A couple of weeks days ago, a motley crew of protesters — ranging from ordinary citizens, anti-vaccination activists, anti-5G activists, and a range of other esoteric groups nostalgically yearning for a time when life was far simpler than it is today, to hard-core nationalists dreaming of a return to late nineteenth-century imperial greatness and hard-core racists wishing Hitler had never died — gathered in Berlin for a mass demonstration against the “draconian” measures Angela Merkel’s government had “imposed” on the country to halt, or at least slow down, the spread of Covid-19.
For anyone who had the misfortune to be subjected to a complete lockdown – as happened at one point of time in Italy and Spain – Germany’s anti-COVID-19 measures are hardly onerous. They involve primarily the wearing of masks. For many demonstrators, however, being compelled to wear a mask appears to represent a fundamental attack on their constitutional rights, an act deemed equivalent to a crime against humanity.
— Frederik Pleitgen (@fpleitgenCNN) August 29, 2020
In the course of the demonstration, a significant number of protesters managed to break through the police line and storm the Reichstagsbebäude, the seat of Germany’s parliament. The assault sent shock waves through Germany’s political establishment, even if it turned out that it took only three members of the police to put an end to the attempt – if genuine attempt it was – to occupy Germany’s seat of power.
The assault on the German parliament might be dismissed as little more than a farce, reminiscent of that other great farce – Hitler’s infamous “beerhall putsch” (1924). Unfortunately enough, not every farce has a happy ending. Sometimes is marks the beginning of a tragic disaster – a fact of which Germans are keenly aware. Not for nothing, one of the most important German dictums in this context is Wehret den Anfängen – resist the beginnings.
By now, it is well established that many of those assaulting the German Reichstag were inspired by an obscure conspiracy theory with origins in the Unites States – QAnon. In recent months, QAnon has spread among the American established and radical right (although the difference is increasingly tenuous) like wildfire. By now, a majority of those identifying as Republicans say they believe it in whole or at least in part. At the same time, it has weaseled its way into Western Europe, infecting a growing number of countries, including Germany, France, and Italy.
As conspiracies go, QAnon is relatively simplistic. It is based on virtually nothing save unsubstantiated assertions. Given the prevalence of lies, half-truths and fake news disseminated, defended and sanctioned by the current occupant of the White House, this, of course, is a virtue. The mechanism of turning nothing into truth, in turn, lies in repetition. If repeated often enough, even the most preposterous assertions assume a flair of an “alternative” truth, if only because a large number of people believe it is true.
Investigative journalism suggests that they do. One of the central claims of QAnon is that the international elite is involved in a vast trade of children, who are subsequently subjected to torture, in a process designed to extract their life elixir. Most Europeans would consider this “theory” crazy, its believers ready for therapy. And yet, during the demonstration in Berlin, reporters found a number of people wearing T-shirts that read “Rettet die Kinder” (save the children).
QAnon might be simplistic, yet this is what makes it particularly seductive. In fact, QAnon might be conceived as an empty or floating signifier, similar to populism. The term empty or floating signifier refers to any word, symbol or phrase “with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified. Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean”. This allows anybody to project whatever outrageous idea they have onto the “theory” while, at the same time, gaining something alike a stamp of approval via their association with the overarching “theoretical” construct – in this case QAnon.
By now, QAnon has advanced to become the ultimate conspiracy “theory” soaking up all others – a new master narrative that provides instant meaning to, and understanding of, today’s bewildering and disconcerting reality. At the same time, it is the ultimate ideational weapon against the establishment. All you need is a self-made cardboard sign featuring a big “Q” and voilà, you are ready to disseminate anxiety and fear among the elite – at least until a handful of courageous members of the police stop you – as so happened in Berlin. Populism light, and highly effective.
This is what has happened in Germany in recent times. In the process, a number of known and not-so-known figures have come to the fore, promoting a range of narratives that can be subsumed under QAnon.
