What's the connection between conspiracy theorists and Populism? Who are the 'Reichsbürger'? And what has Donald Trump got to do with any of it?
It is August 29, 2020, in Berlin. A black white and red flag is flying above a group of demonstrators.
Emblazoned across it is none other than US President Donald Trump, giving a thumbs up. This is not the only image of Trump at the rally — is not only present on flags, but also on T-shirts and banners.
Thousands have gathered to protest against measures in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the demonstrators believe that the coronavirus does not exist, and throw around theories about dictatorship and communism, their faces partially hidden by compulsory masks.
On a stage in front of the Reichstag — the German parliament building — stands the activist Tamara K. She is dressed in black from head to toe, with black sunglasses over her eyes, her dreadlocks hang loose on her shoulders.
"Trump is in Berlin, the whole embassy is closed off, we have almost won," K shouts into her microphone. The demonstrators cheer. "We must now prove that we are here. We're going to exercise our rights today, here and now," K bellows to the crowd. She then calls on the protesters to sit on the steps of the Reichstag, to show Trump that they "have had enough”. About 400 demonstrators break through barriers and fill the steps of the Reichstag.
Conspiracy and populism
Although this was misinformation and Trump was not in Berlin on this date, the US leader has become a symbolic figure at demonstrations against coronavirus regulations in Germany — what may seem strange to outsiders at first glance comes as no surprise to Dana Buchzik, an expert in conspiracy theories and radicalisation.
She tells Euronews why the use of Trump's image by the demonstrators is unsurprising to her: "Conspiracy theories and populism go well together. Populists, just like conspiracy theorists, do not accept any interpretation of reality other than their own. They write off their critics as liars and criminals. They question democratic structures and proclaim grandiose promises of salvation. And they are successful precisely because they do not offer any realistic solutions, but provide buzzwords," Buchzik explains.
Georg Restle, editor-in-chief of German political magazine Monitor, said on the talk show Maischberger. die Woche in early September that Trump is a role model "for many people here in Europe, too, for right-wing populists, including those who are currently on the stairs of the Reichstag building".
Restle was alluding to, among other things, the black white and red flag that pops up, again and again, at the protests. The so-called "Reichsflagge" was first used in the German Empire and later used by the Nazi Party.
Who are the 'Reichsbürger'?
Today it is flown by so-called "Reichsbürger", which can be translated as "citizens of the empire", who do not recognise the German state as legitimate. They claim there was never a real peace treaty after WWII and therefore, they do not recognise laws. Some have even created their own "states" within Germany with their own laws.
The Reichsbürger want to conclude a peace treaty with Russia and the US and believe the current German power elite should be overthrown. This is why, in their eyes, Trump is a hero who stands up to the elite and endeavours to save the people.
"Conspiracists and populists are masters of cryptic insinuations. Their sentences are invitations. The real story only appears in the minds of those who accept this invitation. It is a heroic story: the believer becomes a heroic protagonist who opposes a corrupt elite and thus saves the world," Buchzik explains.
According to the German Interior Ministry, there are about 19,000 Reichsbürger in Germany. From 2016 to 2018, their number more than doubled. They mainly organise themselves on the social network Telegram.
Telegram is not moderated like Facebook or Twitter, for example, where radical profiles have been removed in some cases.
Buchzik says that deleting profiles "contributes, in the short term, to the silencing of hate and conspiracy theories on the respective platform". However, she emphasises that this does not solve the problem: "Radicals will move to less-regulated platforms such as Telegram or Discord, where they will become much more radical at a faster pace because all moderation is eliminated."
A peaceful war
Attila Hildmann, who has found fame as a vegan cook in Germany, supports the movement. On his Telegram channel, he shares several pictures, videos, voice messages and texts every day, speaking out against Merkel and other politicians as well as regularly calling for protest.
He calls face masks "slave masks" and compares the COVID-19 measures to those imposed on "prisoners of war". Hildmann refers to the COVID-19 vaccinations that are currently in development as "lethal injections" with which a "genocide of seven billion people" is to be committed.
"Radicalised people use war metaphors to enhance their everyday lives," explains Buchzik. "They do not see themselves as hostile, but rather as ambassadors for a better world. In their opinion, the war has been started by others; they are just defending themselves. This heroic goal justifies all measures — in the most extreme cases, even violence."
In one message referring to the vaccines, Hildmann wrote on his channel on September 15 that anyone who has the vaccine administered to them will allegedly die of "genetic diseases" within 24 months. He added in capital letters: "I HAVE NO SYMPATHY WITH THOSE WHO STILL LOVE THE LIE AND INSULT WHAT'S TRUE AND REAL AFTER 6 MONTHS OF KORONA!”. It's worth noting that he spells “Korona” with a "K" because in German, communism is spelt with a "K".
Hildmann was among the 300 people who were arrested at the August 29 demonstration.
Despite all this, he and other members of the movement say that they want to demonstrate peacefully — they emphasise that they are seeking peace and love.
Esotericism and right-wing extremism
The fact that the movement publically advocates peace and love also explains why such a wide range of people with different views attend the demonstrations against COVID-19 measures. More and more people whose appearance alone might suggest they are what people loosely define as "hippies" are showing up.
"Esotericism and right-wing extremism are closer to each other than we might think," explains Buchzik.
She says that esoterics like to talk about love "but as soon as we think their slogans through, misanthropy becomes apparent," the expert explains. "Esoteric corona-deniers claim, among other things, only those who are afraid fall ill with COVID-19. Those who don't have the right mindset. To be more precise: those who get sick simply did not want to 'be awakened'. Those who become ill have chosen the illness and do not deserve sympathy.
"Therefore, it is not a problem for esoteric corona-deniers to ignore protective measures in everyday life or to march next to right-wing extremists under imperial war flags. The human lives they endanger are the lives of infidels and, therefore, worth nothing to them."
According to Buchzik, there is a simple reason why so many people in Germany are currently taking to the streets against the Corona measures: "When we are confronted with terrible events in our lives, we feel not only fear but also anger, and those who are angry look for guilty parties. This makes us vulnerable to rumours and conspiracy stories. The more emotional a tale is, the more viable it will be.
"Chance, which allows a virus to mutate and skip the species barrier, is no good as an enemy image. But belief in a sinister elite that had SARS-CoV-2 bred in the laboratory is."
Reichstag 'storming' criticised
German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned the "storming" of the Reichstag. "Reichsflaggen and right-wing extremist vulgarity in front of the German Bundestag are an intolerable attack on the heart of our democracy. We will never accept that," he said the day after the event.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also shared his outrage on Twitter: "Everyone has the right to argue about how to deal with corona and of course to demonstrate your opinion," Maas wrote. "NO ONE should walk with right-wing extremists, endanger police officers & expose many to the risk of infection. Imperial flags in front of parliament are shameful."
Even in the run-up to the event on August 29, warnings were shared online that right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis would gather at the demonstration.
Restle wrote: "Right-wing extremists mobilise for Berlin #b2908. If anyone still has doubts about who they will march with..." and shared two appeals to come to the event from right-wing AfD politician Björn Höcke and the far-right, ultranationalist NPD in Saxony.
Many radical escalations could be prevented
"It is high time to no longer devalue and ridicule these people as 'crackpots', but to take radicalisation seriously and consider it a danger to our society," says Buchzik.
The expert says relatives and friends are the most effective means of combating radicalisation: "We can all — and must — do something," Buchzik adds.
The expert says there is also a need for "professional counselling services across Germany, and just only in the field of Islamic extremism and right-wing extremism. Psychological support and training programmes in communication could prevent many escalations."
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