HANOVER, Germany — One message advocated “occupying election offices.”
The calls to action came not in anticipation of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Rather, they emerged this month in Germany, within a far-right group on the messaging app Telegram, where neo-Nazis and doomsday preppers foresee what’s known as “Day X” — the collapse of the German state and assassination of high-ranking officials.
Such apocalyptic messages — posted in the run-up to German elections on Sunday — import conspiratorial, anti-government rhetoric broadcast in the U.S., according to screenshots of the since-deleted chatroom reviewed by The Washington Post.
This dynamic is accelerating in the anarchic online channels of extremist communities, whose members number anywhere from 1,500 in the deleted “Day X” group to 150,000 in German-language QAnon groups. The development marks a radical reversal from the years after World War II, when the U.S. helped export principles of constitutional democracy to West Germany.
Now, American influence animates far-right activity, including the rise of the militant Reichsbürger movement, whose members — “Citizens of the Reich” — reject the modern German state. Meanwhile, the global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled political extremism, security officials warn.
Aiming to reap partisan rewards from the discontent is Alternative for Germany (AfD), which on Sunday is expected to solidify its standing as the first far-right party since 1949 to hold seats in the national parliament. Already, some AfD candidates have followed Trump’s lead in preemptively alleging manipulation of mail-in ballots.
The German far-right has even targeted Dominion Voting Systems, the software company baselessly accused of rigging the vote against Trump — even though the company’s technology isn’t used in German elections. As one Telegram user asserted in a group protesting public health restrictions, Dominion could “fake” the vote, “like in America.”
Conspiracy theorists and anti-democratic extremists operate on the fringes of German politics and are unlikely to sway Sunday’s vote. But their influence is “stronger than the polls tell us,” said Boris Pistorius, the Social-Democratic interior minister for the state of Lower Saxony, whose capital is Hanover, this northwestern city where the Harz Mountains meet the German lowlands.
“The line between online chat and action is becoming blurred,” Pistorius said in an interview, recounting how voters who rail against the “corona lie” are susceptible to radicalization. The AfD’s populism, Pistorius said, hastens that radicalization by elevating grievances and vilifying the state, even if the party forgoes the most hateful language of its right flank.
These developments illustrate how forces unleashed by Trump in his effort to overturn his election defeat are finding resonance around the world. Globally, discontent with democracy reached an all-time high in 2020, with the trend most stark in the United States, Germany and other developed countries, according to a University of Cambridge report.
Likewise, the violence of Jan. 6 forms part of a worldwide phenomenon. In Brazil, embattled President Jair Bolsonaro this month rallied supporters in demonstrations that more than 150 critics, including former heads of state, said in an open letter were “modeled on the insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol.
The Jan. 6 parallels are most pronounced in Germany. Last year, a mob of far-right activists breached a police barrier in Berlin, protesting coronavirus restrictions while brandishing the imperial German flag exalted by the Nazis and seeking to forcibly enter the Reichstag, the seat of parliament. Falsely, the protester who incited the mob proclaimed Trump was in Berlin, urging the German people to show the American hero of QAnon their readiness to “take domestic authority here and now.”
That the violence at the Reichstag — inspired by a conspiracy theory born in the United States — would echo in the January attack on Congress is all the more perverse because Germany’s modern democracy emerged under American influence, its constitution approved by the occupying Allied powers in 1949. Now right-wing extremists advocate its destruction, borrowing from doomsday American scripts disseminated online.
From fringe to mainstream
When Stephen K. Bannon hosted an AfD deputy leader on his “War Room” podcast last month, the former Trump strategist said he was “spending a lot of time focused on this German election.” The moment showed how nationalist firebrands stitch themselves together internationally, aided by everything from Telegram to far-right talk shows.
Global solidarity among right-wing extremists is intensifying, said Thomas Strobl, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union and the interior minister in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. In place of an older “nationalism or racism that is largely focused on one’s own ethnicity,” Strobl said, these actors increasingly take “all ‘Whites’ into view,” treating them as part of their “in-group.”
As a result, American right-wing extremists have become “models for German right-wing extremists,” the minister said, pointing specifically to QAnon and the so-called “Great Reset,” a conspiracy theory holding that elites engineered the coronavirus to take control of the global economy.
Germany is home to the largest QAnon following outside the U.S., researchers say, with doses of American unreality delivered by nationalist actors hostile to both state institutions and immigrants. As in the United States, distrust of scientific expertise has also forged unlikely coalitions, such as Querdenken, a protest movement against health regulations (sometimes translated as “thinking outside the box”) recently penalized by Facebook and counting in it ranks former Green and left-wing voters. At its rallies, which began last year in Baden-Württemberg, antisemitic symbols have appeared alongside demands for “Free Living, Free Love.”
Now, in advance of the election, claims of voter fraud have also become commonplace.
Across more than 2,500 German-language Telegram chats tracked by the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS), a Berlin-based digital forensics nonprofit, daily mentions of Dominion surpassed 400 multiple times in recent weeks. References to the company first rose last year, when the company became a target of pro-Trump conspiracy theorists, and surged again this summer, when the AfD underperformed in a state election, leading to similar accusations of malfeasance.
