I’m just asking questions
IN JULY 2021, I meet Ballweg in person for the first time on a hilltop overlooking Stuttgart, not far from his house. Wearing shorts and a white t-shirt emblazoned with “Querdenken” in black lettering, he offers a handshake, and I counter with an elbow-bump instead. “No, I don’t do that,” he says, stifling a grimace.
After the awkward introduction, it soon becomes clear that his thinking about the pandemic and vaccinations has also evolved since we first spoke, although he is more cautious than Kirschbaum. “I don’t know if the vaccination is just a very big business, or if it is dangerous for the people. Because I’m not a medical person, I cannot say,” he says, adding that he will not be getting vaccinated. “I just believe that COVID is not as dangerous as was told, because we would have all died at the demonstrations!” Studies in Germany have, however, linked two Querdenken protests numbering 30,000 people in total to up to 21,000 COVID-19 cases in ensuing months.
When discussing plans for upcoming 2021 Querdenken events, Ballweg says, “I can only speak for Stuttgart,” explaining that the local chapters have only come together for the August protests in Berlin. Indeed, he still describes Querdenken as decentralized, with local groups broadly free to do as they wish.
But sometimes he concedes the extent to which Querdenken is his baby. “I have the most financial power,” he says at one point, noting that other groups don’t have “the pleasure to be financially that strong and independent.” Ballweg, who claims to have not made a penny out of Querdenken, apparently has no compunction with bankrolling things. “How much worth is the money if you live in a world which is no longer free?” he asks.
Ballweg gives me the impression that it wasn’t just the accusations of financial impropriety that slowed Querdenken’s momentum. Reports that the movement was in cahoots with the far-right seemed to have taken their toll — Kreiß was far from the only supporter to be turned off by the meeting with Fitzek, for example.
This made it all the more difficult for me to understand why, shortly after our last conversation in February 2021, Ballweg also ended up granting an interview to Compact’s Elsässer, a hugely important, Steve Bannon-esque figure among Germany’s far-right, and widely seen as a toxic figure in the country. During a prior video call, I had asked whether he might consider being interviewed by Elsässer, who had been supportive of Querdenken and devoted an entire issue of Compact to the COVID-skeptic movement. At the time, Ballweg smiled in response and said there were currently no plans to speak with Elsässer.
Shortly afterwards, however, Ballweg appeared in an interview on Compact’s YouTube channel, just like Kirschbaum had, six months earlier. Far from purely supportive, Elsässer posed a few challenging questions about Ballweg’s motives. In one notable moment in the interview, Elsässer referred to the movement as “our resistance” — the same term Kirschbaum uses. Smiling, Ballweg corrects him, saying he prefers to call it a “freedom movement.”
“I just believe that COVID is not as dangerous as was told, because we would have all died at the demonstrations!” Ballweg says. Studies in Germany have, however, linked two Querdenken protests numbering 30,000 people total to up to 21,000 COVID-19 cases in ensuing months.
When I ask Ballweg why he changed his mind and spoke with Elsässer, Querdenken’s founder responds with a question for me, instead: “So our YouTube channel was deleted. The big media are making interviews with us, but they’re… broadcasting only 30 seconds. The left media is not talking with us because they think we are right [wing]. So who should I talk to?”
He suggests that Elsässer’s far-right image is not accurate, pointing to his previous affiliation with left-wing causes. In the Soviet era, Elsässer, now 65, backed the Kremlin; today he is fiercely pro-Putin, leading some Russia experts to regard him as a Kremlin propagandist. Russian state media has been a key driver of COVID disinformation during the pandemic.
Ballweg explains away other concerns by using the bogeyman of media bias. He claims that in Germany, even the yoga movement has been criticized for pushing conspiracy theories, because practitioners allegedly say yoga can help strengthen the immune system and reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. Elsässer, like yoga practitioners and Querdenken itself, is simply a victim of mainstream media smear campaigns, goes the thinking.
Elsässer and Compact magazine have also backed AfD and Pegida. When asked about this, Ballweg says he doesn’t think Elsässer is anti-migrant, but that they have never discussed it. “You need to understand what are the sources of the migration,” he adds, before explaining his thinking that nobody wants to leave their home country out of choice, but are forced to, due to wars or economic reasons.
Ballweg believes we need to look beyond the issues of partisan politics, to the threats facing constitutional freedoms. “If you all stand for human rights, and basic rights or civil rights, then it’s the time now to stand together,” he says. “And afterward, sort out how we want to live together, in which kind of world.”
But in failing to condemn far-right elements in Querdenken’s ranks, Ballweg has helped a movement supposedly based around civil liberties to metastasize into something more dangerous. Last year, Germany’s domestic intelligence service warned that Querdenken was becoming an extremist group, and commenced a surveillance operation.
“So our YouTube channel was deleted. The big media are making interviews with us, but they’re… broadcasting only 30 seconds. The left media is not talking with us because they think we are right [wing]. So who should I talk to?”
Toward the end of our hilltop meeting overlooking Stuttgart, I ask Ballweg if he feels anger toward Tamara Kirschbaum for what happened on August 29 at the Reichstag. “Who is Tamara Kirschbaum?” Ballweg replies, straight-faced.
Was he serious? “Yes, really,” he says.
I explain that Kirschbaum led the storming of the Reichstag — at which point Ballweg seems to recall her. Instead of being angry with Kirschbaum, he again blames the media. “Did you see the footage? It was not a storming!” he cries, raising his voice in a rare moment of agitation.
I note that Kirschbaum’s life has been affected by the intense media coverage she received after the storming. “And I think she was kicked out of the group, the QAnon,” Ballweg says, even though he claimed not to recognize Kirschbaum’s name the moment before.
“I mean, I think it’s all a setup,” he continues. He explains that Querdenken requested permission to demonstrate near the Victory Column, around 1.5 miles away from the Reichstag. But when the courts allowed the event to go ahead, they stipulated that it must be staged by the Brandenburg Gate instead, even closer to the parliament building. (Later, Ballweg did not respond when asked for a copy of official documents showing the court had changed the venue.)
Ballweg also notes the lack of police presence around the Reichstag on August 29. “Why not put like 120 police cars around it?” he says. “So, I’m just asking questions.”