BERLIN — A week before Germany’s federal elections, Berlin is blanketed in a layer of campaign posters, from Angela Merkel and the Christian Democratic Union’s bland slogan “For a Germany in which we live well and happily” to the far-right Alternative for Germany’s proclamation of preferring bikinis over burqas.
But one set of signs are particularly bizarre, even cryptic.
“The future of Germany is the New Silk Road!” reads one pinned to a streetlight near Berlin’s main train station.
“Cultural renaissance instead of barbarism,” reads another. And, “Germans can stop world war!”
These posters, in a matching blue and yellow color scheme, all urge Berliners to “vote BüSo.”
What the posters don’t say is that BüSo — short for Bürgerrechtsbewegung Solidarität, or Civil Rights Movement Solidarity — is a political party founded and operated by eccentric American millionaire Lyndon LaRouche and his German wife, Helga Zepp-LaRouche. For decades, the couple has lead a global political network with a devotion to conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and a belief in a looming doomsday economic collapse that will kill billions — but it is otherwise malleable in its beliefs.
LaRouche started on the far left of American politics before swinging to the far right in the 1970s. Today, as BüSo attests, the LaRouche movement’s enthusiasms are focused on promoting the interests of Russia and China in the West. And Beijing, at least, has been happy to reciprocate LaRouche’s support.
BüSo’s German-language website — which has a Russian-language version but no English — lists Zepp-LaRouche as its founder. The party operates 11 different offices around Germany, according to its website, and advocates a patchwork platform of grand but vague ideas — including an overhaul of global banking as “the only way to stop the collapse of the financial system,” Germany’s exit from the European Union, a new German currency, extraterrestrial human colonization, a “renaissance” of culture and science, and nuclear energy for all so that “hunger and misery can be overcome all over the world.” The website also makes the claim that “the roots of the strange coalition of financial institutions, foundations, media, and environmental organizations go back to the eugenics movement of the Nazis and their environment,” a longtime LaRouche obsession. Other quirks, such as the belief that the British royal family runs the global drug trade, have been publically dropped over the years.
But outdated obsessions have been replaced with LaRouche’s newfound fascination with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, also called the “New Silk Road” — which explains why campaign posters promoting the initiative as Germany’s saving grace now paper Berlin. It’s hard to tell what motivates that interest, whether it’s a remnant of LaRouche’s long-standing obsession with patterns of global trade, or a skillful attempt to appeal to the political mood in Beijing, where the project has become a shibboleth for support of an increasingly powerful Xi.
BüSo did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
In the United States, LaRouchites have long been treated as a legitimate, if unhinged, political movement. But in Germany, they are seen as a political cult — and a potentially dangerous one. In 2003, a 22-year-old British man died under mysterious circumstances after traveling to Wiesbaden, LaRouche’s main base in Germany, to attend a LaRouche event billed as a rally against the Iraq War. No charges were brought, but BüSo and its ideology were portrayed unflatteringly in the extensive media coverage that followed. Germany is particularly sensitive about any groups that could be portrayed as a cult — most Germans, for instance, favor banning Scientology.
On their own, the LaRouchites seem hardly more threatening to German democracy than any fringe political group, through they are a well-funded one. (LaRouche’s money stream is uncertain, but the associated PAC raised $6 million last U.S. election cycle, seemingly from donations from the over 5,000 members.) “Nobody knows them. Sometimes they have their people on the street, and if you talk to them, they are kind of crazy,” said Stefan Liebich, a member of the German parliament, in an interview with Foreign Policy. “They invest a lot of money for their posters, but no one will vote for them.”
The question is whether LaRouchites’ real audience isn’t in Germany but rather in China, where there’s growing evidence the movement has influential followers. “Journalists” associated with the LaRouche’s news outlet, the Executive Intelligence Review, are regularly invited to Chinese government press conferences in Washington and are quoted extensively in Chinese state media, where they often parrot government propaganda.
If China is choosing to waste its time and energy on a fringe group, that’s hardly a worry. But there’s the dangerous possibility that Chinese officials and academics actually think the LaRouche movement is a serious Western group. For a middle-aged Chinese official with little experience in or contact with the West, distinguishing between LaRouche’s Schiller Institute and, say, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, or other mainstream think tanks is tough.
And the LaRouchites are telling the Chinese what they want to hear: that China is the future and that Xi is respected globally. When Chinese media wanted to praise Xi’s call with U.S. President Donald Trump, for instance, they went to “German expert” Helga Zepp-LaRouche. Even if the officials and journalists dealing with them recognize they’re cranks, praise from compliant Westerners is useful currency in Chinese politics. (China Daily’s Chen Weihua, for instance, is a U.S. resident; that didn’t stop him from writing a puff piece about the group this August.) And in a country struggling to understand how Western politics works, conspiracy theories can be dangerously tempting.
Nobody’s listening to the LaRouche movement in Berlin. But they might be in Beijing.
Photo Credit: Steffi Loos/Getty Images