The Treptow-Köpenick branch of Germany’s newest political party has no office to host its strategy meetings, so it has decided to host its meeting in a bit of park land next to a new housing estate in Adlershof.
It’s the kind of space where people gather to jog or fly kites or buzz remote-control planes through the evening sky. On this Thursday evening in July, the regular crowds were joined by around 20 members of dieBasis, the party that grew out of last year’s anti-lockdown protest movement. The members had occupied two benches and a path to discuss campaign strategy. Every now and then, the group had to split to allow a bemused cyclist to get by. Two party members were taking the opportunity to exercise their dogs.
With seven weeks and three days to go to the elections on September 26, the meet- ing’s main purpose was to distribute posters for the start of the party’s poster campaign that Saturday night. Except that they can’t, because the posters hadn’t arrived from the printers yet, which meant that the first few minutes of the meeting were given over to some slightly paranoid speculation: What if the printers had seen who they were printing for and deliberately delayed the run in an act of sabotage? The people who placed the orders offered assurances: No, the printers were not hostile to dieBasis. They probably just couldn’t keep up with the orders. The others accepted this with a grumble.
Paranoid with a cause
People who have joined dieBasis have good reason to be paranoid. At best, the media treats the party as a joke – one that is potentially even dangerous to public health. This is the political party that emerged out of the Querdenken (‘Lateral Thinking’) movement, which held rallies of tens of thousands of people in major cities, culminating in an ugly but half-hearted ‘storming of the Reichstag’ last August, when a few protesters broke through police lines on the steps of the parliament building. The press has mostly dismissed dieBasis as a collection of pandemic and vaccine deniers who have, intentionally or not, become a collecting pool for all of Germany’s dangerous weirdos, up to and including far-right extremists or Reichsbürger (who are convinced that the Federal Republic is not legally a real country). There is, however, some evidence that the media paints anti-lockdowners as crazier than they really are: A study carried out by the University of Basel in April found that only around 10 percent of demonstrators at anti-lockdown demos in Germany and Switzerland believed in outright conspiracy theories.
This young party may be fringe, but it has been gaining some ground. After just 13 months in existence, dieBasis has amassed over 25,000 members. By comparison, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the last political party to contest a nationwide German election from scratch following an angry people’s movement, counts 32,000 members nationwide. DieBasis also received over 48,000 votes in the Baden-Württemberg state election in March and was just 96 votes short of getting state funding – a vital step up in Germany.
What if the printers had seen who they were printing for and deliberately delayed the run in an act of sabotage?
The Treptow-Köpenickers sitting in the Adlershof park that Thursday night weren’t particularly weird or racist. The party’s ‘Swarm Commissioner’ for Berlin, Stephan Haube, says any extremists are rooted out once they make their views known. He represents one of the four guiding ‘pillars’ of the party, each of which has commissioners at state and federal level. Alongside ‘Swarm Intelligence’ are ‘Power Limitation’, ‘Freedom’, and ‘Mindfulness’. The last of these hint at the group’s more esoteric arm. At some meetings, Haube said, the party tries to foster respectful debate by beginning with a meditation session, or by going around the room and inviting all those present to share their feelings.
At this particular gathering, the tone was more practical. Tips were shared on how to approach passers-by respectfully at info stands. A long discussion followed on Berlin’s impenetrable election bureaucracy: Would a PDF of the event permit do at the info stand? Or must it be the original? This kind of talk stretched the patience of one young businessman, who suddenly intervened: “You’re all being too nice.” He then launched into a kind of pep talk, declaring that as a start-up party, dieBasis had to be ultra-competitive: “You have to be better than the rest!”
This prompted another intervention. An exasperated man who had been sitting restlessly at the edge of the group asked why party headquarters hadn’t offered more guidance to local campaign groups: Where are the professionals? What issues are supposed to be raised at the info stands? Where’s the central strategy? This, someone answered, had specifically been rejected by the ‘swarm’. The party members did not want to be centrally controlled – even by their own leadership.
