Germany, like the United States, has a problem with conspiracy ideologies — and the country has been battling a threat that’s much broader, and more entrenched, than QAnon alone.
The American-born mythology stood out when German authorities detained 25 people, thought to be far-right conspiracy theorists plotting to overthrow the government, earlier this month. But it’s not just QAnon. The recent far-right plot shows it’s far from the only conspiracy narrative to drive increasing radicalization here. What QAnon has done, as a sort of umbrella conspiracy ideology, is what it has the potential to do elsewhere around the world: merge with, and help tap into, a deep vein of nation-specific conspiracies that existed long before QAnon arrived.
“In this terrorist group, you have the clear neo-Nazi narratives, the so-called ‘Reichsbürger’ or sovereign citizens’ narrative, QAnon, and also New Age stuff,” said Pia Lamberty, co-founder of CeMAS, a Berlin-based organization that tracks disinformation and conspiracy narratives. “In the pandemic, conspiracy theories got more space to grow.”
During pandemic-related protests, she added, “you’ve had different groups who might have been more separate before the pandemic who then came together. They always had an overlap, but this overlap got bigger.”
Plotting to overthrow the German government
The ringleader of the group, which the government described as a terrorist organization, was Prince Heinrich XIII Reuss, a 71-year-old member of a former aristocratic family with known ties to the far- and extreme-right, including the Reichsbürger movement.
Authorities found dozens of weapons in their raids, including guns. A group of former soldiers within this plot was allegedly trying to recruit members among Germany’s police and military; they planned to organize 286 separate “homeland security companies” across the country.
An “umbrella” ideology
Experts following the spread of conspiracy narratives in Germany say QAnon has been present in the German conspiracy scene since its inception in the U.S. in 2017, but remained relatively fringe in those early years.
QAnon, experts told Grid, began to gain traction after the protests began due to a range of factors. First, there was the sheer fact that QAnon and Querdenken shared the same first letter: The double meaning of “Q” helped raise awareness about the conspiracy ideology among those attending the protests. What’s more, many QAnon messages from the U.S. were translated directly into German, helping them cross linguistic boundaries and find a broader audience here.
“Some of the contents of it were copy-pasted and translated for a German context,” Jakob Guhl, a researcher at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue who focuses on conspiracy theories and the far right online, told Grid. “Same symbol, the same content, but call it ‘der Sturm’ instead of ‘the storm’ — and there you go.”
Guhl likened the protests not to a melting pot, but to vegetable soup: “Things retain their own flavor, but they take on a bit of the flavor of the others,” he said. “It’s not that they’re all now starting to believe the same thing — it’s more that they’re so close to each other in terms of demonstrations and also on Telegram and these networks.”
That said, he added that there’s a reason QAnon and the Reichsbürger beliefs fit so nicely together: Both are deeply skeptical of the state and elites and see (or want to create) some sort of reckoning by which “the people” take back power.
“QAnon and Reichsbürger are, in a way, perfectly compatible with each other,” Guhl said.
Ties to the far-right AfD party
The AfD is “the closest thing Querdenken has to a parliamentary arm,” Guhl said. “They’re kind of the bridge between the mainstream and these movements.”
How serious was the threat?
Leaders of the terror group reportedly believed there was widespread, latent support for their views in the German public. They thought that once they started their takeover of the parliament and other levers of German power, regular Germans would rise up and join them.
“That wouldn’t have happened,” Lamberty said. Still, she added, “these attempts show us that there are right-wing extremist networks who are not afraid to use weapons, who have access to weapons.”
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