At the Well blog


Lateral thinkers, conspiracy theorists and citizens of the Reich in post-pandemic Europe

In December 2022, anthropologist Laia Soto travelled to Berlin for a few days. In this blog post, she recounts how an unexpected encounter during that trip changed her view of her own research back in Spain.

It was one of the coldest weeks of the year in Berlin. The last glimpse of daylight was slowing fading away, and the street lamps were already on. There was a stillness in the air, and I could see my breath rise up and disappear into the cloudless sky. This was the first time I travelled in a long time; the first time since the pandemic broke out, the first time since I had my first child, the first time since I began my research project on conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

When I designed the project proposal, I expected to look at how the circulation of theories about the virus was creating new kinds of relations between people and places across the world.

Why do conspiracy theories take hold in some locations but not in others? Who are the people who spread them and why do they find them persuasive? And why do some theories spread like wildfire while others remain hidden in the darkest corners of the web?

These are some of the questions I had in mind when I started fieldwork in my home country, Spain. The plan was to take Spain as my main case study, but also draw on first-hand research in several countries spread across Europe and the American continent. The first year of the project is now coming to an end, and the preliminary findings of my research in Spain are both surprising and exciting.

But I am not here to tell you about that. I am here to tell you about my trip to Berlin, and how it unexpectedly opened up new pathways for my research. Let us get back to the story, then.

This was the last evening of a four-day trip intended mainly as a vacation. I was walking slowly towards Brandenburg gate with no clear purpose in mind, feeling the damp, cold air brushing against my face. Suddenly, something began to feel ‘off’.

I noticed that the road was closed. There were small groups of people scattered here and there, and two police vans were stationed on the sides of the road.

When I reached the Platz des 18 März, the public square where Ronald Reagan famously pronounced his 1987 speech “Tear down this wall!”, I realised there was a demonstration happening at the square. There were at least two hundred people gathered there, including children and a few elderly.

At the back, on a makeshift stage, a Dr. Wolfgang Kochanek was giving a speech which was recorded live and shown on two big projector screens facing the square. The audience listened to his words, holding up banners and occasionally interrupting to applaud and chant slogans. I don’t speak German, so I could not understand what was being said or what was written on the signs.

I approached a middle-aged man holding a large banner written on in German and asked him what the protest was about. He replied, in a very broken English, that it was about covid restrictions, against the government in general, and “for freedom”.

We talked about the pandemic for a little while and then he told me, in passing, that the press always portrays protesters as nazis “to make us look bad”. This off-handed comment sent chills down my spine. Had I somehow ended up in a far-right neo-Nazi demonstration?

I nodded quietly and waited for his explanation. “Some people here are protesting against immigrants and immigration policies”, he said, “but they are not nazis!”.

Confused, I began to look around more carefully. I saw a couple of rainbow flags and peace-signs, but I also saw what looked like a US confederate flag and several black, white and red flags, which I later found out were flags of the German Empire (a combination between the flag of Prussia and the flag of the Hanseatic League).

I decided to take a few photographs and record a short video on my phone to send it to a German colleague, hoping she would be able to tell me more about what I had just witnessed.

My colleague’s reply arrived the next day, when I was already back in Spain. She sent me a brief explanation and a link to a news article from the Deutsche Welle titled “Germany’s Querdenker COVID protest movement”. The subheading read: “They act like a peace movement, but Querdenker march alongside the far-right, and their protests often end in violence.”

The word querdenker is usually translated as ‘lateral thinker’. Etymologically, the term comes from the combination of quer (“crosswise”) and Denker (“thinker”). A querdenker is a maverick, a contrarian, someone who thinks outside the box and does not abide by conventions or rules.

The Querdenker movement started in Stuttgart in 2020. Its founder, Michael Ballweg, conceived it as a movement to publicly demonstrate against anti-covid policies in Stuttgart. Over time, the movement grew to become one of the largest anti-government movements in the country.

As elsewhere in Europe, the protests against government-imposed restrictions attracted a mix of people from varied backgrounds, including supporters of various conspiracy theories and far right-wing groups, but also anti-establishment groups who historically have aligned with the left.

Although the Querdenkers emphasize the peaceful character of the movement, their links with the extreme far-right have made them the object of concern, and the German intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz) has been closely monitoring their movements for over a year.  

When my German colleague told me about the Querdenkers during my first night in Berlin, she presented it as a bizarre, idiosyncratic variation of the anti-covid restrictions protests that had taken place across Europe; a uniquely German movement inextricably linked to the recent history of the German state. The Querdenkers are closely connected to the Reichsbürger (citizens of the Reich), a movement that espouses anti-semitic conspiracy theories, and has been described as neo-Nazi in character.

Many supporters of the Reichsbürger movement are monarchists who support a restoration of the German Empire and see themselves as being entirely outside the legal system. They believe in the “Königreich Deutschland” (Kingdom of Germany), a self-proclaimed independent kingdom which mints its own money, prints its own ID cards, has its own flag, and even its own king, coronated over 10 years ago.

Of course, Germany doesn’t recognise the kingdom or its documents, but the movement has been growing, and now has over 20,000 followers. In fact, A week before my trip to Berlin, the German police carried out nationwide raids and arrested 25 members of the movement suspected of plotting to overthrow the government using military means and violence. Two of the 25 arrests were made outside the country, in Austria and Italy.

This experience in Germany shone a different light on my research in Spain. The more I read about the Querdenker and the Reichsbürger, the more I felt I was treading on familiar ground. Indeed, these were the same conversations I had been having with some of my Spanish interlocutors for over a year. The approach is slightly different. Instead of a kingdom, they believe in the creation of a republic whose territory materialises in the individual body of each person (“I am the sovereign of my own body, and my body is the nation”).

Like their German counterparts, their aim is to exist outside the legal system (or, more accurately, to create their own system and abandon an official system which they thought to be illegal). They have also printed their own ID cards and driving licenses (which are not recognised by the state), they refuse to pay taxes and they do not recognise the legitimacy of Spanish courts.

As in Germany, the movement uses some of the concepts and techniques of the One People’s Public Trust, a North-American sovereign citizen movement linked to Q-Anon.

When I first spoke to a member of the movement, I couldn’t make sense of his words. He spoke of birth certificates as a form of slavery, of how we are sold to companies as soon as we are born, and how our value is determined by our weight in gold.

He talked about freedom and liberty, and how the only way to be a sovereign man was to cut all ties with the system.

At first I thought he was a looney, but soon I realised he was not alone. There are thousands of people engaged in virtual conversations about what constitutes freedom, how to achieve true sovereignty, and how to build a ‘good’, sustainable and self-sufficient society.

As I learned over the course of my fieldwork, these are the same people who believe that 9/11 was a hoax, that there is a secret world-wide programme of weather and climate modification, and that the pandemic is part of a wider plan to reduce and control the world’s population. Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin.

Further research on these marginal movements could shed light on the circulation of ideas across the world and how that reflects, informs or even contributes towards the creation of a new political reality in post-pandemic Europe.

Who are the people who join these marginal groups? What kind of world do they envision? And how dangerous are they? Is the threat real, as the German case would seem to indicate? Or are these simply the dreams and aspirations of a disenchanted generation looking to build a different society?

Read more about Laia Soto’s project Truth, Fiction and Power: understanding conspiracy theories about COVID-19