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a dark undercurrent

IN EARLY 2020, a respiratory virus first reported in China began spiraling into a global pandemic. To thwart its spread, the world’s governments closed their borders, grounded airplanes, and imposed unprecedented lockdowns. Businesses shuttered. Streets emptied. The world, more or less, stopped.

On March 18, 2020, then German leader Angela Merkel said Germany had not faced a bigger challenge since reunification, or even World War II. She announced the closure of nonessential businesses, like restaurants and hair salons. In response, Germany weathered the initial outbreak better than its neighbors. Italy, France, Spain, and the U.K. were ravaged by the novel coronavirus. In opinion polls taken at the time, a large majority of Germans backed their government’s response.

But not everyone agreed with the measures.

Across Europe, protests against COVID restrictions erupted, with demonstrators decrying threats to their civil liberties. Despite widespread support for Merkel’s measures, nowhere was the backlash larger than in Germany, where protest groups railed against mask-wearing, social distancing, and public health requirements. One group, Querdenken, which roughly translates as “lateral thinking,” emerged as the leader of the country’s COVID-skeptic movement.

On August 29, 2020 Querdenken organized around 40,000 people in Germany’s capital, the group’s largest demonstration ever. Protesters at the event represented a cross-section of society, including ordinary folks frustrated with government restrictions, Green Party supporters, and old-school hippies. There were also members of far-right groups, supporters of hate-fueled ideologies, and wild conspiracy theorists in the crowd.

That day, not far from the Querdenken rally, a group of protesters numbering in the hundreds tried to force their way into the Reichstag, the home of Germany’s parliament. On the steps of the historic building, German police repelled the protesters, who hurled stones, bottles, and abuse at the officers.

As Europe’s political and economic leader, Germany is a country of global consequence. What happens there echoes elsewhere. Heading into the Reichstag’s storming, the country was a relatively stable world power helmed by Merkel for 15 years, largely without incident. A year later, prior to her stepping down as the country’s leader, the chancellor’s job approval rating exceeded 80 percent, despite the havoc caused by the pandemic.

But a dark undercurrent of extremist activity and conspiratorial thinking has long belied Germany’s ostensible stability and calm. For years, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party had planted nativist seeds there. After the 2017 federal elections, it became the country’s largest opposition party, the first time since the Nazi era that a far-right group has reached such heights. With more QAnon adherents than any other non-English-speaking country, Germany was also fertile ground for COVID skepticism to flourish. After the pandemic hit, AfD opposed lockdowns and restrictions, attracting COVID-skeptics to their cause. Then, with Germany’s September 2021 federal elections, the party cemented its foothold in parliament.

A dark undercurrent of extremist activity and conspiratorial thinking has long belied Germany’s ostensible stability and calm.

Still, the storming of the Reichstag was unlike anything that has happened in modern German history. Taking place four months before the U.S. Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, the incident was eerily prescient — if only Americans had been watching. Both events were, after all, fueled by conspiracy theories, the far-right, and an obsession with Donald Trump.

Like QAnon, Querdenken has become a successful conspiratorial ideology, says Michael Blume, a political scientist and antisemitism commissioner in the German government. “They caught people on their fears, made them commit themselves with time and money, and are now radicalizing themselves,” he adds.

Fast-spreading and far-reaching, COVID misinformation is arguably as infectious as the disease that killed more than 5.3 million people globally in the two years since its outbreak. COVID misinformation is so dangerous that over a month before the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, it branded the overwhelming flood of untrustworthy information about the disease an “infodemic.”

Infected by falsehoods, Tamara Kirschbaum, a naturopath and QAnon acolyte, led the protesters in storming the Reichstag, screaming that Trump had come to Berlin to rescue the country. The crowd was in the capital for the Querdenken rally, a protest organized by IT entrepreneur-turned-constitutional rights provocateur Michael Ballweg. While at first glance these two appear to have little in common, in the swirling realm of toxic online content, they become COVID misinformation personified, representing both its causes and effects.

The story of Querdenken’s rise shows how false information disorients and consumes people; how it mutates; and how, inevitably, it warps the realities of those caught up in it. Kirschbaum and Ballweg are the tale’s symbiotic protagonists, two of the tens of thousands of Germans united against health restrictions in the name of freedom. But in making their stand, they also reject established science, dispute settled history, shatter societal norms, and, ultimately, question everything.