German Survivalists

The Doomsday Scenario

Prepper Benjamin Arlet, Survival-Experte von x-group, Berlin Foto: Mike Wolff
I will survive: Prepper Benjamin Arlet, a member of Berlin's x-group.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • Germany has an estimated 40,000 survivalists, or preppers, getting ready for when disaster strikes. The movement’s founding country, the U.S., has 4 million.
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  • Facts

    Facts

    • The survivalist movement has grown steadily since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. Last year’s large influx of refugees further strengthened Germany’s prepper movement.
    • The recent update to Germany’s official civil-defense plan advises each citizen to stockpile sufficient food to last 10 days, among other survival tips.
    • The Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, which updated the plan, is circumspect when commenting about the survivalist movement. The government officials say they deal in realistic scenarios, not doomsday fantasies.
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    Audio

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When catastrophe hits, the survivalists plan to meet at their depot. It’s in a cellar off the back courtyard of an apartment block in a Berlin suburb.

Their safe place: Down the cellar steps, through an iron door, down a corridor at the back on the right.

There, in the corner, is a backpack that belongs to Daniel Schäfer, stuffed with three months’ worth of supplies. The pack is full, weighing in at 20 kilograms, or 44 pounds. He hasn’t put in the denatured alcohol yet.

 

The cellar’s shelves are stacked with shovels, ropes, plastic sheeting, tents, an inflatable boat and toilet paper. There’s also a vacuum cleaner, but only because someone left it there, Benjamin Arlet says.

The throwing knives, long knives and crossbow are weapons for if the survivalists have to fight their way free, Mr. Arlet said. Wouldn’t a handgun be handier? Yes, Mr. Arlet said, but you need a license for pistols in Germany. For a crossbow, you only have to be 18 or older.

When doomsday arrives, the two men will wait in the cellar for their friends. Only after they all arrive will they set off. As a group they are safer; alone, you’ve got no chance, Mr. Arlet said.

He and Mr. Schäfer call themselves “preppers” rather than survivalists. The term comes from “to be prepared” and there are 40,000 preppers in Germany. Exactly what are they preparing for? The survivalists say they won’t know until it happens, but they are sure it will be very unpleasant.

It might be a loss of power across Europe or a chemical accident. It could be a natural catastrophe or hyperinflation, a terrorist attack or detonation of a nuclear bomb. It’ll be an event where people won’t be able to count on the government for safety.

 

It might be a loss of power across Europe or a chemical accident. It could be a natural catastrophe or hyperinflation, a terrorist attack or detonation of a nuclear bomb. It’ll be an event where people won’t be able to count on the government for safety, at least for a certain amount of time. A period when people will have to fight to survive.

Mr. Schäfer, 42, is muscular and compact. He had lone-fighter training in the armed forces, the Bundeswehr, then joined a police agency.  Mr. Arlet, 26, is wiry and studied video-game design. They’re spreading supplies out on a table top: tablets to make seawater drinkable, along with a piece of cork, a length of string and some wax.

The United States has 4 million preppers. The survivalist movement has been growing steadily since the financial crisis erupted in 2008. That’s when people in Germany started to take interest too. The movement has grown stronger since the large influx of refugees began last year.

For years, preppers were dismissed as crackpots and prophets of doom. Now, however, the German survivalist community sees itself as vindicated: The reworking of the federal civil-defense plan was leaked a few weeks ago. In it the government advised citizens to stockpile sufficient food to last 10 days.

Mr. Schäfer welcomed the plans and the long list of emergency goods recommended by the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, known here as BBK. They include flashlights, thermos bottles, can openers and bandaging materials. Beyond just stockpiling, the BBK said people must learn how to use the items. The ability to think rationally is impaired by stress when emergencies occur, and only the things that have been practiced many times before will succeed when disaster finally hits.

When Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, unveiled the new civil defense plans, he identified what he thought would be the most likely event to trigger use of them: a terrorist attack on the power grid. “The results would be more devastating than the layman can imagine,” Mr. Schäfer said.

