after the storm
BECAUSE OF THEIR decisions to oppose COVID-19 restrictions and embrace conspiracy theories about the pandemic, Ballweg and Kirschbaum’s existences bear little resemblance to what they did before 2020.
Despite the costs Ballweg says he’s suffered since launching Querdenken, he claims to not regret his decision to start the group, even though his controversial activities prompted some of his company’s main clients to sever ties with his firm. And though Ballweg claims to not earn a wage from Querdenken, he says he is working full-time to build the organization, using his IT skills almost exclusively to further develop it.
When we met in person, Ballweg seemed to pin his hopes on the anniversary of the August 2021 protests to kick off a new phase in Querdenken’s growth. These gatherings were intended to be the only major Querdenken protests in 2021, in stark contrast to 2020’s fervent activity, and this time Querdenken even got the help of marketing and social media specialists to promote the events. But the day before its first large demonstration on August 1 (a year after its first mass gathering in Berlin), courts banned the rally, saying it risked spreading the virus.
Despite the court order, Querdenken’s organizers pushed on, suggesting an alternative gathering spot and recommending demonstrators rent e-bikes and scooters to make it a mobile rally. The group even provided directions to protesters via Telegram on the day of the event, helping its 5,000 attendees to stay on the move and keep the demonstration alive.
The day saw several violent incidents. Police — 2,000 strong — ordered Querdenkers to disperse, at one point threatening to use water cannons on them. A journalist was attacked. A 48-year-old man died, suffering a heart attack after being restrained for knocking over an officer. More than 60 police officers were injured, and ultimately 1,000 protesters were detained. In response, Querdenken’s Ralf Ludwig reiterated that the group stood only for “peaceful protests” and blamed the authorities for the incidents.
Subsequently, Querdenken’s August 29 anniversary protests were also blocked by the courts, resulting in a similar cat-and-mouse routine between police and demonstrators on the day, and dozens of arrests.
After the failure of the anniversary protests to match the prior year’s attendance figures, Querdenken’s reach looked to be waning, and subscribers to its Telegram channels slowly started to bleed away. This has actually worried extremism experts in Germany. If Querdenken weakened, it could risk splintering into many different — and potentially more dangerous — groups.
“There is no central leadership anymore,” says the German political scientist Michael Blume about the breakdown of COVID-misinformation groups. “It is like in the U.S., adherents of QAnon booing Trump as he urged them to accept vaccines.”
“People who are exposed to this information take on a worldview that increasingly rejects reality, instead favoring alternative and conspiratorial explanations,” explains Jordan Wildon, the Germany-based digital investigator. “Combine that radicalization and anger with people who genuinely believe that they’re the only person who can take control of the situation,” he says, “and the result is people trying to ‘fix’ the wrongs they see in the world — often by taking extreme or violent measures.”
A journalist was attacked. A 48-year-old man died, suffering a heart attack after being restrained for knocking over an officer. More than 60 police officers were injured, and ultimately 1,000 protesters were detained. In response, Querdenken’s Ralf Ludwig reiterated that the group stood only for “peaceful protests” and blamed the authorities for the incidents.
In December, the Omicron variant brought on a new wave of COVID-19 cases and fresh government restrictions, prompting a resurgence of protests around Germany. Early that month, then-Chancellor Merkel restricted unvaccinated people from dining in restaurants, attending cinemas, and frequenting many shops. The plans were made in consultation with her incoming successor, Olaf Scholz, of the rival Social Democratic Party, and she referenced the possibility of “compulsory vaccinations” in the future.
Querdenken staged a number of demonstrations in response, but it wasn’t the only group protesting the new mandates. Other groups joined in — and began clashing with police. It’s also become a regular occurrence, with thousands of demonstrations organizing all over Germany on Monday nights. According to a report by The Washington Post, more than 400,000 people gathered in cities across the country over one week in late January.
