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From QAnon to Querdenken: Fighting Disinformation to Rebuild German-US Relations

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate has stood as a symbol for a nation rebuilt from the ravages of war and for the unification of a city divided by force. Despite its location, people often associate the Gate with scenes of American presidents, from JFK’s exclamation, “ich bin ein Berliner,” to Reagan’s 1987 command that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Directly to the Gate’s left stands the US Embassy, so close that it would be difficult to visit the German landmark without catching a glimpse of the stars and stripes on the American flag as well.

On August 29, a different flag was seen flying in Pariser Platz: one representing the American-based, far-right QAnon conspiracy–a “fringe phenomenon” becoming mainstream in both the United States and abroad, whose followers believe satanic-elites run a pedophilia ring while controlling politics and the media. Indeed, it is in Germany where the largest following of QAnon believers outside of the United States is found, with numbers exceeding 200,000 individuals. This network is linked to Querdenken 711, Germany’s main organizer of anti-lockdown protests and distributor of anti-elite sentiments. While the Querdenken movement originated through a shared opposition to coronavirus regulations, it has increasingly spread hate-inciting claims against the German state. Together with periphery organizations, QAnon and Querdenken 711 have fostered the spread of disinformation and created an outlet for violence from the radical right in both the United States and Germany. A bilateral response to the organizational capabilities of these groups and their spread of disinformation must be an immediate priority of the German and US governments not only to protect institutions of democracy in both nations, but also to shield the now-fragile foundation of the transatlantic relationship.

In their article “Coronapolitics from the Reichstag to the Capitol, William Callison and Quinn Slobodian define the Querdenken movement as a phenomenon of “diagonalism.” That is, the movement’s followers remain united in their belief that all power exists as conspiracy, contesting traditional beliefs of both the left and right. Among German protestors in recent “coronaskeptic” demonstrations, 23% and 18% of individuals supported Germany’s Green and Left Parties in the most recent election, respectively. The right-wing AfD, or Alternative for Germany, Party only received support from 16% of those interviewed. However, over a quarter of those same attendees indicated a shift towards currently supporting the AfD, signaling a stark swing to the right among the Querdenken base.

In the American and German context, the following of QAnon is strikingly different, as far-right activists quickly attached themselves to the organization in both nations. While the followers of Querdenken 711 lack a monolithic political identity, the movement’s message has also attracted far-right extremists. Consequently, the ability for these individuals to latch on to such networks has been cause for violence. In the United States, the Combating Terror Center released a paper contending that QAnon “represents a militant and anti-establishment ideology [which] finds resonance with other far-right extremist movements.” In a move that the Capitol riot in Washington would later resemble, far-right activists descended on the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin over the summer and attempted to storm the building–a scene that recalled the infamous Reichstag fire of 1933. Among images from the scene was the waving of the “Reichsflagge” banner, which the Nazis appropriated to design their own flag. Such attacks only begin to paint a picture of growing right-wing violence in both the United States and Germany. This growth emboldens other right-wing groups, pushing an urgency for the two nations to act.

The rise of these movements and their spread of disinformation rooted in conspiracy comes at a fragile time–not only for the United States and Germany as individual nations, but also for the prospects of rebuilding the transatlantic relationship. Domestically, President Biden’s “return to normal” message will be troubled by future threats of far-right nationalist violence. In Germany, a new chancellor will be elected in September for the first time since 2005. Angela Merkel’s replacement, whether from her party or not, will be tasked with maintaining stability in an increasingly divided parliament and nation.

Few nations have higher expectations of the Biden Administration than Germany, traditionally one of America’s closest allies. After four years of repeated antagonisms and diminished transatlantic cooperation from President Trump, the German-American relationship is in shambles. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic have a laundry list of initiatives for “joint transatlantic action;” however, the foundational shifts of the alliance require renewal to remain relevant.

One avenue for renewal is a coordinated response between the United States and Germany to hinder the organizational capabilities of conspiracy networks and the spread of their disinformation. Peter Beyer, Coordinator for Transatlantic Cooperation in the German Bundestag, expressed concern that the foundations of the German-American relationship have eroded, particularly throughout the Trump administration. “We were actually used to discussing things with each other,” Beyer noted, regarding transatlantic developments over the past four years. Additionally, Beyer conceded that geostrategic shifts around the globe have fundamentally changed the nature of foreign relations: “It has always been so convenient to live a good life under the protective umbrella of the Americans,” he said, implying that this is no longer a possibility.

This reality applies to the broader transatlantic alliance as well. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington and Berlin have often shared goals. However, the avenues for achieving them are beginning to require less mutual support. One example is each nation’s current response to far-right nationalism. Both the current US administration and the German government share the objective of preventing and defeating extremism. However, Germany–where fighting extremism is viewed as a society-wide obligation–recently invested over €1 billion on an 89-part plan to combat the growth of far-right networks. Governmental efforts in the United States to diminish white supremacy have remained separate from community-based or educational efforts, and Biden’s executive orders attempting to improve racial equity are removed from conversations as to how domestic extremism should be combatted. This disparity in action on an issue with unique parallels in both nations emphasizes the need for coordination.

The spread of right-wing ideology through outside networks has increased the direct threat of violence in Germany and the United States. This growth also provides greater points of engagement for intelligence and security officials across the Atlantic. While the United States must make strides to catch up to Germany’s efforts to tackle extreme-ideological growth at home, both nations should waste no time instituting broader coordination to minimize the global organization and networking of QAnon, Querdenken 711, and similar groups. From bilateral internet regulations to the open sharing of right-wing extremist information between national intelligence agencies, such cooperation would be trailblazing in international engagement, not to mention German-US security relations. Furthermore, the Biden administration initiating this cooperation would signal to Germany its commitment in rebuilding and reorienting the pillars of the transatlantic relationship. Although specific laws and regulations will be complex and will likely differ slightly in both nations–Germany’s Constitution allows for much greater restriction on speech than the United States–enforcement will undoubtedly be more encompassing through transatlantic coordination. 

The unique parallel of the problems faced by the United States and Germany regarding QAnon, Querdenken 711, and other conspiracy networks provides a similarly unique opportunity for bilateral cooperation–with the shared goal of protecting democratic institutions. Such cooperation would also set the stage early for the United States as a nation committed to working on more level ground with their European allies, a move that will undoubtedly restore, at least in part, some of the pillars of the transatlantic relationship lost due to Trump.

Image from Dzmitry on Adobe