Germany’s domestic intelligence agency will monitor leading anti-lockdown protesters over concerns they pose a threat to democracy and have ties to the far right, the interior ministry has said.
The surveillance targets some members of the “Querdenker” or “Lateral Thinkers” movement, which has organised increasingly violent protests against coronavirus lockdowns and includes conspiracy theorists and suspected far-right members, a spokeswoman for the BfV spy agency said on Wednesday.
The movement started with small demonstrations in the southern city of Stuttgart last year but has grown in scope and reach, drawing to its protests Germans from all walks of life frustrated with lockdowns in place since November.
Authorities fear that those from the far-right and conspiracy theorists who either deny the existence of COVID-19 or downplay its threat to public health are exploiting lockdown frustrations to stir anger against politicians and state institutions five months before a general election.
“Legitimate protests against the coronavirus politics are being repeatedly and increasingly exploited to provoke an escalation,” said BfV spokeswoman Angela Pley.
“Organisers of demonstrations which are mainly led by protagonists of the Querdenker movement have an agenda that goes beyond protesting against the state’s measures against the coronavirus.”
She added that members of the far-right “Reichsburger” movement that denies the existence of the modern German state have participated in the protests, as well as anti-Semitic groups.
The interior ministry said the “extremists” encourage supporters to ignore official orders and challenge the state monopoly on the use of force.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters on Wednesday that the monitoring was aimed at “preventing problems” and “preventing crimes”.
Domestic spies fear far-right members could seek to boost anger against state institutions such as the police after parliament gave temporary powers this month to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to enforce lockdowns in areas with high infection rates.
The new powers have drawn fierce criticism from opposition parties, including the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose leaders have joined anti-lockdown protests.
After the agency’s announcement, local media reported that the BKA federal police force informed MPs who last week voted for a tightening of coronavirus restrictions that their names were circulating on the Telegram messaging app under the title “death list of German politicians”.
“It is the message of a single person. That does not result in an increased threat level,” the BKA wrote in the letter, DPA news agency reported.
“Querdenker” demonstrations over the past year have attracted thousands, at times tens of thousands, of supporters, where anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are seen marching side by side with neo-Nazis and members of the far-right AfD party.
The rallies are notorious for being broken up early by police because protesters fail to comply with rules on social distancing and mask-wearing, and have occasionally descended into clashes.
For intelligence officers to be legally allowed to start observing parts of the anti-lockdown movement, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) had to create an entirely new category of groups because the “Querdenkers” do not fit neatly into the existing classifications of right-wing or left-wing.
The new category is for groups suspected of being “anti-democratic and/or delegitimising the state in a way that endangers security”.
The designation allows intelligence officers to gather data about individuals and their activities, and could in a further step include shadowing people and tapping their communications.
The BfV is already monitoring Germany’s anti-Islam, anti-migrant AfD opposition party.