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Thousands of Conspiracy Theorists marched in Berlin. The city wasn’t prepared.

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— 4 minutes reading time

Karolin Schwarz, Journalist and author

Karolin Schwarz is a journalist, author, fact-checker and trainer, focusing on the far right, political disinformation and the intersection of the internet and society. Her book “Hasskrieger: Der neue globale Rechtsextremismus” (Hate Warriors: the new global right-wing extremism) was published in February 2020. She gives lectures and trainings on disinformation and online hate speech. In February 2016 she founded the project, which collects false reports about refugees and People of Color. The project was nominated for the Grimme Online Award and the journalism prize “Der lange Atem”.

This article is part of a series in which leading experts reflect on emerging trends for cities seeking to address hate, polarisation and extremism.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the German parliament in Berlin on the last Sunday in August, many of them following a woman with blonde dreadlocks. “We’re going to go up there and take back our house today, here and now!” she screamed from a stage in front of the crowd. Moments later, hundreds of people rushed up the stairs leading to the entrance. Some of them waved the black, white and red flag of the German Empire. Today’s neo-Nazis use it as a distinctive sign among anti-democrats; unlike the swastika flag, it is not prohibited. Images of the scene travelled around the world.

Less than a handful of police officers secured the entrance to the building with reinforcements to follow. The scene marked the end of a demonstration that laid bare the dangerous dynamic that conspiracy theories can elicit – especially when their followers come together in thousands.

Berlin is no stranger to demonstrations. In 2018 there were 4,771 demonstrations, the number increased to 5,350 in 2019, which averaged 15 demonstrations per day. Berliners have developed a certain routine and so have the police. Fundamentalists and extremists also frequent the streets of Berlin, including Neo-Nazis marching several times a year. Demonstrations of Christian fundamentalist anti-abortionists and the anti-Semitic and anti-American Al-Quds march take place annually.

But Berlin was not prepared for thousands of conspiracy theorists. The first large demonstration, with about 20,000 participants, took place a few weeks earlier. The second one grew to about 38,000.

More than a third of Germans are inclined to believe conspiracy stories, according to a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The pandemic and its deniers have activated this potential, and in some cases have radicalized it considerably. QAnon has won numerous followers in Germany in 2020, among whom anti-Semitism and violent fantasies were being presented in a far from subtle way. A vegan chef, who by 2020 has spread every imaginable conspiracy theory, spoke publicly this summer about how he envisions the execution of a prominent green politician. So far this has not resulted in any consequences.

In late August, the Berlin state government’s strategy consisted mainly of trying to ban the demonstration while requesting additional police support from other German states. The ban failed and the police strategy did not work. The numerous live streams of right-wing extremist and conspiracy theorist online personalities repeatedly showed huge crowds of people without police escort. In front of the Reichstag building, police were simply taken by surprise.

Policing conspiracy theorists’ protests needs new approaches. Absurd claims can lead to aggressive action or even mass panic, with the potential to sow distrust for weeks following. It’s a dangerous and difficult mixture: some people bring their children, others bring guns. Both were present at the demonstration in late August.

There is no reason to assume that this demonstration was the last of its kind in Berlin, making it all the more important to find long-term strategies. This includes finding a way to deal with conspiracy theories and rumours that emerge during and after the events that can become dangerous – either for those who believe them or for those whom they target or denounce Official communications sources must anticipate the real possibility that their messages will be written off as lies.

The mobilisation in the run-up to protests can provide information about possible risks and targets. A possible “storming of the Reichstag” was discussed on Telegram. Even if no concrete intelligence emerges, the protection of critical infrastructure and of places and individuals targeted by conspiracy theorists must be guaranteed by security forces.

Before the demonstration, Germany’s domestic intelligence service said in a statement that there was no sign that the demonstrations were being co-opted by right-wing extremists. And in a certain way they were right: the demonstrators – not all of whom were right-wing extremists or conspiracy theorists – openly courted far-right participation. To date, assessments of the demonstration identified more than 3,000 right-wing extremists.

Amidst all this, Berliners themselves must not be forgotten. Numerous people reported online that they would avoid large parts of Berlin during the demonstrations. BIPOC and Jews felt threatened because right-wing extremists, racists and Holocaust deniers were on the streets and using the city’s public transport system. Although only a minority of the demonstrators would resort to violence for racist or anti-Semitic reasons, who could distinguish this minority from the majority if they did not distance themselves clearly?

As long as this distinction doesn’t credibly exist, these new demonstrations must be considered a threat – to people in the city and to democracy itself.