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part 2

a river flowing by

HAILING FROM A fairly traditional family from southwestern Germany, Michael Ballweg is an IT entrepreneur with a mop of black hair swept to one side and a laid-back demeanor. He studied at VWA Stuttgart and graduated in 1998, when he also founded Media Access, an IT company that specializes in software solutions for business clients. His company also created a child-tracking app that uses GPS. Ballweg was good at managing a team and running a business, and his company thrived.

But in both the dotcom crash of 2000–2002 and the global financial crisis of 2008, Ballweg says he lost money on the stock market. He lost faith in mainstream establishment narratives about the economy and became determined not to lose out again. “I said, ‘Okay, I will prepare myself,’” he tells me when we first talk in February 2021 via video call, flashing the disarming smile that he wears as regularly and comfortably as his signature t-shirts. “And that’s where I started to get informed.”

Suspicious of traditional media’s coverage of the crises, Ballweg began seeking out alternative viewpoints — economists critical of the financial system and hedge fund managers who’d turned whistleblowers after 2008. He watched the Occupy Wall Street movement with great interest in 2011 and began following Daniele Ganser, the Swiss author of the controversial book NATO’s Secret Armies. Ganser is also a 9/11 skeptic seen as influential in spreading doubt over the 2001 terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people.

In the meantime, Ballweg started getting into meditation, but it was a 2018 biking accident that turbo-charged his interest. Riding to a friend’s house through a patch of woodland, Ballweg failed to spot a fallen tree trunk hidden by foliage. He and his bicycle were thrown into the air, and he badly fractured his shoulder.

But it could have been much worse. That day, Ballweg wasn’t planning to wear his helmet, but he grabbed it, impulsively, at the last moment. After the crash, he saw that the helmet was broken. That was one of the “triggers,” he says. “It was a clear sign that life can be over any day.”

Over the subsequent months, stuck at home while recovering from his injury, Ballweg had lots of time to meditate. It was then that he decided to try living more in the moment. Now he’s an unashamedly spiritual person who points to “energies” guiding his actions. “I believe that the most important decisions of our life we don’t make ourselves,” he says. “You’re more watching a river flowing by; you’re not so important.”

When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, Ballweg was putting the final touches on a plan to travel the world, alone, for a year. He says he had traveled as far as Dubai for retreats where he meditated up to eight hours a day, but this trip would include a three-month yoga sabbatical in India with Jagadish Vasudev, the New York Times bestselling author commonly known as Sadhguru. (Sadhguru has been criticized for pushing pseudoscience, as well as for supporting the Hindu nationalism wielded by India’s far-right prime minister Narendra Modi.) To go on this spiritual journey, Ballweg planned to leave behind his IT company. He even sold the license to his company’s main product.

“The most important decisions of our life, we don’t make ourselves,” Ballweg says. “You’re more watching a river flowing by; you’re not so important.”

Then, just two days later on March 22, the German government announced its first COVID lockdown. Initially, Ballweg confined himself at home for two weeks. “At first, I was afraid of the virus,” he says. Then he started to see that “a lot of things are strange” and grew suspicious of the “media just showing one story all over the world.” He was also concerned that “everybody who had a different opinion was deleted” online. Most of all, he worried that there was no political opposition to the German government’s COVID-19 restrictions.

So in an April 2020 Facebook post, Ballweg says he offered €25,000 to any legal expert who could help him challenge the restriction on protesting. He found lawyer Ralf Ludwig — who would go on to become his right-hand man at Querdenken — and they took the government to a federal constitutional court, which ruled that gatherings could be restricted, but not altogether forbidden.

Delighted with the result, Ballweg held a protest in Stuttgart the very next day. He and his wife invited everyone they knew to the April 18 demonstration; most replied that the lockdown would be over shortly and the couple was overreacting. Only a few dozen people attended the first protest, but when they held another a week later, several hundred showed up. The media started to report on coronavirus demonstrators as “crazy,” according to Ballweg, but he believes this only fanned the flames. Within weeks, they were organizing in larger public spaces and thousands of protesters were joining. Querdenken was born.

Ballweg minimizes his role in Querdenken, despite being the protest movement’s founder. Far from a rabble-rousing demagogue, the forty-something is mild-mannered and softly spoken. Even on stage at rallies, he rarely raises his voice or gets angry.

According to him, the group is decentralized into different local chapters that are largely autonomous. The leading chapter is Querdenken 711, named after Stuttgart’s telephone area code, which is also the title of the main website. But Ballweg’s IT expertise has been indispensable to the movement’s rise. He has guided local chapters in the creation of websites, merchandise, and social media accounts. Ballweg is particularly adept in organizing via Telegram, which has become the main platform for COVID skeptics in Germany after Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube began deleting coronavirus misinformation from their services. (Querdenken’s YouTube page would eventually be deleted in May 2021; Facebook and Instagram followed suit in September 2021.)


The number of people installing Telegram has increased rapidly in recent years, with the messaging app reaching 1 billion installs in August 2021.

Ballweg doesn’t describe Querdenken as an anti-lockdown or COVID-skeptic group, but rather a movement built to defend the constitutional rights of free expression and gathering. He claims he was driven to launch the movement after worrying about what the government’s lockdown measures would mean for democracy. “How will it work when these two most powerful rights are restricted?” he remembers thinking.

Ballweg wasn’t the only person organizing demonstrations. Several other groups popped up around the same time, including one started by Anselm Lenz. A writer who contributes to the conspiratorial German magazine Rubikon (which features Daniele Ganser on its advisory board), Lenz also wrote for left-wing Berlin-based newspaper TAZ. In addition, he founded a notable group in Berlin called Nicht Ohne Uns — German for “not without us” — whose protests against government restrictions and supposed authoritarianism started attracting far-right figures. When critics asked Lenz why he was willing to share a platform with the far-right when he was a self-described member of the left-wing intelligentsia, he said it was important not to leave opposition to COVID totalitarianism to the far-right. Lenz’s protests often resulted in arrests. On May 1, he himself was arrested after throwing a bundle of his newspapers at police. TAZ ultimately decided to fire him.

Lenz’s manifesto, published at Rubikon and on his own website, rails against the COVID “emergency regime,” and foretells the collapse of financial capitalism. By contrast, in writing Querdenken’s manifesto, Ballweg focused only on threats to the German constitution. Ballweg and Lenz eventually met at a demonstration in the southern city of Ulm in June 2020. It was then that Ballweg suggested they unite rather than continue with separate rallies under different names. Lenz agreed, proposing to run a newspaper in support of the cause called Demokratischer Widerstand, or “Democratic Resistance,” which was handed out at rallies, while Ballweg would focus on organizing the rallies themselves.

After pacting with Lenz, Ballweg offered his IT and managerial know-how to other protest groups popping up around Germany, many of them connecting online via a large Facebook group called “Corona Rebellen” that had emerged early on in the pandemic. Most of the COVID demonstrations around Germany would fall under Querdenken’s aegis by late-summer 2020, leading to the August 1 protest in Berlin — the group’s largest protest yet. That event built momentum for an even bigger demonstration on August 29 and marked a turning point for the COVID-skeptic movement.