The man with the microphone says he doesn’t mind if we call him a conspiracy theorist. Because, according to him, it only means that he is a free thinker, able to ask questions and unwilling to accept the lies his fellow citizens do. A second fellow says that the Syrian leader, dictator Bashar al-Assad, never dropped barrel bombs on anybody in that country and he can prove it, thanks to research he has done online.
A third chap then tells us why popstar Michael Jackson had to die: He was opposed to war and he was too powerful to let live. When questioned as to why he believes this, the soft-spoken man, an engineer, can only respond with a platitude: “The truth is inside you.”
Just another night on Pariser Platz, a grand public square in the center of Berlin, where major features are the Brandenburg Gate, the glamorous Adlon Hotel, and the new French and American embassies. Except it’s not. Because on Monday nights for the past three or so years, has been hosting strange and eclectic gatherings of local conspiracy theorists.
These days, there’s a new conspiracy theory doing the rounds. It suggest that the recent terrorist attack in Berlin, where a truck crashed into revelers at a central city Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz, was faked. Or it was a so-called false flag operation, by the German government, or the CIA, or the Masons, or – inevitably – the Jews.
Some say the participants at these meetings on Pariser Platz are harmless whackos. Others insist there is nothing harmless about it.
For three years now, a white delivery van parked on the square has been a magnet for conspiracy theorists and esotericists, as well as Israel-haters and violent reactionaries. On the side of the van are painted the words: only people with peace within, can make peace. The van belongs to a man who claims he can heal people with his hands.
What binds all these figures together is the sense that they share some secret, one that is denied by the state and media, the dark powers. There is a problem though: These are not just clubs for harmless eccentrics – Berlin’s truther meetings also serve as a gateway for the far-right.
Officially, the name of the Monday night gathering is Vigil for First World Peace. With several microphones doing the rounds at once, participants can react to one another’s speeches, urging each other on to new heights of rhetoric. Some say the participants at these meetings on Pariser Platz are harmless whackos. Others insist there is nothing harmless about it.
The vigils began in 2014, a time that already feel like some distant, more innocent age. The phases – “fake news,” “post-factual,” and “alternative facts” – were not yet household terms. Populist right wingers in Germany’s anti-immigration, anti-E.U. party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, had not yet won seats in ten of Germany’s 16 state parliaments.
Some close observers of the right-wing scene are alarmed at the upsurge in conspiracy meetings. One local journalist, who is using a false name in this story to avoid detection and potential abuse, has been keeping an eye on the scene for the past three years. And he believes the Monday night vigils function as a kind of “gateway drug” for the far right wing.
The journalist, who wants to be known as Mr. Smith, says that he has seen the conspiracy-theory touting peace activists go from Pariser Platz to the Berlin offshoot of the anti-Islam group, Pegida, to the AfD or to right-wing extremist demonstrations against the German government.
On Pariser Platz, the lost and lonely of the city seek out simple answers to complex questions, finding scapegoats for the world’s problems. Some participate in more than one group at a time.
Research into conspiracy theories suggests they can be a defense mechanism against feelings of exclusion and meaninglessness. The best way of defusing the theories may be to integrate their supporters into society, suggest researchers. But those involved in the scene despise said researchers, saying they ultimately want to brainwash critical thinking from a lively truth-seeking scene.
Mr. Smith says conspiracy theorists come to Pariser Platz to join the discussion, to get an idea of their ideological fellows and to see online ideas and topoi going mainstream. His metaphor on the scene involves the very deepest, darkest sludge on the internet leaking onto the city’s streets, in real life.
If you want a further sense of how conspiracy theories do become part of ordinary life, take a look at the Amazon book charts, which measure public tastes and bypass booksellers. Books on UFOs and U.S. involvement in terrorist attacks regularly appear at the top of the bestseller lists, pulling in substantial sums of money.
German publisher Kopp, based in Baden-Württemberg, is a major player on that scene. They have been described by German newspapers as “a pioneer of anti-political correctness” and part of a growing “industry of fear.”
Their star author, Udo Ulfkotte, died unexpectedly earlier this year. He died of a heart attack but predictably some of his fans say the CIA did it. Before moving onto conspiracy mongering, Mr. Ulfkotte was a respectable journalist with the Frankfurter Allgemeine, one of the country’s best-known newspapers. Conspiracy theorists lend particular importance to figures from the mainstream media who “convert” and join their ranks, as if it confirms their ideas that the conventional media lies.
Werner Altnickel is another regular speaker at the Pariser Platz meetings. He is a former Green party activist turned far-right apologist, who makes claims about the “annihilation of the white race.” He also believes in the existence of a secret, alternative global government, one which includes both former German leader Gerhard Schröder and the leader of the extremist Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Another former mainstream journalist, Ken Jebsen, formerly a moderator with a local Berlin television channel, RBB, is also often at the Pariser Platz meetings. He denies being anti-Semitic but at the same time criticizes the “power of Zionism.” In a recent statement he said that Jewish billionaire George Soros was behind January’s various women’s marches and that Mr. Soros promoted abortion because he could profit from the aborted fetuses.
Some of the conspiracy theories also have an impact on others, and not in a positive way. There was a measles outbreak in Berlin schools in 2015, that resulted in the death of one child, and many believed that the problem was an increasing refusal by parents to vaccinate. In the U.S. one study found that: “pediatricians reported increased vaccine refusal between 2006 and 2013. They perceive that vaccine-refusing parents increasingly believe that immunizations are unnecessary.”
Another recent incident involves the so-called Pizzagate scandal, around a pizzeria in Washington in the U.S. frequented by politicians and their communities. An evolving thread on social media had it that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and some of her advisers were part of pedophilia ring based there. Despite the ludicrousness of the conspiracy theory, and repeated public disavowals by the owner of the restaurant, a man with a gun eventually went there to, in his words, “self-investigate.” He found nothing and was arrested.
Many of the Pariser Platz regulars may well be attending a festival in June. Called Pax Terra Musica, the event takes place at a disused airbase near Berlin. One of the organizers is a regular at the Monday night meetings too.
Also likely to be attending is Tommy Hansen, who is originally from Denmark but recently moved to Berlin because he enjoys the atmosphere of freedom here. Mr. Hansen is the man behind Free21, an online and paper magazine that presents versions of a number of conspiracy theories.
For example, Mr. Hansen believes that Norwegian mass murder and terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, who shot and killed 77 people in 2011, was acting on behalf of Israeli forces.
At the same time though, Mr. Hansen has distanced himself from some of the more extreme elements in the conspiracy theory movement. He is opposed to the chemtrail conspiracy theory for instance, which says that the white atmospheric trails that aircraft leave in the sky are actually chemical or biological agents distributed for nefarious purposes.
In an interview, Mr. Hansen agrees that some of the stories he has published in Free21, which now has 40 volunteers working for it, should probably never have seen the light of day.
“We don’t publish stories about aliens or the Masons,” he said, adding that for years he has been trying to convince people of the idiocy of the chemtrails stories.
In fact, in conversation, Mr. Hansen seems downright reasonable. But then he says this: It’s possible that the chemtrail conspiracy theorists and other fanatics were actually sent by the CIA to discredit the people who are telling the truth and who do only want peace. Perhaps those conspiracy theorists are just here to discredit all the others, he suggests.
It’s not necessarily true for all of them, he concludes – but it’s worth thinking about, right?
This article first appeared in Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com