The resurgent protests give Kirschbaum hope. “Many people now recognize what is happening here, and they are standing up and demonstrating, [particularly] in the east of Germany,” she says.
But as the experts feared, the violence previously confined to some of the protests, seems to have metastasized and spread. In mid-December, not far from Peter Fitzek’s “kingdom,” authorities in the east German region of Saxony claimed to have foiled a plot by vaccine opponents to kill the governor. There is no evidence that the alleged conspirators were Querdenken followers, but the plans — which were reminiscent of the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer — were organized on Telegram, the only major platform yet to ban the group.
Meanwhile, violent protests against restrictions have also spread to neighboring countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands, fueled as ever by a blizzard of misinformation about vaccines and COVID-19, as well as fantastical theories of an impending totalitarian takeover.
In Canada, groups opposed to pandemic restrictions used hundreds of trucks to blockade the U.S.-Canadian border and to occupy downtown Ottawa, the nation’s capital. Weeks of protests in the country prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time in Canada’s history, resulting in police deploying tear gas and stun grenades, making around 200 arrests, and towing scores of vehicles. Authorities even froze the financial assets of some of the protesters.
Meanwhile in the U.S., COVID skepticism has spread like wildfire in the far-right and MAGA communities, and a copycat convoy of truckers is driving across the country in protest. These movements mirror anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists on the fringe of society who have been growing more vocal for years. And if the events in Germany or Canada are anything to go by, the U.S.’s parallel movement is a cauldron of extremism just waiting to boil over.
Kirschbaum thinks Scholz’s newly formed German government, which she calls “horrible,” could fall in the near future. “It’s a freak show,” she adds. Yet almost a year and a half after she led protesters in the storming of Germany’s parliament, Kirschbaum’s life is still in tatters. Though she hints at having forged new, sympathetic contacts within the so-called “resistance,” Qlobal Change has shut her out, and her naturopathic practice was forced to close.
These movements mirror anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists on the fringe of society who have been growing more vocal for years. And if the events in Germany or Canada are anything to go by, the U.S.’s parallel movement is a cauldron of extremism just waiting to boil over.
Railing against mandates, Kirschbaum tells me that children are being vaccinated in schools without their parents’ consent. She also claims most of Germany’s COVID-19 deaths are among vaccinated people — despite data showing the unvaccinated death rate is far higher.
“It’s going very crazy here,” Kirschbaum says of Omicron-inspired restrictions in place in Germany. Because she chooses not to vaccinate her family, they cannot go shopping, except for groceries, and she is still homeschooling her children. “It’s very hard to live here in this land, in this country, in Germany,” she says. “It’s horrible. It’s unbelievable.”
Kirschbaum’s comments remind me of a curious detail from my hilltop interview with Ballweg. Towards the end of our chat, he says he wants to ask me a question. He has been filming the entire conversation — a last-minute prerequisite to granting the interview — and I can’t help but think that he has been planning this all along.
Many people worry about the far-right coming to power in Germany, he says. “What worse could they do than what we already have? We have lockdowns, you are not allowed to leave your home, we have closed borders,” he says.
Wildon sees Ballweg’s conceit as a typical refrain. “Fears of government control and suppression form the basis of a lot of conspiracy theories and it’s difficult to counter this,” he says — after all, in the face of the pandemic, governments are exerting more control over people. Conspiracists frame this as an attack on personal freedoms, and they ignore that these policies are beneficial in the broader picture, Wildon adds. This is why, time and again, democratic governments are accused of plotting authoritarian takeovers from the shadows.
Comparing government health measures during a global pandemic that’s indiscriminately killed millions to fascist policies — like saying the vaccination program is similar to the Holocaust — is inherently offensive to minorities who live under constant threat from far-right movements.
Nevertheless, in Ballweg’s worldview, the totalitarian regime feared by so many has already arrived. “What could a bad party do?” he asks me without irony. “What would be worse?”