Argument

Germany’s Lateral Thinkers, Unite

The Querdenker protests against coronavirus prevention measures sweeping the country’s cities show that free speech is alive and well.

Querdenker, or “lateral thinker,” is written on the sign of a participant at a march against Germany’s COVID-19 measures across the Oberkassel Bridge in Düsseldorf on Sept. 20.
Querdenker, or “lateral thinker,” is written on the sign of a participant at a march against Germany’s COVID-19 measures across the Oberkassel Bridge in Düsseldorf on Sept. 20. Fabian Strauch/dpa/Getty Images

Walking the streets of Berlin during one of the recent protests against government-mandated measures to contain COVID-19, which brought out an estimated 38,000 people on Aug. 29, felt like attending a postmodernist costume party.

A middle-aged man dressed up as the Grundgesetz, Germany’s constitution, screamed “Article 8,” which guarantees the right to free assembly, while a young student with a ponytail and flashy Birkenstocks sported the “lateral thinker” pin that is the distinctive mark of many protesters. Nearby, so-called Reichsbürger—far-right activists who claim that the pre-World War II German Reich still exists—attempted to storm the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, while bearded hipster dads pushed their kids in bike trailers festooned with anti-nuclear energy stickers. Alongside middle-of-the road types demanding that the government start allowing them to visit their parents in care homes or just registering their sense that the government is overdoing the anti-coronavirus measures were folks shouting against vaccines or meditating for world peace. An entire repertoire of conspiracy theorists warned of everything from 5G to chemtrails.

And there were flags and signs, too—lots of them. The peace sign, the dove of peace, and the rainbow flag waved high. Historical flags, in particular the Wilhelmine Imperial War flag used today by the far-right Reichsbürger, were there as well. As was the U.S. Confederate flag and many “Q” signs referring to the QAnon conspiracy movement that has made its way to Germany from the United States.

Across the crowd, there was some anger, some tears, but also people enjoying themselves, dancing to drum music, and savoring the good weather. And despite the vastly different causes the protesters supported, there was a common denominator: the claim that the government is deliberately using the pandemic to curtail political liberties guaranteed by Germany’s constitution, kill free speech, and denounce its critics.

This is the key message of the self-labeled lateral thinkers, or Querdenker, the German term for a person who thinks in nonconventional terms and thereby runs the risk of offending society. Their loose movement was the main driving force behind the protests late last month, and they have organized demonstrations in other cities since.

Those out protesting are, of course, right that there is tension between the goals of stamping out a pandemic and ensuring political freedom. The Berlin police at first wanted to ban the protests, citing health reasons. A court quickly overturned the decision, allowing the protests to go ahead. Walking the streets of Berlin, one could sense the enthusiasm of these lateral thinkers of all sorts, who could see that they were not as alone as they had thought.

Not alone, but still a minority. After all, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval rating is still 71 percent. By contrast, according to a recent poll, just 7 percent think that her government’s coronavirus containment measures are being led by “powerful groups trying to push their own agenda.” And 16 percent think that protective measures are needed, but that current ones are too strict.

Historically, it is no surprise that conspiracy movements would pop up during a pandemic. During the cholera outbreaks in Paris in 1832, Parisians thought it much more plausible that death and misery were the result of the government poisoning wells than some other force, like bacteria, which science had not yet identified as the true cause. The sense that the government was behind the outbreak was partly responsible for sparking the failed June Rebellion portrayed in Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables.

The French government then; Merkel and her globalist friends now. As one Berlin demonstrator revealingly screamed, “Show me the virus!” The tendency to point to a cover-up during situations like this, which most people can’t fully grasp and which leave society feeling insecure, gives the Querdenker a role to play. In such times, revealing the truth to the people becomes its heroic task. One coronavirus skeptic said: “When the Nazis took over, the Germans didn’t say anything. I don’t want to tell my nephews I didn’t speak up.”

There’s also the issue the political scientist Francis Fukuyama raised in his book The End of History and the Last Man. In wealthy societies, opposition to liberal democracy often comes from “Thy­mos … the side of man that deliberately seeks out struggle and sacrifice, that tries to prove that the self is something better and higher.” Indeed, the belief that the world is governed by a small, secretive group of conspiracists corresponds to the view of conspiracy theorists who see themselves as a special club—in this case, the Querdenker—that is in the know and sees through the supposed lies.

These Querdenker consider themselves freedom fighters or sorts. Many of them are wrong, and sometimes scarily so. And the sight of the Reichsbürger marching in Berlin’s streets should send a shiver down anyone’s spine.

But, ironically, if the demonstrations have revealed one thing, it is that the protesters’ concern for political liberties and free speech is unfounded. They were allowed to march. And they still live in a free world where their voices can be heard. Today, more than at any time before, one doesn’t necessarily need to be part of the elite to have a platform.

For example, Attila Hildmann, a vegan TV chef turned self-declared German nationalist, has emerged as one of the leaders of the right-wing faction of the German protests. He has over 80,000 followers on Telegram, where he falsely claims that Merkel is Jewish and is planning a global genocide. Meanwhile, the YouTube channel of the Querdenker organizers of the marches has over 75,000 followers.

There are no such protests in China or Russia. Only truly open societies can produce the mishmash of ideas and personalities that converged last month in Berlin.

Joseph de Weck is a columnist with the German foreign affairs magazine Internationale Politik Quarterly and a fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Twitter: @josephdeweck

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