Tensions escalated in mid-November when thousands of protesters clashed with police in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Wednesday’s move is effectively a public warning to sympathizers and leaders of the group — which officials described as the “epicenter” of Germany’s coronavirus protests — but it falls short of banning the movement.
The group and its allies could still be set to gain more momentum in the coming weeks as some federal states appear poised to impose tougher measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Germany confirmed 590 new coronavirus deaths Wednesday, its so far highest daily toll, bringing the number of total fatalities to around 20,000.
In an emotional speech Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament that the high daily death toll is “unacceptable.”
She pleaded with Germans — and federal state leaders — to follow scientific advice and to adhere to stricter rules.
In Germany, curbs are mostly decided by regional governments, and Merkel cannot impose a nationwide lockdown without their support.
Some federal states have hesitated to tighten restrictions, even though the country’s existing curbs have so far been widely accepted as necessary by the vast majority of Germans, with over 70 percent of respondents saying in a survey last week that the measures are appropriate or should be even tougher.
Restrictions have met growing resistance among an increasingly radicalized group of virus skeptics, however, of whom some have echoed conspiracy theories by the U.S.-born QAnon movement and others allied themselves with Germany’s far-right.
Wednesday’s announcement that authorities will monitor the Querdenken 711 group came after officials expressed mounting concerns over sympathizers who trivialize the Holocaust, among other indications for a growing far-right influence within the movement.
Its surveillance will initially be conducted by authorities in the western German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where the group is located, but could be extended to other states. The group’s name — Querdenken 711 — is derived from a Baden-Wuerttemberg phone code and translates as “thinking outside the box.”
Ahead of a meeting of Germany’s state-level interior ministers that was set to begin Wednesday, officials warned that the group and its allies have introduced a novel form of extremism across Germany.
“Extremist, conspiratorial and anti-Semitic content is increasingly being mixed with legitimate criticism of the state-led measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic,” Beate Bube, the president of Baden-Wuerttemberg intelligence service, said Wednesday of the group’s radicalization.
Bube added that members of the group are tied to Germany’s far-right Reichsbuerger movement, known for its rejection of the modern German state.
Even though the move to put the group on the state’s extremism watch-list appeared to have largely been triggered by the movement’s ties to the far-right, Germany’s coronavirus protests have drawn a politically heterogenous mix of demonstrators, with some identifying as left-wing or far-leftist and others condemning extremism.
Querdenken 711′s founder, Michael Ballweg, criticized the decision to monitor his group as an effort to “intimidate peaceful demonstrators” based on “completely baseless rumors.”
Such assertions have been disputed by German officials, who maintain that the protests could draw demonstrators to violence.
“We see with the latest events that there is an escalation toward more violence and to more right-wing extremism among the demonstrations,” Stephan Kramer, president of the intelligence service in the eastern German federal state of Thuringia, said last month.
Analysts have also voiced alarm over bomb- and weapon-making materials that have been circulated among coronavirus-skeptics. In October, the German federal agency responsible for controlling the coronavirus, the Robert Koch Institute, was attacked with molotov cocktails.
Loveday Morris and Luisa Beck contributed to this report.