Power to the people
Not having policies is sort of the point. The ‘swarm’ is a big deal. It decides things. It’s the whole point of the name dieBasis, which could loosely be translated as ‘the grass-roots’. The party says it is determined to flatten structures and decision-making processes. While other parties only allow members to bring new ideas to a vote at conferences once a year, dieBasis’ ambition is to implement a kind of permanent party conference, in which any member with a mobile phone can weigh in. “It does get annoying sometimes,” Haube concedes, “but it has to be done.” It’s not clear how practical this would be if dieBasis got any bigger; only the Pirate Party has tried something similar until now. And like with the Pirates, the chances of dieBasis clearing the five-percent hurdle to enter the Berlin state parliament are slim and, for the Bundestag, basically zero. What’s more, Haube admits that the technology isn’t quite there yet – but every supporter I spoke to named the swarm as the biggest reason they wanted to join.
DieBasis candidate Hendrik Walther is at least prepared to listen to them. Enjoying a pork chop in a Polish restaurant at the foot of Treptower Park, this soft-spoken and mild-mannered man said that, if he were elected, he would not attempt to implement his own agenda. Instead, he wants a legislative system that is transparent and participatory. Outlining his party’s proposal for a tech-based, direct democracy, he said somewhat diffidently, “We’d have to see how it would work in practice, but I think it’s an interesting idea.”
But should the party listen to all of its supporters? DieBasis has been linked to the Querdenker movement, parts of which were put on the domestic intelligence agency’s federal watch list in April for supposedly trying to undermine the German state. “Of course there are a lot of Querdenker in our party, because our opinions on the corona measures and the media’s reporting on them are broadly the same,” said Henning Hacker, one of dieBasis’ 45 founding members and now chairman of its Berlin division. “But we have a different approach on the solutions,” he stressed.
Lateral thinking on the left
But while there is concern – even in the party itself – that far-right interlopers might undermine it, Hacker says many dieBasis members actually come from the traditional left. According to the party’s own figures, many are disaffected Social Democrat (SPD), Green or Die Linke voters, with some drifters from the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Free Democrats (FDP) and the AfD mixed in.
Walther, for one, is just such a disaffected leftist; his whole political biography seems to be a long series of let-downs at the hands of the major left-wing parties. In 2005, he became so annoyed by the SPD/Green government, especially with its overhaul of the benefit system, that he joined Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG), a short-lived western German forerunner to Die Linke. He then became an enthusiastic campaigner for Die Linke in Neukölln. He was a member of that party as late as last year, but basically fell out with Germany’s only mainstream socialist party back in 2011, when it failed to support a referendum to put Berlin’s waterworks back in state hands. (This was a huge issue at the time – some 660,000 Berliners voted in favour, putting the city’s left-wing politicians in an awkward spot, as they had been largely complicit when the waterworks were privatised in the 1990s.)
This is what Walther was reminded of when the pandemic began. “I took it as a total failure that Die Linke did not take a position on the coronavirus measures, and then even supported demonstrations being banned,” he said. In Walther’s view, Die Linke has forgotten how it was once treated by the German media – as an unelectable movement that was dangerously open to extremists. Not unlike how dieBasis is being framed now.
Walther said he stuck to all the pandemic prevention rules for about two months last year. Like most people, he was shocked by images of coffins piling up in Italian villages. “At first, I thought, okay, maybe it’s better to be a little too cautious,” he says. “But then in May I was asking myself: How do we get out of this again? And then I did a bit of my own research in my home office, and I was relatively quickly convinced that the official narrative can’t be right.” Covid might be a threat, he concluded, but not a big enough one to justify a lockdown.
So he joined the demos in August 2020, and Walther felt he was surrounded by people who should have been at Die Linke rallies. Authorities have often tried to ban the protests, complaining that mask-wearing and social-distancing go out of the window at such events. Still, as football matches were allowed (with limited crowds) and Pride parades got the go-ahead, the only conclusion for many in dieBasis was that the government was deliberately shutting down opposition – with the help of a compliant press that was all too happy to paint them as nutjobs and neo-Nazis. Though courts have often overturned the demo bans or forced compromises (such as allowing smaller protests spread throughout the city), dieBasis-affiliated Telegram channels are alive with accusations of ‘fascism’. The fact that Berlin finally did ban a Querdenken-affiliated protest on August 2 this year amplified that outrage, as did several videos of police brutality and the death of one dieBasis member who was demonstrating that day. He died of a heart attack after police chased him, brought him to the ground and checked his ID. The reaction, however, was publicly muted by calls from the family and the party not to “instrumentalise” the man’s death.