“We have seen far-right actors try to claim election fraud since at least 2016, but it didn’t take off,” said Miro Dittrich, a CeMAS researcher who preserved the “Day X” chat logs and shared them with The Post. “When Trump started telling the ‘big lie,' it became a big issue in Germany, sometimes bigger than the pandemic, because far-right groups and the AfD are carefully monitoring the success Trump is having with this narrative.”
Some observers doubt that narrative’s significance. Detlef Junker, a leading German historian of the U.S. at the University of Heidelberg, blamed a “lunatic fringe.” But beliefs travel quickly from the fringe to society’s mainstream, especially on the Internet, said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a specialist in political extremism and German subcultures at American University.
The process is accelerated, she said, when well-known American figures can be made into messengers of fringe ideas. Former Trump Cabinet members, for instance, loom large for far-right extremists known as Reichsbürgers. Some believe a U.S.-backed shadow government is preparing to liberate them from their own state.
In this effort, they envision assistance from Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser and a central figure in the QAnon pantheon. An image of Trump and Mike Pompeo, his former secretary of state, circulated in the “Day X” group alongside an affirmation in German that “the Federal Republic of Germany has no right to act for Germany!”
Reichsbürgers represent a tiny fraction of the German public, though their numbers are expanding. In 2018, Germany’s domestic intelligence service estimated that membership had grown to 18,000, an increase of 80 percent in two years. Intelligence assessments also suggest adherents are overrepresented in the German military, alarming officials who fear their access to firearms.
A spate of extremist attacks, from the fatal 2019 shooting of a pro-refugee politician by an avowed neo-Nazi to the fatal shooting this month of a 20-year-old gas station clerk who refused to sell beer to an unmasked customer, has underscored the risk of politically motivated violence, said Pistorius.
“We would not call them lone wolves because they have a radicalization history on the internet,” the interior minister said. “They consider themselves part of a larger movement of people who think alike. In the end, they commit the deed for this larger group.”
From protest to party power
Outside Hanover, in a conference room above a video arcade, an AfD member who sits in the German parliament described the promise linking his party’s varied causes.
The aim has always been the “safety of the German nation,” the lawmaker, Dietmar Friedhoff, said in an interview, grinning as he added, “and to make it great again.”
Wordplay aside, Friedhoff sees reason to imitate Trump. The question before German voters, he said, is the same one articulated by the former American president and his fellow GOP hard-liners — should countries be “more globalist or more nationalist?”
Germans will choose nationalism, Friedhoff said, because they want a feeling of control over their own future. The AfD represents German voters who “love their country” and reject the postwar taboo on national pride, said the former engineer, a self-described enthusiast of cowboys and the American West, just as Trump “was a president for the normal American people … for Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana.”
Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro protest party popular with elites, the AfD has rebranded German nationalism, once associated mainly with ex-Nazis and skinheads. Frequently beset by internal conflict, the party united behind opposition to Merkel’s refugee policy in 2017 and won 12.6 percent of the vote, becoming parliament’s third-largest party and the main opposition.
The reason the party has not expanded since then — polling at about 11 percent in advance of Sunday’s vote — is because other factions refuse to partner with it in parliament, Friedhoff said.
“When you want to kill a new party in Germany — politically kill — you say, ‘That is a right radical party,’” Friedhoff said. “I’m not right extreme. I’m a normal person. I fight for my country. I fight for my nation. I fight for my children. But in Germany, ‘right’ is a big brand mark on your face.”
The AfD doesn’t create the extremist communities anticipating violence, allowed Patrick Sensburg, a member of Merkel’s party who sits on parliament’s intelligence oversight committee. But it “tries to be their political arm,” he said, and to profit from the social turmoil they incite.
The pandemic has provided new opportunities to polarize the German public, offering arguments that resonate not just in hardscrabble areas of the former Communist East but also in states such as Lower Saxony, the home of Volkswagen. It does so without moderating its message. AfD members from Lower Saxony have posted messages on Facebook in recent days opposing the vaccination of children against the coronavirus and finding inspiration in a massive unmasked gathering in Blacksburg, Va., home to Virginia Tech.
Friedhoff recently shared a cartoon image of Uncle Sam wearing a top hat with the colors of Germany’s flag and exhorting, “We need you! Become an election observer!”
The same call came from Tino Chrupalla, the party’s chancellor candidate and a former house painter, who on Facebook encouraged voters to linger at polling stations for “election observation.” An AfD spokesman, Dimitrios Kisoudis, defended the practice as a form of “defensive democracy,” necessary to “ensure that our party’s opponents do not use unfair means to distort democratic competition.”
Observers are permitted, said Sensburg, the Christian Democratic lawmaker who chairs parliament’s election monitoring committee. But the AfD’s insistence serves not to prevent mishaps, which are rare, he said, but rather to “create doubt about democratic institutions.”
That also means opposing mail-in voting, which the AfD blames baselessly for fraud. A refrain about ballots, popular among some of the German party’s candidates, advises voters, “Steck ihn selber rein!” or, “Put it in yourself!”
The echo of Trump’s rhetoric is obvious, said Peter Wittig, who served as the German ambassador to the United States from 2014 to 2018. But the effect is less severe, he said, because of Germany’s multiparty parliamentary system.
“We don’t have a mass movement like the Republican Party that is following Trump or Trump-like prophets on a large scale,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve been spared of that.”