Germany’s floods serve as conduit for conspiracy theorists

Querdenker protesters use social media to make ideological claims linked to disaster

A placard states “No to the corona dictatorship” at an anti-lockdown protest of the so-called Querdenker movement (Lateral Thinkers) in Berlin. Photograph:  Paul Zinken/AFP

A placard states “No to the corona dictatorship” at an anti-lockdown protest of the so-called Querdenker movement (Lateral Thinkers) in Berlin. Photograph: Paul Zinken/AFP

 

With weary eyes and a stubbly face, Nikolai Nerling’s video post has a weary air of disaster pragmatism.

Standing before a pile of mangled fences, he explains how he travelled through the night to be in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, devastated by last month’s record floods. He is part of a 10-man team on the ground, he says, with heavy machinery to move rubble and industrial pumps to empty water-clogged basements. They have requisitioned a local school as their base.

“This is emergency aid from the people,” he says. “In Ahrweiler, helpers are being sent away by the authorities even though they need no end of helpers here.”

Viewers can join the effort or transfer money to an account controlled by Nehrling, a video blogger known to his followers – and German police – as the “Volkslehrer” or people’s teacher.

In 2019 he was banned from all teaching jobs in his native Berlin over Holocaust denial, he then switched to Covid-19 conspiracies and now the flood. On his Telegram channel, he offers 30,000 followers posts with links to the “Querdenker”, self-described “lateral thinkers” whose views range from protest against pandemic restrictions to claims that Covid-19 is a plan to enslave humanity.

Nehrling draws, too, on the Reichsbürger, a small German militia movement with neo-Nazi tendencies that refuses to recognise the modern German state.

Bodies of babies

The “people’s teacher” is just one of many leading conspiracy theorists who have moved into the flood-hit regions of southwestern Germany. Another, with 140,000 social media followers claimed in a recent post: “Merkel was warned and let more than 150 Germans drown.” Another popular message doing the rounds on social media, with echoes of the QAnon conspiracies, claims that bodies of 400 babies have been washed up in the flood region.

Nearly three weeks on, German conspiracy theorists are spreading fake news over the floods, and the clear-up efforts, to sow mistrust in the state, or even encourage open opposition.

“This is a dangerous mix; the frustration, disappointment and mourning of people is being politically charged for their own ends,” said Dr Pia Lamberty, a social psychologist and conspiracy theory expert at the Johann Gutenberg University in Mainz. “There’s a clear framing under way, that the flood catastrophe cannot be a coincidence.”

In Bad Neuenahr the unofficial rescue camp in a school was operated not by Nikolai Nerling, as he claimed online, but by “Veteran Pool”. This organisation of active and former soldiers says in its rules that it “recognises the rule of law and the free, democratic order”.

Neo-Nazi tattoos

In a recent closed chat group, however, one “veteran” warned: “To everyone showing resistance, remember one thing above all: the system has to go. It finds itself in the final stage of its self-destruction.”

A ZDF television crew at their camp last week filmed black-clad men with prominent neo-Nazi tattoos. Their guide around the requisitioned school building insisted there were no extremists and that the “Veteran Pool” distances itself from Reichsbürger and Holocaust deniers.

Later, the ZDF team found a video from their guide’s own Telegram account showing him standing on a balcony “symbolically” burning a surgical mask after saying: “What’s happening here has no longer anything to do with Corona but control of the masses and undermining the will of the people.”

State and church aid agencies in the region say Querdenker protesters disrupt their work daily and that of Covid-19 vaccination centres set up in the region to avoid super-spreader events among helpers.

“Things have gone so far that our helpers are sworn at and have had rubbish thrown at them,” said Sabine Lackner, vice-president of the THW technical aid group.

As Germany’s vaccination programme gathered pace, flagging Querdenker groups have embraced the floods as a chance to regroup. The resurgence was clear on Sunday in Berlin, where a Querdenker protest of 5,000 – banned by a court order – marched through the city.

Journalists were attacked and about 600 people arrested. One protester, who complained of pain in his arm and chest, collapsed and died in police custody. On protester social media channels on Monday, he was held up as a martyr to the Querdenker cause.