The Security Threat Posed by the Corona-skeptic Querdenken Movement in Germany.

AuthorHeinke, Daniel H.

On December 15, 2021, several premises in the greater Dresden area were raided and searched as part of a large-scale counter-extremism investigation in the eastern federal state of Saxony, Germany, (1) leading to the seizure of, among other evidence, weapons and weapon parts. (2) The investigation was launched a couple of days after public broadcaster ZDF had published an investigative report. (3) Based on an infiltration of a Telegram chat group of 103 persons, ZDF reporters revealed several individuals had discussed a plot to assassinate Saxony's premier, Michael Kretschmer, and other members of the state government. (4) (a)

The chat group named Dresden Offlinevernetzung (Dresden Offline Networking) disseminated anti-government propaganda, including on its opposition to vaccinations and public health measures to curb the pandemic. (5) Within this group, six individuals (five men aged 32, 34, 42, 45, and 64 at the time of the raids and a 34-year-old woman) are suspected of plotting the murder of Premier Kretschmer and other members of the Saxony cabinet. (b) According to media reporting, the plot was mainly fueled by the suspects' opposition toward potential additional COVID-19-related restrictions and the possibility of mandatory vaccinations. (6)

The ZDF report revealed that several members of the chat group voiced that they had participated in rallies of the corona-skeptic Querdenken movement in Germany before, including a large protest in Berlin in late August 2020 during which rioters attempted to storm the Reichstag (German parliament). (7) 'Corona-sceptic' as used in this article describes an attitude--not necessarily aligned with a specific ideology--that denies the existence of the pandemic or downplays the health threat posed by the pandemic or views government measures to curb the pandemic as a masked attempt to restrict citizens' individual freedom rights.

During the search led by the state's specialized Soko Rex anti-extremism unit, several crossbows and other weapons were seized. The suspects, who had met virtually as well as in person, (8) were not taken into custody. The prosecutor general argued that there was no risk of the suspects absconding. (9)

A ZDF follow-up report suggesting a connection between the Dresden Offlinevernetzung group and the U.S.-based neo-Nazi network MZWNEWS (10) (c) has not yet been commented on by law enforcement officials so as to not jeopardize the ongoing investigation. (11) The report indicated that among the content shared in the Dresden Offlinevernetzung chat group was an instruction manual on the preparation of improvised explosive devices and other information for violent attacks, and that this manual had previously been shared by MZWNEWS on another chat group connected to the Dresden Offlinevernetzung chat group. (12)

A total of eight suspects, including the administrator of the chat group who is considered to be the main suspect, are under felony investigation for preparation of serious violent offenses endangering the state under German criminal law--a murder or a comparable offense intended and suited to undermine the security of the state. Only one of the suspects has prior criminal convictions, to include weapons offenses and incitement to racial hatred. At the time of publication of this article, the investigation is still ongoing. (13)

The case, which bears some similarities to the alleged 2020 conspiracy to abduct Michigan's governor Gretchen Whitmer in the United States, (d) quickly made international headlines (14) and increased attention on the Querdenken movement in Germany.

This article examines the security concerns generated by the rise of the Querdenken movement in Germany and its connections to far-right extremism. The first two sections of the article outline the emergence of the movement and the descent into violence by some of its adherents. Just five months after the emergence of the movement, Querdenken rioters attempted to storm the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin, foreshadowing some of the scenes later seen during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The third section of the article examines the nexus between the Querdenken movement and far-right extremism. In the final section, the article assesses the degree to which the Querdenken movement is a security concern and its future potential trajectory.

The Emergence of the Querdenken Protest Movement

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic--or corona pandemic, as it is usually referred to in German-speaking countries--the German government first initiated a set of containment regulations in mid-March 2020, including rules to minimize personal contact, a ban on public gatherings, and the closure of restaurants. (15) Though acceptance of these rules was generally high among the population, almost immediately some people expressed grievances over these constraints publicly, albeit initially without any structure and little, if any, coordination between them. (16)

A couple of weeks later, Michael Ballweg, a software business owner from Stuttgart, founded the initiative Querdenken 711, ostensibly motivated by concerns over the timeframe of the lockdown measures, the possible implementation of mandatory vaccination, and the economic consequences of a lockdown. (17) Querdenken--literally "lateral thinking" or "cross-thinking"--refers to the (positive) German figure of speech of someone thinking outside the box; (18) the additional identifier '711' alludes to the phone area code for Stuttgart.

Ballweg wanted to organize a rally in Stuttgart, but the city of Stuttgart proscribed the event, citing pandemic-related regulation. When Ballweg challenged this administrative act, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in his favor. (19) Subsequent rallies in Stuttgart were attended by a rapidly growing number of protesters with around 80 persons on April 18, 2020, and several thousand just three weeks later. (20) As the Querdenken movement spread throughout the country, many local groups began to identify themselves by their respective phone area codes. (21)

The Querdenken movement claims it is a non-partisan initiative with no links to any political parties. (22) A sociological study (23) found that the Querdenken movement was composed of supporters from nearly the entire political spectrum, with substantial parts identifying with far-left, green, or far-right parties, (24) and some observers remarking that the initial rallies looked like 1960s peace demonstrations. (25)

Over the following weeks, the Querdenken movement--developing more into a franchise model than a centrally organized organization--dominated the organized protests in Germany, (26) with its protesters totaling between several dozen in some cities to over 30,000 at the movement's first major rally in Berlin on August 1, 2020. (27) By then, Querdenken had become the umbrella term for most protests against pandemic-related legislation in Germany.

The Assault on the Reichstag

An extremely important incident both for the self-conception of the movement and public awareness of its potential for violence was the attempted storming of the Reichstag, the federal parliament building in Berlin, on August 29, 2020, during a follow-on Querdenken protest in the capital.

On that Saturday, an estimated 38,000 people rallied in the capital in various protests against the government's anti-coronavirus measures. The demonstrations were mainly initiated by Querdenken 711. (28) Several protesters were identified as being linked either to the 'Reichsburger' (e) (Reich citizen) ideology or to rightwing extremist organizations. (29) Photos of the rally disseminated online also showed flags and slogans linked to the conspiracy theory QAnon. (30)

Around two hours into the protests, police began to disperse some of the demonstrators because they were disregarding mandatory social distancing rules. (31) During the afternoon, several hundred protesters gathered between the Chancellery and the Reichstag building in central Berlin. As a large group of protesters moved from the nearby Brandenburg Gate toward the Reichstag lawn, police regrouped to prepare crowd control operations. This moment was exploited by a cluster of 300-400 rioters who rapidly overcame the police barriers and pushed through to the steps of the Reichstag building. (32) As the rioters approached and tried to breach the entrance, a handful of police officers confronted the mob and defended the area, successfully securing the entrance zone while they waited for reinforcement by additional units. (33)

Even though there was no breach of the national legislature, unlike on January 6, 2021, in the United States, the images (34) of a few lone officers fighting off a mob carrying flags...

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