, attract attention and perhaps new followers along the way. General discontent at the government and anti-establishment sentiment among the protestors are not adverse conditions for spreading extremist ideologies after all.
Sociologist Matthias Quent argues that while far-right extremists were present at the protests from the beginning of the Querdenken movement, there is now further pressure to polarise, with the groups feeding off each other’s attention. Furthermore, Quent argues that the alliance between coronavirus-deniers and the far-right is a continuation of wider trends that have seen far-right ideas flourish in Europe and the US over the past few years. Germany now has the highest level of far-right violence in Western Europe. A BfV report also points to the growing numbers of far-right supporters – from 24,100 in 2018 to 32,080 in 2019.
What About the Election?
Does this mean that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will receive a boost in federal elections this autumn? The party has been present in the Querdenken movement’s Telegram channels and protests. A quarter of Querdenken supporters are likely to vote for the AfD, compared with a national average of 10%, according to a University of Basel survey. More significantly, none of the survey’s participants had any intention of voting for the largest mainstream political parties.
Still, it is not obvious that beyond a general sympathy for right-of-centre policies, Querdenken members would be attracted to the AfD’s promotion of traditional gender roles and anti-Muslim sentiment. So, while voting intentions for the AfD are generally higher among Querdenken supporters compared to the rest of German society, the movement’s popularity is unlikely to result in significantly more votes for the AfD.
This does not mean, however, that the pandemic has not affected voting intentions in general. Support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has risen sharply from under 30% to nearly 40%, with all other parties, and notably the Greens – who at one point looked poised to become Germany’s second-biggest party – losing support. It seems that the population, despite its criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, generally trusts its current ruling party, a feat that other European countries can only dream of. And while this sudden outburst of support is nothing unusual in crisis situations – the concurrent longevity of both the crisis and the continuing good ratings renders the numbers rather remarkable. The question remains whether this approval should be interpreted in favour of the CDU or Merkel herself, whose approval ratings in 16 years of office have never been below 50%. It is also unclear whether the upward trend will continue in 2021, with criticism towards continuing lockdown measures and the perception of a slow vaccination strategy growing.
What the Querdenken movement has succeeded in doing is highlighting the mistrust some Germans have for the federal government and major political parties in particular. This disapproval and mistrust are not new nor triggered by the pandemic. But the sentiment was amplified and came to the fore when people’s frustrations were given a new platform. The fact that the Querdenken movement felt comfortable enough to tolerate far-right supporters in their midst bears witness to a growing far-right threat that ought to be watched closely. Germany’s new chancellor will not face an easy task.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Research Analyst and Policy Lead