Michael Ballweg came under enormous criticism after the August 29 storming of the Reichstag. The violence that took place on a day of protest he had organized made that inevitable. Charges flew that Querdenken was brimming with far-right conspiracy theorists — accusations that were difficult to deny.
While Ballweg had portrayed the movement as solely focused on human rights, German media began noting shortly after the group’s rise the ubiquity of the red-white-and-black imperial German flags favored by Reichsbürgers at Querdenken events. Reichsbürgers are the far-right conspiracy theorists who believe that Germany is not a sovereign nation and is still under Allied control.
A few months after August 29, Ballweg poured more fuel on critics’ fire by meeting with one of the most prominent Reichsbürgers, Peter Fitzek, a man who refers to himself as Peter I, King of Germany. A spirited man in his fifties with a square jaw and a ponytail, Fitzek contests that the modern German state is illegal and has declared a patch of land in Wittenberg, Germany, 60 miles outside Berlin, as his own separate kingdom. To that end, he has even instigated his own banking, health insurance, and pension schemes. At a November 2020 Querdenken meeting in the town of Saalfeld, inside a Mexican restaurant owned by a Reichsbürger, Fitzek gave a talk.
When news of the meeting broke, it seemed to many that Querdenken was integrating Reichsbürgers into the movement. A former Green Party supporter and economist named Christian Kreiß, a regular speaker at Querdenken demonstrations, was meant to attend the Saalfeld meeting, but family obligations and its distant location forced him to miss it. He and others claim that Ballweg kept Fitzek’s presence at the meeting a secret. Afterwards, Kreiß declared publicly that he would no longer speak at any demonstration organized by Querdenken. “I don’t collaborate with Reichsbürger, I don’t collaborate with Nazis, I don’t collaborate with esoteric people,” he tells me.
Ballweg claims his movement is diverse, pointing to left-leaning protesters and former Green Party figures, like Kreiß, who have joined the cause. But Querdenken has also allowed people accused of antisemitism on stage at protests, as well as individuals sympathetic to QAnon. Ballweg himself even used QAnon’s rallying cry, “Where we go one, we go all,” on stage at the August 1 rally. (When asked about this, Ballweg claims he said it to make people question the notion that Trump was somehow going to save Germany from its government. “I don’t believe in big saviors,” he says.)
When it comes to the Saalfeld meeting, Ballweg shows hints of regret. “In a young organization, things just go wrong,” he says. He denies trying to integrate Reichsbürgers and claims he left the details of setting up the meeting to his team.
Ballweg did know that Fitzek would be present, however, and he openly admits that Germany’s self-proclaimed king was given the chance to speak and share his views. Ballweg defends this by saying that Querdenken should learn from individuals and groups that have “built something already.”
Kreiß declared publicly that he would no longer speak at any demonstration organized by Querdenken. “I don’t collaborate with Reichsbürger, I don’t collaborate with Nazis, I don’t collaborate with esoteric people,” he says.
Fitzek is far from the only controversial company Ballweg has kept. One of the first people to make him question the official narrative around COVID-19 was a doctor named Bodo Schiffman, who went on to become a key figure within Querdenken. Schiffman has been criticized for comparing government restrictions to Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933, which allowed the Nazi government to enact laws without the vote of Germany’s parliament. Schiffman also compared COVID vaccination programs to the Holocaust. When asked about these comments, Ballweg says, “You should ask Bodo himself,” a response reminiscent of Querdenken’s “go to the source” ethos. “We are a movement with a lot of people, with a lot of opinions,” he adds.
Ballweg also swears by former radio presenter Ken Jebsen, who regularly interviews far-right pundits and figures on KenFM, a web portal whose YouTube channel was banned in January 2021 for continually spreading COVID misinformation. One of its videos claiming that Bill Gates was behind a plan to force-vaccinate the world’s population got three million views. The deplatforming came ten years after Jebsen was fired from German public broadcaster RBB for failing to meet the outfit’s journalistic standards, a dismissal that came shortly after it was revealed the presenter had reportedly said in a private email that the Holocaust “was invented as PR.” Jebsen, who says he is neither antisemitic nor a Holocaust-denier, attended some of Anselm Lenz’s early protests. Ballweg, who says he knows Jebsen personally and trusts him, supports his claim that the Holocaust-denier story is untrue.
With his measured, thoughtful manner of speaking, Ballweg does not seem like a stereotypical far-right extremist. Prior to COVID-19, his politics did not appear to be particularly ideological, and he says he doesn’t support any one party, though he admits to once being interested in the anti-establishment, digital-rights-focused Pirate Party.
Ballweg also claims to be indifferent towards AfD, despite the far-right outfit’s opposition to many of the government’s COVID-19 restrictions — although he has defended AfD’s right to have a say in the past. For instance, in 2016, when AfD was barred from a public debate in Stuttgart for its right-wing populist positions, Ballweg penned a letter to the city’s mayor, a member of the Green Party. In it, the then-tech entrepreneur pointed out that “the same methods were used to exclude [the Green Party] from the political discussion” when it was getting its start.
In an analysis of more than 1,000 connections between Telegram channels related to COVID misinformation, Querdenken_711 had connections to at least 25% of them, linking to 250 smaller Telegram channels with increasingly radical content.
Generally speaking, Ballweg thinks lines should not be drawn before extreme parties. “I would expect in a democracy that all voices are heard,” he says. To explain his thinking, Ballweg likes to repeat an anecdote from his youth. He and his friends used to drink at a social club also frequented by a skinheaded neo-Nazi. Some of his friends thought they should exclude him, but Ballweg disagreed. By letting the skinhead drink with them, they had the opportunity to convince him that his worldview was wrong, Ballweg explains. While they eventually shared a table, they never changed his mind. But, Ballweg notes, his friends didn’t turn into neo-Nazis, either.
Basically, Ballweg thinks that rather than censor anyone, we should all just talk it out. He quickly adds, though, that Querdenken distances itself from “any sort of violence, and any sort of extremism — it doesn’t matter if it’s from left or from right.”
After the meeting with Fitzek, Querdenken protests continued into late 2020, although none reached the size of the August protests.
Meanwhile, Ballweg was getting hit with accusations that he had profited from the movement — German reporters alleged that earnings from donations and merchandise sales had been paid into a personal bank account owned by Ballweg. Not long after the revelations, Ballweg told me via video call that he had been trying to set up a foundation for Querdenken — to which donations could be paid — but that authorities and banks had made it difficult to form.
Ballweg insists that the vast majority of the nearly €1.1 million Querdenken spent on demonstrations in 2020 came out of his own pocket, and that the group has earned as little as €8,000 from selling merchandise. The movement’s founder has declined to disclose how much he had received in donations, though he says most were small amounts. The largest was nearly €20,000, though he won’t identify the donor. Ballweg claims no one involved with Querdenken earns a salary from the group, including himself.