One of the most prominent promoters of QAnon in Germany is the R & B artist Xavier Naidoo, one of Germany’s commercially most successful entertainers. According to Naidoo, every moment, hundreds of children are being rescued from the clutches of pedophile networks A brother in arms is the no less prominent vegan cook Attila Hildmann. He has famously claimed (at least among his admirers) that the German government is in the pockets of Bill Gates who has sought to use vaccinations to subjugate Germany and the world to his will
Bill Gates also figures prominently in a slightly different version of QAnon related conspiracy theory, propagated by the ex-radio moderator Ken Jebsen. Jebsen maintains a popular youtube channel (KenFM) with hundreds of thousands of views. One of Jepsen’s claims is that the Gates couple is using the pandemic to promote a massive vaccination program designed to infuse its victims with molecules that will eventually lead to a massive reduction of the world population. In “normal” times, people like Jebsen would have been dismissed as “verrückte Spinner” – crazy crackpots unworthy of attention. With Covid-19, they have become the subject of numerous articles and reports in Germany’s leading print, Internet and broadcast media – in the process gaining even wider notoriety.
QAnon has flourished during the past two years of the Trump presidency. In Western Europe, Trump is not particularly popular. In a recent poll, more than 80 percent of German respondents graded his presidency as “bad.” The lone exception are the voters of Gemany’s radical populist right, AfD (Alternative for Germany), a majority of whom view his presidency good or even very good l. Hardly surprising, the AfD has been actively involved in the Covid-19 demonstrations and, at least in part, adopted some of the QAnon-related slogans, most prominently “Drain the Swamp”. Trump himself has given credence to the theory:
For the QAnon scene, Trump represents the last great hope for the survival of white privilege and supremacy, not only in the United States but throughout the white western world. It is hardly a coincidence that the “assault” on the German parliament started after one of the speakers at the rally claimed that Trump had just arrived in the city, followed by an exhortation that the crowd show “a sign” that they were fed up, mad as hell and ready to take back their country from Merkel’s “fake government”. At the same time, there were rumors that members of the German police, stationed in front of the Russian embassy, had taken off their helmets and “deserted” . For non-Germans, this might appear somewhat bizarre, given Germany’s and particularly Berlin’s postwar history. For those steeped deeply in QAnon, it makes perfect sense, given the widespread admiration for Putin among Western Europe’s radical right, such as the AfD. There he is seen, on a par with Trump, as the white knight saving and protecting white civilization, particularly against Muslim invasion and subversion.
Under the circumstances, the fact that QAnon has spread into Western Europe is perhaps not altogether surprising. For one, Europe has been the cradle of some of the most significant and influential conspiracy theories – from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Renaud Camus’s “Great Replacement,” from the theories around the “Bavarian Illuminati” to those, particularly in France, of Freemasonry. Conspiracy theories have the great advantage that they reduce complex developments to simple causes. In the case of QAnon, this is the “deep state” – i.e., an unelected elite that pulls the levers, behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz, only for real.
Even more important, however, is the fact that the current sociopolitical climate in Western Europe provides an almost ideal ground for a conspiracy theory like QAnon to flourish. For decades, Western Europe has seen one wave after another of successful radical right-wing populist mobilization, most prominently in France, Austria, and Italy, more recently in Germany. Like radical right-wing populism, QAnon targets “the elite” as the main enemy of “the people.” Draining the swamp means liberating the vast mass of ordinary people from the imposing grasp of the elite, means giving them voice and sovereignty.
In times of uncertainty and crisis, this narrative has its seductive appeal, giving those susceptive to this kind of narrative a sense of being part of a mission, no matter how absurd the mission might be. And characterizing a measure designed to prevent the spread of a virus which has wreaked havoc throughout the world as “inhuman” is the pinnacle of absurdity.
And yet. In times of crisis, rational thought tends to take a break, at least among parts of society. Take the results of a recent poll from Germany. It found that around a third of respondents believed that the fate of the world was in the hands of obscure forces. Under the circumstances, the fact that QAnon is gaining ground in a country like Germany, marked by its past, is hardly surprising. But given its past, it is disconcerting.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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