Individual generators at places such as intensive care units in hospitals would continue to supply power for three days only. Supermarket shelves would be nearly empty within two days. Households would run out of drinking water after three or four days.

“And then the hand-to-hand fighting starts,” Mr. Schäfer said. “The scrambling for resources.”

“Blackout,” a novel by Austrian writer Marc Elsberg, describes in great detail the consequences of a Europe-wide power outage.  The book is enormously popular among German-speaking preppers. Its subtitle is “Tomorrow Will Be Too Late.”

In the United States, where the survivalist movement had its beginnings, every large city has stores stocked with everything a prepper would need. And TV series feature inventive survivalists facing the most extreme conditions.

Andreas Schmitz, a Bonn-based researcher who studies fear, says the U.S. prepper community tends to be made up of men who are politically right-wing and live in rural areas. They are often people who are plagued by vague concerns such as the danger of globalization.

Not much research has been done about the German prepper community. But the ingredients of prepping sound typically German: intensive fear of the future and the attempt to manage this through meticulous planning.

In Germany, those interested in prepper topics primarily exchange information in online forums. They discuss which materials can be used to construct a rainwater collection system in an emergency. And whether the supermarket’s hatchet on sale this week for €12.99 is worth buying.

Mr. Schäfer says most Germans are ill-prepared. That, he says, is partly due to the fact that compulsory military service was suspended five years ago. “No one is taught the basics of survival anymore,” he said.

And so he and Mr. Arlet offer courses with hiking tours in the woods. Along the way, they answer questions such as: What equipment do I need? How do I get along in a group? What can I eat in the woods and what not at all?

“Also, no one can butcher animals today,” Mr. Schäfer said.

Couldn’t a person survive out there as a vegetarian? Well, it’s complicated catching an animal anyway, Mr. Arlet says. There are berries, roots and wild carrots. On the other hand, when people get hungry, everything changes. After one and a half days, he says, all inhibitions are gone.

“We know from history, in desperation, people eat each other,” he said.

Many preppers might make someone think of the Junior Woodchucks of the World with their wealth of ideas. As if Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, were preparing for their next camping trip.

But there is also a dark side. The view is being promulgated in many forums that secret powers are trying to take over the world. Sometimes it’s bankers, sometimes it’s Jewish people, sometimes it’s simply “the powers that be.” Readers are often advised to arm themselves. And often, the sites stir up hatred against refugees.

The prepper community does attracts some problem cases, admits Bastian Blum, the chairman of Germany’s nationwide prepper association. He says here, preppers include Pegida supporters, members of the Reich Citizens’ Movement and other xenophobes. People who attempt to blame others for their own failures. He thinks some preppers are hoping a big catastrophe happens. Then those people would be the ones atop the hierarchy because they’ll have the weapons and most of the supplies.

Mr. Blum says it’s a bit irritating that he has to distance himself from the extremists. It’s comparable, he says, with the Muslims who are constantly asked whether or not they sympathize with violent Salafists.

He doesn’t want to leave the prepping to hysterical right-wing people. Preparing for a crisis makes sense, he says. The next things Mr. Blum wants to purchase are another two solar panels and a powerful generator for use in emergencies.

Professional disaster relief workers in Germany say fear is being wildly exaggerated to make money. The Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance is very diplomatic in its comments. “We know there are preppers. But we don’t share their motives.” The office says it deals in realistic scenarios, not doomsday fantasies.

When disaster strikes, Mr. Schäfer and Mr. Arlet will head north, since most everybody else will flee south because temperatures are higher. They say the climate in Scandinavia is favorable to cultivating grain, there are lots of animals to hunt, and the population is sparse. They’ll head to northern Germany, then to Denmark and then Sweden.

When the time comes, the survivors will be facing a life full of hardship and deprivation. No movies, no cappuccino, no stores. Preppers will mourn relatives and friends who didn’t make it. It doesn’t sound good, does it?

“Everyday life will be more strenuous but not worse,” Mr. Schäfer said.

 

This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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