Bianca Klose and Benjamin Steinitz. 
Photo: Gerd Engelsmann

BerlinStuttgart's Querdenken 711 movement brought tens of thousands onto the streets at the end of August to protest against the government's anti-corona measures. And now Demokratische Widerstand (Democratic Resistance), which has protested since the beginning of the lockdown despite a ban on demonstrations, has said it will return at the beginning of October. 

Benjamin Steinitz and Bianca Klose have watched the gatherings and spoke to Berliner Zeitung about conspiracy theories, desperate relatives and crossing boundaries.

Berliner Zeitung: Mr Steinitz, how antisemitic are the corona-protests we are seeing at the moment?

Benjamin Steinitz: The gatherings against the measures to contain the covid-19 pandemic took place weekly between March and June. We recorded antisemitic statements at every one of these gatherings between 28 March and 30 August in the form of verbal comments, placards or T-shirts. The prevalence of conspiracy theories there is very high. To name just two examples, we frequently see mentions of the “NWO” – “New World Order” – or QAnon, another US conspiracy theory. These are often very compatible with antisemitic viewpoints – the crossover between the two can be very fluid.

Can you give an example?

Benjamin Steinitz: Antisemitic narratives, like the idea that the Rothschilds or Rockefellers run the world, or references to “Zionists”, are standard repertoire for many of those who participate in these gatherings, not just people like Attila Hildmann [far-right vegan chef and author who has been active in anti-covid demonstrations and who propagated several antisemitic conspiracy theories]. You see some participants in these demos painting themselves as victims struggling against a dictatorship, going even as far as wearing a Star of David just as Jews were forced to in the Third Reich. It’s the most extreme way of playing the victim.

What’s the goal of this victim roleplaying?

Benjamin Steinitz: People want to gain attention and legitimacy for their own antidemocratic views. Real victims however are mocked and Nazi crimes get relativised. That’s classic post-Holocaust antisemitism – but it’s no new phenomenon. One far-right extremist from Halle, for example, has created a range of products featuring the yellow star and all manner of inscriptions – things like “anti-vaxxer”, or even “diesel driver” or “Saxon”. They refer to all the social debates which have lead to state measures for health or environmental protection that make some people feel oppressed. You can look through the range and think, “which group am I in?” It’s a whole field of merchandising.

The demos themselves are very diverse. What is it that connects these groups?

Bianca Klose: That’s true, but there is one disturbing unifying factor we can observe in side-by-side comparisons – we see the exact same spectrum of far-right extremism, rightwing populism, their symbols and codifications. But there are also hippies, anti-vaxxers, esoterics, people with flowers in their hair. And then you have conspiracy theorists of all persuasions, and so-called “Reich citizens” (Reichsbürger). The challenge now is to identify the ideological bridges and intersections in the content of their ideas. Clearly, many are unified in their belief in a global elite that pulls all the strings from behind the scenes and steers our politics. These people think they live in a sham democracy.

What consequences does that have?

Bianca Klose: On the one hand, there is this relativising of Nazi crimes, self-victimisation and playing the victim. On the other hand, people feel like they are part of a resistance movement as a result. They feel like they’ve discovered the truth, which is still being hidden from everyone else, and they want to awaken the whole population to it. That is a form of building self-esteem and self-legitimation, because people think they’ve seen through all the control, the manipulation, the foreign rule. So for many the demonstrations are a form of self-empowerment, because people see themselves as a part of something bigger, a movement of resistance and awakening.

How significant is the potential for violence at these demonstrations, especially considering the scenes from the steps of the Reichstag on August 29?

Bianca Klose: There is a raised potential for aggression and violence at these gatherings, or at the very least violence is tolerated or even fantasised about. After all, these people believe they’re part of a resistance against a dictatorship – and the people who are responsible for this supposed dictatorship are seen as enemies. That’s not just politicians, but also scientists, the media, counter-protestors, minorities. When we now hear politicians saying they were surprised by the attack on the Reichstag building, that’s something that surprises me – we have been pointing out the violent potential and internal dynamics of these demonstrations for months, since the first “hygiene-demonstrations”. Reichsbürger have demonstrated in front of the Reichstag building for years, and the “storm” on August 29 had been announced well in advance.

But you hear a lot about peace at these demos – there have been lots of New Agers, anti-vaxxers and hippies taking part who don’t seem interested in violence.

Benjamin Steinitz: These people operate with an ideological understanding of freedom. The people who are always the agitators at these events, people like Jürgen Elsässer, Ken Jebsen or Heiko Schrang, postulate about a kind of freedom that obviously does not apply to everyone. They highlight those who from their point of view are enemies of freedom, the ones supposedly pulling the strings. That message works well because it’s very easy to infiltrate esoteric, left-wing liberal circles with this sort of a call to freedom.

Scandal on the stairsteps: The protestors who broke through police lines on 29 August 2020.
Photo: Achille Abboud/NurPhoto/dpa

How satisfied are you with the public discussion and reaction to the protests on 29 August?