Hacker, the 41-year-old Berlin party chairman, is a circumspect man. (Primarily an IT and copyright lawyer, he is also representing the family of the man who died.) Today, he’s worried that the German state is drifting into authoritarianism. “I am scared,” he said, soberly sipping on a glass of apple juice. “How likely I think it is I don’t know, but I do see it as possible. You already see it in the restrictions on the freedom to demonstrate.”
Die Linke did not take a position on the coronavirus measures, and then even supported demonstrations being banned.
Still, he’s careful not to suggest outright that there’s a nefarious purpose behind the government measures. “Maybe some people think there’s a plan behind it, some people don’t – that’s a personal opinion and there are different opinions within the party,” he said. The lockdown measures are not so much a conspiracy, in other words, but rather a creep towards authoritarianism caused by what he sees as an interplay of “different personal interests” among politicians. “Maybe it suits one to delay a party conference, for another it looks good to present himself as a tough man of action,” he pondered, making some pretty specific allusions. The CDU’s decision to delay its party conference last year was seen by some as a move to grease the wheels of Armin Laschet’s rise to the CDU leadership. Meanwhile, Bavaria’s conservative state premier Markus Söder saw his performance go up in opinion polls when he became the face of tough, early lockdown responses.
At the park strategy meeting, Peter – not a party member but enough of a supporter to want to help with the posters – told me he had done a “self-experiment” a few weeks ago that involved “switching off his knowledge” as he tuned into the news for two weeks. The sight of Health Minister Jens Spahn and other officials lined up on TV explaining why lockdown measures had to be imposed made him realise, he said, why people are so scared of the pandemic. “It’s very well done,” he acknowledged, with a hint of admiration. Peter says dieBasis meetings are the one place where he feels like people understand him.
Now that we can see some normality returning, dieBasis is pointing to encroaching dangers on all sides. It doesn’t matter how often the government promises that no one will be forced to get vaccinated, if you need proof of vaccination to get into a restaurant, to watch a film or a play, or to go to the gym, then your rights are being eroded. And with free testing being phased out from October, there’ll be practically no alternative left. DieBasis members like Stephan Haube see these kinds of infringements everywhere – the way that tenants were made to watch as their houses were cleared for the sake of the A100 motorway, the way that people’s petitions for keeping Tegel Airport open were ignored by the government.
Over our heads
Whatever the motivations of the politicians, the upshot is that dieBasis people feel like big, society-shaping decisions are being made way above their heads, that real power is being wielded in complicated, shady structures, and that whenever ordinary voters are consulted, their decisions are bent to suit the plans of those in power. Whether it’s bailing out banks in 2010, letting refugees into the country in 2015 or imposing drastic public health measures in 2020, each sweeping new decision has created a people’s movement in Germany.
Back out in the park in Adlershof, a man who, like me, had only come to find out what it was all about, came over and buttonholed me immediately after the meeting was over. He was called Ulrich, and he wanted to know whether whatever English-speaking publication I was writing for would have tips on where Germans should emigrate to. Because Ulrich, for one, was rapidly coming to the conclusion that this country was finished. “In my opinion,” he said thoughtfully, “this next election will be completely illegitimate.” The only party he would vote for, he said, would be one that would immediately dissolve parliament and stage a fresh, honest election straight after. He described himself as a Querdenker and an AfD voter, but had become disappointed with the AfD because they were so slow to oppose lockdowns last year.
“Well, what about dieBasis?” I asked him.
“No,” Ulrich said soberly. “Too left-wing for me.”
The Berlin party’s election manifesto offers more statements of intent than policies, with a certain latent conservative under-pinning. Climate policy, for example, should be “realistic and close to nature, appropriate to the scientific standard and at the same time show solidarity with the environment and the economy of society and the individual”. There’s no mention of CO2 targets, the Paris Agreement or carbon neutrality. Immigration policy, meanwhile, should be “fair and humane”, with a “clear commitment to a just world (economic) order as the best method for fighting the causes of flight”.