Bianca Klose: Politicians and journalists often try to determine what it was that steered the protests in the way they turned out, or to find faults in their own communications to the public. I think both of these take the wrong focus. We know from attitude surveys that there has been this anti-democratic underbelly in Germany for years, for decades, which is always looking for a foothold and manages to find one. Before the pandemic it was migration. These anti-democratic attitudes arise from the very centre of our society. What is new is the activation and professionalising of this potential, in particular through digital media, and the disinhibition people show, but we also see a differentiation and diversification of the scenes and those taking part in them. It is more important to calmly look into the root causes of this activation and disinhibition in parts of society than to go running after the ones who shout the loudest.

What impact have the demos and the ideas they propagate had on public discourse?

Benjamin Steinitz: These kinds of public debate – we call them “communicative events” – push the boundaries of what is acceptable to say. We find this happens over and over. Things that were previously taboo subjects become completely normal, acceptable things to say. Normally this shifting of boundaries does not bounce back to how it was before. We assume that these gatherings and the discussion surrounding them is leading to a normalisation of certain antisemitic narratives and stereotypes, which then find their way deep into our daily life and political discussions. The demonstrations have made it possible to bring these viewpoints to a much wider audience.

Can you give an example of a far-right extremist or antisemitic narrative which has been disseminated even by mainstream media outlets?

Bianca Klose: When reporting what happened at the Reichstag building, many outlets just used the line of a “storming of the Reichstag” – that is, a rightwing extremist narrative. That validates the symbolic image that these groups want to consolidate, and therefore drives a normalisation of this narrative. This acceptance of such self-dramatisation has happened in a number of other cases, for example when extremists protesting against mosques or refugees present themselves as “citizens with justified fears and concerns”.

The black, white and red flag of the German Reich is frequently visible at these demonstrations. What's behind that?

Bianca Klose: The Reich flag is an antidemocratic symbol which is increasingly on display – whether as a flag, wrapped round someone’s shoulders, or even worn as a dress by women. It's another example of normalisation. The colours refer directly to the German Empire and stand not just for a rejection of the liberal democracy we have today and its institutions, but have also become a common denominator for a number of different groups. That’s yet another normalisation – my colleagues have talked about indoctrination into the Reichsbürger ideology within these groups.

Photo: Gerd Engelsmann 

Bianca Klose is director of the Mobile Counsel Against Right-wing Extremism Berlin (Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus Berlin). She counsels and trains political parties, associations, companies, trade unions, groups and individuals in responding to far-right extremism.

Benjamin Steinitz is the founder and head of the Centre for Research and Information on Antisemitism Berlin (RIAS Berlin). In addition to offering counselling to those affected by antisemitism, RIAS regularly publishes statistics on antisemitism in Berlin.   

Has there been a rise in antisemitism during the corona crisis?

Benjamin Steinitz: We haven’t been able to identify any increase – we put that down to the limits on interaction there have been throughout the crisis. The number of attacks on public transport has even gone down. But we have seen a deferment of this behaviour – we’ve had the first Zoom bombings. Digital events held by Jewish or Israeli organisations were targeted by anonymous hackers and flooded with antisemitic and pornographic images.

Is the antisemitism you’re seeing something particular to Germany, or is it a global phenomenon?

Benjamin Steinitz: Antisemitism exists everywhere. Of course there are specific expressions of it which relate to a country’s history. For post-Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and its societal after-effects, and resistance to remembrance in particular, are its defining characteristics. Antisemitism fulfils a certain kind of diversionary function, and is an ideological embodiment of social problems and contradictions, and it is particularly adaptable in the way it does so – that’s what we are seeing in the present situation. With regard to the conspiracy theories, there are particular codes and templates of arguments that exist across national and even continental borders. The far-right shooter in Halle, like others in the US and New Zealand, made explicit reference to international conspiracy theories.

Is there another way for politics and media to reach participants in these demos?

Bianca Klose: I think it’s important to ask, where can we have this conversation, and who can we have it with? And how can we confront the root causes behind the development of these views? Clearly, outside on the street isn’t the right place for that conversation. When my colleagues and I have gone out wearing face masks, people have been abusive towards us and even threatened us with violence. People who are out demonstrating are often only interested in expressing their own opinions and bolstering each other’s views – they’re not open to discussion. But the main problem is that many people tend to believe in things that are completely unfounded, or at least completely exaggerated.

What settings are more suitable?

Bianca Klose: One option is projects for dialogue and discussion – that’s what we’re there for. At the moment we are seeing a rise in uptake of individual counselling from people who are somehow engaged with conspiracy theories, whether in a private or a professional context. These people feel deeply irritated because they are witnessing the radicalisation of people who on the one hand are consuming nothing but alternative facts but on the other hand reject science, traditional media and politics.

Any tips for those kind of discussions?

Bianca Klose: That depends very heavily on the particular situation, which can often be very demanding and difficult to navigate. As a rule we urge those who have come to us to challenge arguments while maintaining the relationship aspect – that means maintaining openness, empathy and understanding in your communication. It is important to lay down some red lines and contradict statements that are antisemitic or rightwing extremist, for example. At the same time, keep your own resources in mind. Otherwise, we also advise people to seek out their acquaintances or those from their circle of friends who are likeminded, and from time to time seek out professional support.

Adapted for the English Edition by Elizabeth Rushton.